Exclusive Interview with Mr Nick Baker, Headmaster of Wetherby Prep School,

 

 

Introduction

It was a great pleasure to speak with Wetherby Prep’s outgoing head, Mr Nick Baker, behind the red door of the school in Bryanston Square on 11 May 2020. It’s helpful to have a timeline of the Wetherby family of schools to fully grasp just how much Mr Baker has accomplished since Wetherby Prep was founded in 2004. The original Wetherby School is actually a pre-prep for boys from nursery to year 3 founded back in 1951. It counts two future Kings as its past pupils which gives it a bit of sparkle. 
 
In 2004 the Alpha Plus Group, a private equity firm, acquired The Wetherby School and found the perfect leafy spot in Marylebone to build Wetherby Prep for boys in years 3 to 8. This was not only a school where the boys from the pre-prep could come, but it also needed to be a proper prep school capable of rigorous academic standards so boys could earn places in some of the UK’s top day and boarding schools.  It was no time to rest on Royal laurels alone. Enter Mr Baker who started at the school in 2004, first as senior master and then as deputy head. In 2008 he became head of the prep and never looked back.  He was then instrumental in getting the Wetherby Senior School for boys in years 9-13 off the ground in 2015. Other recent additions to the Wetherby family are a Wetherby Senior School on New York’s Upper East Side and another pre-prep in Kensington.
 
The prep school is housed in two bright and airy Georgian buildings in Bryanston square. It’s well worn and rambling, with high ceilings and large windows that somehow make it fit for purpose. The boys take a coach to access sports fields, but are increasingly able to use the gated and manicured space of Bryanston square to get fresh air and have a run around. The boys who attend the school mostly come from the original Wetherby pre-prep and also the new Wetherby Kensington pre-prep that just opened its red doors in 2017. This means spots for boys who come to the prep school from outside of the Wetherby family are few and far between. 
 
Mr Baker knows what he’s looking for when it comes to admitting new pupils to the school. His experience in education is long running, an affinity that comes from within his own family. With a father as a past university lecturer that sort of presentation and education has always been in his household. “I just always like school environments,” he said. “It suits me. I enjoy the company in the common room, the staff room and of the children.” When asked if he thought it was the structure of school life which appealed to him, he explained it was just the opposite. “There are a lot of different elements to being headmaster, you deal with so many different stakeholders. So I think it’s the variety. And also every year, you lose 100 of your community and you gain 100 to your community. So you’ve always got this churn of personality. So I think actually, it’s the lack of structure I find interesting.
 
Private equity holding sway over education is always an interesting subject to broach. Mr Baker agrees parents do tend to feel more comfortable with the idea of a school as a charitable trust, where there’s no question that the money they put in all goes to the school and surplus goes into bursaries, etc. But one of the reasons he’s worked for the Alpha Plus Group for so long, is because of their management. The Wetherby family of schools certainly don’t want for anything. All of their ideas as a management team, were supported and financed, Mr Baker explained.  He said there’s no way a charitable trust could have done that. Having been involved at the governor’s level of charitable trusts as well, he knows how they work, they’re still businesses after all with similar underlying metrics. “Sir Ritblat (the Chair of Governors of the Alpha Plus Group) is a great man and he always said he just wants this to be the best private education can be. That’s his philosophy. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
 
Mr Baker came up with a one sentence summary of Wetherby a few years back, “A serious school that doesn’t take itself too seriously.” For him, academics and a good work ethic are a given. The children need to be taught well. They need to behave well. They need to do as much sport as they possibly can. For all the enthusiasm Mr Baker has for each facet of his profession, what he’s really aiming for is to send boys off the senior school who are good company. Wetherby achieves this aim by putting a lot of effort into the art of conversation. “Children, I think, especially boys, default to be very reserved in front of other people. What we try to get them to be is good company, with each other, and with others. I think that helps later on, senior schools love our kids because they’re good, fun, easy company. They’re not cocky or arrogant, they’re quite happy to talk to you. But I think that easy confidence is what we really promote here. And I think that is a huge life skill.”  As far as the future is concerned, Mr Baker is keen to see the school continue as a significant 13+ feeder into the punchier boarding schools like Eaton and Harrow, rather than the boys leaving at 11+ like they do at many other schools. But with all the meritocracy of electronic tests that make perfect sense as markers of learning progress, he does wish to see the school one day as a bit more holistic in how it judges children.  That sounds like a wonderful idea to get behind.
 
 
 
 

Question:

There are quite a few top tier prep schools in your area. What do you think Wetherby Prep uniquely offers boys and their parents?  

Answer:

I don’t think it does – all the schools in our sector are trying to send their boys to the same schools, we all follow the same curriculum, we all play each other at sport.  I think we are a very efficient and communicative school that is arguably more ‘open’ and parent facing than some of our competitors.  We are also purposely lacking in any pomp and circumstance – it’s a serious school that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Question:

Places at the prep school are guaranteed for leavers from Wetherby School and Wetherby Kensington (pre-preps) along with siblings and children of alumnae.  This leaves just a handful of places available for external applicants for entry at year four.  What is it you look for in the boys who will fill these places?  How do you ensure that your assessments provide enough information to help you select boys who will be a right fit for the school? 

Answer:

It is meritocratic for the externals which means that our academic demographic is ‘mixed ability with a bigger bubble towards the top end of the ability range’ as a result.  We do look for the ability to add value though – a bright boy who clearly isn’t academically mature enough to reflect that in a formal written exam at 7 years old are quite easy to spot.

Question:

With so much competition for so few places, what is your view on preparation? Should parents tutor their children for your entrance exams?

