Exclusive Interview with Mrs Clare Wagner, Henrietta Barnett School
It was a great pleasure to meet with Clare Wagner whose bright smile was warm and welcoming as she showed us around what is one of the most popular state schools for girls in the country. Clare Wagner read History at the University of Bristol and graduated with First Class honours. She also holds an MSc in Learning and Teaching from the University of Oxford and an NPQH from the Institute of Education. Her own academic interests lie in Seventeenth Century England and Eighteenth Century France. She comes to Henrietta Barnett from the West London Free School, where she was the Headteacher and before that, she was the Headmistress of Watford Grammar School for Girls and the Senior Deputy Head at South Hampstead High School where she taught History and Politics. Clare lives in Ealing and has two grown-up children as well as a recalcitrant Jack Russell called Eddie.
- You’ve been the Head of two very academic state/grammar schools. How have these experiences informed your first year at Henrietta Barnett?
I was the Head of Watford Grammar School for girls which is partially selective so only 25% of the students are chosen according to their academic ability. Therefore the pupils are actually of mixed ability but the school overall does very well because the teachers are amazing and they work hard to adapt their teaching to the particular nature of the intake. Alongside their high standards, they have tight systems and structures in place across the board to make sure that all children get the best education possible. This experience, among others, has enabled me to lead effectively here at Henrietta Barnett.
I believe we have done really well recently. I think COVID hit all schools pretty hard. and although it hasn’t affected our quality of teaching, we feel we have brought everyone together and implemented character education alongside our vision and ethos. That is one big aspect of my job going forward because those additional elements understandably came off centre stage in all schools and it became about online teaching, survival, knowing exactly who’s in the building etc, keeping everyone safe and switching to the operational day to day to get through that period. But in reality, the Head’s job is to be strategic and to have a vision for the school. Here at HBS, it’s very much a stewardship, maintaining a safe pair of hands on this amazing tiller and making sure that you continue the success of the journey in the right way. It’s important to work successfully with governors and parents but you also need to have a compelling vision. So I wanted to make sure of the importance of all that work around character education and positive mental health but not allow it to become too nebulous and to ensure we have a really clear framework for what we’re doing. I very much want this to be a school where each child feels that they can be themselves, where they can thrive and pursue any interest that they want because they’re exposed to a huge range of subjects and ideas here. But crucially you don’t have to be one kind of child to come here. And students are definitely not all of the same mould when they leave – they have flourished and developed as individuals. Yes, we want them to be resilient. Yes, we want them to have achieved the best they can be. Yes, we want them to be ambitious – they’re going to be the leaders of the future. So we must ensure we are giving them the tools to achieve. But beyond that, I just want them to be their own wonderful, unique selves.
- What is in store for the future of Henrietta Barnett and are there any specific core changes that you would like to make?
One of our really exciting plans for the school, which we got some government money for, is a project in a house on the school grounds which we are turning into a Health and Wellbeing centre. Previously we were using a small space that is our first aid room and knew we needed more than that. So we’re going to clear the relatively underused site and transform it into a place where people can go which will be manned all the time by various members of staff and state of the art facilities and hopefully accomplish two objectives. Number one, we will have rooms for the counsellors and it’ll be a suitable quiet space for that purpose. Number two, it’s going to feel like a place of calm and reflection where students and indeed staff can go and do yoga, meditation or mindfulness at lunchtime or attend sessions and courses that promote wellbeing and positive mental health. It needs to be genuine and sustainable because I’ve been in schools that say everyone is going to do mindfulness in form time and you have one child who thinks mindfulness is great but then it probably doesn’t land with everyone. And that’s a really strong message for our girls: it doesn’t have to be for everyone, all the time. Yes, we’re going to teach our pupils about positive mental health but it’s much more about a place that is there if you feel you want to do some sort of brief breathwork, or some mindfulness or just take some time. It’s not about stress, it’s about the opposite. It’s saying: I need to just re-nourish and I need to recharge.
- With such fierce competition for a place at Henrietta Barnett, what is your view on tutoring? Many heads of competitive schools say it isn’t necessary, but with 3000 applicants for 200 spaces, do you feel a certain level of preparation is justified outside of the skills acquired in primary school alone?
