Exclusive Interview conducted with Mrs Harriet Connor-Earl, Headmistress of St Mary’s School, Hampstead
Mums In The Wood met with the inspiring new head of St Mary’s School Hampstead, Mrs Harriet Connor-Earl on 4th November 2016. Mrs Connor-Earl is an enthusiastic and charming head with a real vision for the school and how she wants “her girls” to grow and face the world. She is keen on helping them understand the value of challenging themselves and striving to achieve more each day. Achievements are always appreciated and commended. She is committed to encouraging her students to shatter gender stereotyping and pursue to the best of their ability, whatever subjects they want to. She is clearly driven and wants St Mary’s girls, to grow up with grit and determination and to face life with an attitude that helps them to make mistakes and learn from them; to pick themselves up when faced with problems and carry on; to learn resilience and strength of character and to be risk takers who are not always trying to please or are happy to be complacent but are forward thinking and want to tackle the harder, trickier sums, pick the more academically challenging questions and always do their best. She spoke with pride of a little girl who tried 12 times before she was able to get across the monkey bars, citing it as an example of what she is trying to inculcate in her girls. She has also changed the email policy for her staff so that weekends are family time and staff are only required to deal with school related queries and work over the working week and is keen to ensure a healthy work/life balance. She is setting St Mary’s on a path to deliver confident articulate young women who are unafraid and will strive for excellence always. Girls who will not only aim for academic achievement and excellence in everything they do, but also do it all with the “bucketfuls of kindness” they are taught to show in school and will continue to show, to their friends and colleagues and those around them.
Having moved from a co-educational day and boarding school in the countryside, to a girls only day school in the city, how have you found the transition?
I am extremely proud to have been appointed the new Headmistress of St Mary’s School Hampstead. The warm welcome extended by the entire St Mary’s community has made the transition extremely smooth.
At Ardingly College Prep School in Sussex, I was Director of Studies and Head of Prep Boarding which I thoroughly enjoyed, although my family and I are delighted to be living in London.
The extensive pastoral experience that I gained at Ardingly has been a wonderful asset to bring to St Mary’s School where we excel at celebrating the uniqueness of every pupil and their individual achievements.
What aspects of the St. Mary’s School ethos and way of life are you keen to maintain, and what new direction do you wish to take the school in terms of the values imparted to the girls?
It is vital that spiritual values and morals continue to be at the heart of the School and nurtured every day. Our family-oriented ethos is extremely important to me and we warmly welcome other faiths and cultures into our Catholic Christian community.
In terms of education values, many people believe that the sole purpose is teach the children the knowledge to pass an exam thus moving them forward to the next school. However, I believe that by solely fixating upon this, we often fail our children by forgetting to teach key habits of learning. If we can instill these habits at a young age, they become embedded and skills they will use for life.
This year, I have introduced at St Mary’s School 4Rs as key habits of learning. We encourage pupils to be confident risk takers, in and out of the classroom. For example, taking on the challenge of trying the harder piece of work.
Often, when we ask a child to choose one of two tasks, one they know they will be able to succeed in and one which will they will struggle on, the child will choose the easier task. However, they would make more academic progress had they chosen the other. It is only by allowing a culture of risk taking that the children know it is safe to make mistakes. I have asked all our children to get it wrong and make the most mistakes that they can, inside and outside of the classroom, because it is only by making mistakes that they will learn and achieve more.
To enable the children to be risk takers we must also teach them a sense of resilience. Things go wrong. In fact, we are asking the children to get it wrong. So, for the children to continue to feel happy to make mistakes, we must reward them for keeping on trying.
The third ‘R’ is one of Reflection. Academically, the girls will be encouraged to reflect on the work they have completed. They will have time at the beginning of lessons and at the end to check their work. I have also introduced a weekly service for the children. This allows the children to have time to reflect on their faith and also a time where they have the space and time to think about meaningful decisions in all areas of their lives.
The fourth R is respect. The girls and boys have great respect for others and they demonstrate this by following the St Mary’s Way. They also have respect for themselves and for the world around them, irrespective of faith, race, gender or nationality.
Given the saturation of quality day schools in the area, what does St. Mary’s School uniquely offers to girls and parents?
We take great pride in our school and all that it offers our students, families and staff. We are a forward thinking, innovative school that understands the demands of 21st century life. I know as a working parent myself how difficult it can be to manage pick-ups after school. So, this term we have launched an After School Club from 4-6pm each evening for all age groups which is already providing to be hugely popular.
The outstanding and inspirational Catholic education that we deliver is based on three distinct approaches. Firstly, we are educational leaders. We constantly challenge ourselves to deliver the very best education across all aspects of the curriculum. We have high expectations that all our pupils do their best and pursue their talents. Our track record of academic excellence means that our leavers gain offers and Academic Scholarships from the best schools in the country, including St Paul’s Girls’ School, North London Collegiate, City of London School for Girls and St Mary’s Ascot.