Answer:

We would never condone that and our assessment is electronic anyway.  

Question:

Once accepted to the school, do you set boys in core subjects?  If so, at what age does setting begin? 

Answer:

From Year 4 in Maths, from Year 5 in English – scholarship set in Year 8 for those sitting those exams for their senior schools. 

Question:

Since Wetherby is an all boy’s Prep School do most boys sit the common entrance exams and then leave the school at 13? Or do some sit the 11+ and leave earlier? If so, how do you prepare some for 11+ and others for common entrance? 

Answer:

Out of a year group of 80, around 7-8 will leave at 11+ and the same number join Year 7.  We don’t mind if boys leave at 11 and actively support them if they want to apply at that stage.

Question:

Traditionally there has been a large exodus into St Paul’s and Westminster senior schools. Does Wetherby Prep identify and prepare a section of pupils separately for those schools or not? 

Answer:

Not particularly – many boys apply for those schools and they all subjected to the same curriculum and preparation.

Question:

Boys tend to head to top senior day and boarding schools, but are guaranteed a spot at the Wetherby Senior school. Does this fact affect their preparation for their common entrance exams, or are all boys kept to the same rigorous standards?  

Answer:

All the same – WSS expects a certain level of performance at CE as all other schools.  Wetherby boys quite like taking exams and doing well in them so we still make everyone sit CE – whether their place is conditional or unconditional.

Question:

How has the school adapted its curriculum to incorporate the core STEM subjects for children who will be venturing out into a digital age? 

Answer:

Since the school’s start in 2004 I don’t think there has been a subject that has had to constantly evolve and change its curriculum more than ICT.  We have the dedicated ICT lessons but also run many coding clubs, kit car club, robotics, cardboard engineering – big area of the school.

Question:

Sports seem to be a large part of the Wetherby boy’s school life. Is there room for boys who are less adept on the football pitch? 

Answer:

Yes, our Chess Team is nationally renowned and it’s as cool to be in the Choir and play in Assembly as it is to be in the 1st XI

Question:

In a vastly competitive and academic world, what provisions are in place for boys with reasonable special needs?  Equally, what provisions are in place for gifted and talented children and how are these managed? 

Answer:

We have 32 boys who have what we call ‘intervention’ in terms of dedicated one on one or small group lessons.  We also have ‘the Hub’ which centres around mental health and pastoral development of the boys.

Question:

What type of mental health practices are implemented for your students?  How much support do children have on an emotional and social level and what measures have the school put into place to make sure they are well supported at all times?  

Answer:

As above – we have a room called ‘the Hub’ where a full time ‘Head of Mental Health and Well-being’ is situated.  We also have a visiting School Counsellor for particular issues.

Question:

There’s a lot of talk around kindness in all boys schools. While Wetherby is known to foster its fair share of headstrong boys, are there any practices in place to ensure kindness to one another is also part of their moral compass? Does Wetherby Prep serve the local community in any way?  

Answer:

The ‘Kindness Cup’ is awarded in Assembly every Friday.  All boys and staff can nominate boys and we read them all out and award the cup and write in up in the weekly newsletter.

Question:

You have been involved with Wetherby Prep since its inception in 2004, well before becoming its head in 2008.  You were then instrumental in setting up Wetherby Senior school in 2015.  What would you say you took from those ‘building from the ground up’ experiences?  What lessons, if any, did you impart from those experiences to the every day lives of your Wetherby pupils?   

Answer:

Too much to just note here!  The main thing is to very quickly build an identify and community within your ‘new’ school.  Everyone – staff, parents, boys – has to be in on it and involved and have a sense of pride in their school.  Don’t get ahead of yourself too quickly and find your place in the marketplace and capitalise on that.  And make the workplace an attractive place for staff – if you get good people in and keep them, good things will happen.

Question:

You are practically synonymous with Wetherby Prep and we are catching you at a unique moment as you are leaving after almost 20 years with the school.  What are your proudest achievements of your tenure?  What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?  What is one thing you would pass on to the incoming head?  What would you like to see the school become going forward? 

Answer:

Yes, end of an era but even successful schools need new eyes on them from time to time.  There are many areas for this school to develop, it’s just that as I have been here so long, I don’t necessarily see them as easily as others might.  My successor – mark White – is a great guy and has experience at leading prep schools.  I have no doubt Wetherby Prep will go from strength to strength and I remain its biggest friend.

Conclusion:

There’s a bit of glamour surrounding the Wetherby name, but the head, the staff–and most importantly the children–couldn’t be more grounded. The tour of the school was led by three year 6 boys who were simply thrilled to show off the premises. Each boy had something different to say about the rambling building and their own experiences within it. As we weaved our way through the state of the art science labs, art rooms, music lessons and various classes in session, the doors were always held open for me.
 
The boys pointed out samples of student work on the walls in every classroom, including a piece on Martin Luther King with art work by a fellow student they were quite impressed with. It takes true confidence for children to have genuine support for their fellow peers. In the computer lab we had a delightful discussion about Alan Turing. Did he ever make it onto a bank note? (Yes!) If so, which one? (The fifty pound note!) Even the more reserved of the three had a lot to say about his favourite activities, especially when we found our way to the charming performance stage where school plays and choirs happen. The excitement was palpable when they explained the first time their parents were allowed back in to see them perform after such a very long pandemic.
 
We laughed our way down the stairs as they shared how they always got lost when they first arrived at the school and now they know it like the back of their hands. When we wound up back at the lovely entrance hall I was disappointed our time together had come to a close. The boys were good company.
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