I think it’s a tricky one. The problem for me is that tutoring doesn’t create an even playing field – that’s the issue. Our entrance test aims to find innate aptitude and rather like IQ tests that assesses academic potential. Rather than measuring the aptitude of where you are, it’s meant to be testing if you have the aptitude to be in a school like this. Undoubtedly, there are some things you can’t teach but I would imagine that tutoring would prepare some children in terms of pace. The truth is, if you practise these questions, you’re probably going to get better across a set amount of time. Having said that, you can tutor a child for years, and then they don’t make it, so we also feel that the test is quite robust. My main worry is that with children whose parents cannot afford tutoring, there’s a chance that they might miss out but we believe we have a solution. There is a computer program called Frog which we can send to children who are disadvantaged, if they qualify for free school meals. It is a test familiarisation program so that they can see the kinds of questions that are going to be on the exam. They can practise, in the same way that tutored children prepare. It won’t be the same as tutoring but I know some grammar schools who use Frog and they have increased the number of disadvantaged children being able to access materials for entrance exams and practise pace. So that is new and we are bringing that in more widely and it willeven up the playing field a little bit. We know tutoring is expensive and this is a state school so what we want to do is to provide an amazing education for all children, irrespective of their backgrounds and we want to make sure that the disadvantaged children don’t get overlooked and we hope Frog is going to help even that out.
- Is there a percentage of girls who end up studying abroad for University? If so, is there a structure in place to help these girls navigate the very different admission processes to Universities, let’s say in America?
This year we’ve just done an information evening for students who are interested in applying for Higher Education places abroad. We have a girl going to Yale next year and we had two who went to Columbia and some of them tend to go postgraduate as well. I would like to see more of them going and so I introduced this higher education talk, just for children and their parents who are interested in them studying abroad. One of the unique benefits of going to an American University is that during the first two years you have access to a whole range of courses – to some students it sounds like the academic dream but in British universities to get that range, it’s more difficult and it’s just not set up for that.
So this year is the first time that we did that and we had an external expert to come in and talk about the process of studying in the US as well as some others in Europe including Holland and Italy. The truth is, it’s not that easy to get into an American university as an undergraduate just because the competition is really tight. As you may be aware, some American families who want their child to get into Ivy League universities or some of the other amazing universities in the States, they’ll be prepping them for that for a long time. We have some very bright young people who aren’t 100% sure what they want to do so we believe it’s really good for these girls to explore their options.
- With consistently impressive league table results and high offers to Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities, the school has a stellar academic reputation that speaks for itself. What can you tell us about the mental health of the girls? Does the competition ever become too much for them? If so, what types of support are on offer for the girls?
I think the first thing to say is that it doesn’t happen automatically. So I’ve got an excellent head of PSHE and she builds a really good programme. From very early on, as soon as they arrive, our pupils are building up all different aspects of how to navigate and thrive during their teenage years. As you may know they’re super ambitious so alongside the hard work they do academically, striving to do well we need to help them to temper that a little bit. They also want to have good, lasting, meaningful friendships, and we want them to be healthy and happy. So that’s anything from eating well and sleeping well to restricting how much work they do, making sure that they are out in the fresh air running around and experiencing everything that a child should be doing.
On the topic of mental health issues, these can arise from a variety of different causes. It might be that they’re anxious about their ability and performance, it might be something happening at home, it could be internal thoughts that are going on that they need support with or they may have a Special Educational Need. Having said that, I think that generally, it’s probably true that around exam time, lots of our students really want to do well, as it is in any selective school and sometimes that can give rise to worry. So what we want to be doing is teaching them to manage that and put everything into perspective. Again, I think it takes balance and self-care, helping them to understand that they should go to bed early and take time off etc. For example, Year 11 students have their mocks in January, after the Christmas holidays, and I say to them that they have to promise me that for the first few days of holidays, they won’t do any work because they need a few days off. So it’s teaching them to give themselves a break because that’s a good thing and they will work better if you give yourself a break.