Secondly, our unique values support these ambitions by providing a culture of care and support. We believe that children achieve their best when they are in a happy, nurturing environment.
And thirdly, the St Mary’s Way underpins daily life at the School. Every pupil is provided the opportunity to develop their talents and their contribution is celebrated. The exceptional education is enhanced by outstanding facilities and extensive outside space located in one safe and convenient site.
What advice would you have for parents interested in applying, and what would you say to parents that are wondering how your arrival will impact the school?
My aim is to build on the School’s excellent foundations and lead it to the next stage of its success. It’s a remarkable school and we are justifiably proud of our impressive results.
I would encourage prospective parents to register their child as soon as possible and to book a place at one of our Open Mornings or tours that I hold throughout the term. We always invite parents to visit so that they can meet our pupils, walk around the leafy playgrounds and personally experience what makes St Mary’s School so special.
Apart from your job, and your family, what other driving interests do you have?
I am extremely fortunate to have a house in France which we have been renovating for the last couple of years. We live in a small French hamlet, so visiting during the school holidays provides a welcome contrast to Hampstead and a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the local culture.
I also find that travelling during the holidays enables me to enrich my skills and knowledge which I can then share with pupils. Perhaps more importantly, it provides invaluable time and space to reflect on the term that has just passed and come up with exciting plans for the term ahead.
What are your ambitions for St. Mary’s School and the girls who pass through the school?
My vision is to help the girls and boys become their best selves.
As an independent school with charitable status, we enjoy the advantage of being able to implement new initiatives very quickly. Investing in the latest IT equipment and bringing learning to life is a key priority at St Mary’s School and our ambition is to become a centre of excellence in Computing. Over the summer, we removed the IT suite. In a world where technology is embedded in our daily lives, it felt alien to direct the girls to a separate room to use ‘technology’. We have invested in new iPads and laptops so they are more accessible in the classrooms and to promote independent learning. I have also invested in MacBooks for the Music Department to create digital music.
We also have several initiatives that we are planning to implement this term such as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) which is hugely exciting. This will allow us to communicate more effectively with parents and in turn allow parents to engage more directly with their children’s learning.
What are your thoughts on the 4+ assessment process and are there any plans to introduce entrance assessments at reception level to St Mary’s School?
Consistent with our Catholic values, we are an inclusive school and we maintain a family-oriented ethos where siblings are given priority.
In my experience, I have found that formally testing children at 3 or 4 years old, in an unfamiliar environment, can be unreliable as children develop at different rates and may underperform due to anxiety. At St Mary’s School, after returning your registration form, your child will be invited to a taster session which includes an informal assessment. I believe the child should choose our school as much as we choose the child.
We endeavour to deliver the curriculum in a way that takes account of the children’s individual needs and encourage them to develop and discover their individual talents and abilities, whether it be academically, sporting or in the performing arts. It is our role to give every child the opportunity to shine. And, we believe that the outstanding results the School consistently achieves in terms of secondary school offers in Year 6 supports this long-term approach.
What do you see as being St. Mary’s role within the local and wider community. Do you have any thoughts on how St. Mary’s School might engage with other local schools going forward?
Playing a role in the wider community is vital to us and we are proud of our fundraising efforts and the support we provide to deserving charities. The School has an extremely active PTA Association who help to organise our charity events. In the 2016/17 academic year, the School is raising money for Doorstep and Save the Children. These activities have also been supplemented by non-monetary fundraising such as a food and clothing drive in support of Doorstep and The Contact Club.
As a School, we are always keen to work with other local schools and organise competitive sports matches. I also meet with other local nursery, prep and senior school head teachers to exchange ideas and share learnings. Our netball court is being re-surfaced this year and we have already offered to share this superb resource with other nearby schools.
It was wonderful to see that the traditional values of the school, the ethos of kindness and courtesy, of caring and empathy, all of which go hand in hand with the Catholic ethos, are all being maintained alongside the move towards encouraging girls to take risks and challenge themselves, academically and in all areas of their lives and interests. The beauty of the school architecturally is unrivalled and the wonderful outdoor spaces are set to get a little facelift with plans to introduce an astroturf . The new science class looks out over a fantastic balcony with room for an insect farm and a telescope, the girls are involved in repotting plants and were seen gathering around, getting their hands dirty during play time helping enthusiastically and learning. Girls are divided into sets in years 5 and 6 and the staff are exceptional at differentiation. The Head takes a personal interest in each girl and is heavily involved in choosing destination schools. She makes a poignant point in fact, that choosing a school is a little like buying a house and at that age, the child’s feelings also have to be taken into consideration when choosing the right school for the right child. She understands fully, the need to work interactively and collaboratively with the parents, teachers and the child when making school choices. All in all a school that has always been wonderful both pastorally and academically, made even better with the new focus on encouraging, inspiring and rewarding the students to do more and be more.