I’m a big fan of Dan Buettner who has written all about the Blue Zones – places around the world where higher percentages of people enjoy remarkably long, full lives. It’s really interesting for our pupils to hear about this and I like to give assemblies detailing some of the incremental things you can do in your life that will lead to not just longevity but being happy and fulfilled. I talk to the children a lot about that, actually and also about the importance of having someone to talk to at the end of the day and tell them about how it went, to de-stress. We explain to them that: yes you can study hard, but make sure that you spend time with your friends. When we look at the people around the world who live the longest and the happiest, they consistently make time for their friends; a strong network of support is really important. The other elements that are really lovely for the children is that they should undertake activities that they enjoy, have a vision of what they believe in and be authentic to themselves. Then the final one, which interestingly is what the children are really surprised to hear and they give a double take when they hear, is pride. How, alongside expressing kindness and helping others, it’s important to take stock of what you’re achieving in your life, all your accomplishments and be really proud of them. There can be a danger in them thinking: I’m on grade seven, and she’s on grade eight, or I only got 95% on my chemistry. But if you’re going to be proud, 95% is amazing or grade seven is amazing. Honestly, it’s very refreshing, they look at me and they realise that they can stop giving themselves a hard time and that they can pat themselves on the back and think of all the things that they’ve done that are amazing. Then you can almost feel the children breathe out.
We’re not trying to say: everyone’s a winner, it’s more about looking inwards and celebrating rather than looking out and comparing. So those three elements which I really like about this book are pleasure, purpose, and pride and purpose is really important to articulate, getting them to think about what their vision is in life and it’s crucial we focus on how to lead our life in a more healthy, nourishing way.
- Outside of academics, what do you consider for a girl to be well-rounded? Does Henrietta Barnett feel they have a special ethos in terms of what they offer the girls during their time at the school that sets them apart once in University?
I like to think that all the students are individuals, and they’re all different. So I don’t really like the idea of any school churning out children that are all similar. I think that the best school will allow each individual child to flourish and we will bring out their innate skills and talents as well as their interests. It’s about sparking that imagination and inspiring them but it’s also really important that schools have good personal development programmes. So it will be PSHE which we’ve touched upon but it will also be your assembly programme, it will be what you’re doing in form time and it will be the kinds of activities and trips that are on offer. So alongside our academic programme, woven into that – because I don’t think it’s separate – is all of the work that we do around high expectations and values that the school has. We are constantly trying to support children to be resilient, to ask for help when they need it, to keep having a go at something and not give up at something that feels too hard. People talk about resilience and I think there are two elements: emotional resilience and academic resilience which I believe are almost two sides of the same coin. I think we need to recognise that lots of these pupils are super bright and many of them get a lot of support from home with ambitious parents which is fantastic but we also want children to enjoy school, to be happy and to have fun at school. So if that’s not happening, we’re doing something wrong. I believe you can have it all – you can have great lessons but you also need great PSHE, you need great trips, good assembly programmes on offer and you need experiences to get them thinking about global issues, beyond the parameters of the school. So I think that we weave that in all together, rather than having it separate and we help them to see the local, national and international and what it means to be a global citizen.
- What would you say is at the heart of this school?
It’s an amazing, warm community, first of all, and the girls are incredibly kind to each other. I’ve never been in a school where the children are as nice to each other as they are here. There are far fewer friendship issues and I’ve got my theory about why that is: which is around the geography of the school and how that helps it to be contained in a positive way. They feel very safe, not in that it’s a bubble, because a lot of the girls come on public transport here, but they feel they can come here and just be themselves. They have fun here and feel that they can sit out on the grass and nobody feels like they don’t fit. It’s a bright, calm school despite them being very busy – we have over 150 clubs. So there’s loads going on, lots of talks, lots of trips and all of that is happening all through the school day.
Henrietta Barnett is a selective state school for girls aged from 11 to 18, positioned in a Grade II listed building in Hampstead Garden Suburb. The school was founded in 1912 by Dame Henrietta Barnett, who wanted to improve girls’ education. When the school was established, the now affluent Hampstead Garden Suburb area of north-west London was being developed for lower income families to reside in and it was Dame Barnett’s dream to educate girls based on their natural ability as opposed to their financial circumstances. She wanted the area and the school to be populated by families from all backgrounds and for them to live, work and study together in harmony and surrounded by nature and beautiful green spaces.
This is clearly a school where there are a plethora of supportive structures in place to support the aspirational girls who attend here. It is crucial that the school continues its great work in encouraging wide-ranging access to Henrietta Barnett through supporting children from less advantaged backgrounds as they prepare for the entrance exam. The school’s unrivalled reputation means that standards will always be maintained at the highest level and whilst Clare Wagner is working hard to continue to achieve these, she is also determined to create a mini Blue Zone in NW11 where everyone can feel healthy, nourished and fulfilled.