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‘Every day I am incredibly proud of what the children achieve…’

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Lorna Lyons is leaving Gillingham School after 27 years, the last seven of them as headteacher. When she began as Head of Maths all those years ago, the World Wide Web was just about to be launched, Margaret Thatcher was in the last months of her prime ministership, and Madonna was the unchallenged queen of pop with hits such as Vogue.

Somewhat closer to home, Gillingham School had 826 pupils instead of 1,750. Most of the current buildings were not yet built and Lorna’s first months were spent teaching in a building so dilapidated that on rainy days, buckets were needed to catch the water as it leaked through the roof.

Things have certainly changed and at Gillingham School too. Today the facilities are first-class, from its two vast halls, drama theatre and art gallery to the extensive grounds that include football fields and tennis courts. It has even been flagged up in the good school guide of society magazine Tatler.

‘In the first decade I was here the school got better and it coincided with education becoming more important in the country,’ says Lorna, 55. ‘There were higher expectations on the children and their work but also on how they behaved and conducted themselves, and as these all improved the school’s reputation grew. There was also a huge change in the buildings – people would come to look at the school and it looked like a nice place whereas 10 years earlier the buildings looked as though they were falling down around your ears.’

Lorna moved to Gillingham after teaching in Frome (having been to university in Bath) then at a school in Essex, where she grew up. Although Gillingham School didn’t look great, the standard of maths was good. ‘It was well-staffed with proper maths teachers, not just those for whom maths was a second subject,’ she says.

In 1992 she became deputy head. ‘I absolutely loved getting involved in the broader management of the school, especially the curriculum and timetables,’ she says.

Lorna was deputy for 17 years, working with then headteacher Manlio Lenarduzzi, and the other senior staff Kevin Banks, Mark Hebditch and Nev Burton. ‘When Manlio decided to retire in 2009, I had to make a decision whether I stayed and worked under a different head whom I might not like working with quite so much, went elsewhere or went for the job myself,’ she says. ‘In the end, I decided I wanted to be the person taking the school forward.’

Five months into the job, the political landscape changed thanks to the General Election which saw the appointment of Michael Gove as Education Secretary and the introduction of an emphasis on traditional core subjects. ‘In my opinion things had been going too far in the other direction, down the vocational non-academic route, and so things needed to find the right balance between these extremes,’ she says. ‘But at the same time, today there’s a pressure to chase statistics for the sake of statistics. The Ofsted regime has changed for good or for ill – when I had my first Ofsted as a deputy headteacher, it lasted a week, involved a team of 14 inspectors and the planning for it took four months. I wouldn’t want to go back to that but at the same time, it really recognised that breadth of education. Now it seems to hang and fall on a narrow view of what education is.’

For Lorna, working with the new approach has meant trying to find a balance that allows all pupils to thrive but satisfies the demand for good academic results. ‘It’s about not allowing the curriculum to get very reductionist with any idea of a broader education being lost,’ she says. ‘One of my values has been to say, “of course exams are hugely important – they’re your passport to the future and don’t devalue those”, but I put them in parallel with all other educational experiences, whether sport, cultural or personal.’

Another challenge has been coping with an increase in student numbers that has seen the school almost double in size – at its peak during the recession, when people chose state education over private, the numbers spiked at 1800; they have now settled at just under that. ‘It didn’t happen overnight so we have managed the growth in stages,’ says Lorna. ‘We have a lot of trust in our middle leaders. They have a high degree of responsibility in making their part of the school work well, so when it comes to the students, for example, we have strong heads of year-teams.

‘You also recognise the benefits and the opportunities,’ she continues. ‘So, you go from a department that has one teacher and a part-timer two or three times a week to a department of three or four colleagues so you get the ideas sharing and strength and resilience of that bigger team. You also have a curriculum that has enough students to justify a greater range of subjects.’
Teenagers, says Lorna, have not fundamentally changed. ‘They fall out with each other, have best friends, have different best friends, get anxious about friends, exams, family, the future, like they have always done,’ she says. ‘However, the world around them has changed; you have to say that the internet and social media and how they make the world work differently has had a significant effect.

‘We do spend a lot more time dealing with the pitfalls such as the casual way people can cause upset by careless posts. In the past, if you’re not happy with some aspect of school, you used to be able to go into your bedroom and close the door and get some respite from it. Today it’s with them all the time.

‘There used to be a clear-cut divide between what families dealt with and what schools did – now there’s a complete continuum so if you have fallen out with someone on social media on Saturday night you’re probably still replying to them on Monday lunchtime. Our ability to know what is our responsibility to deal with and what we can deal with, has become completely blurred.’

However, she says, it’s not all negative. ‘There are plus things such as the way they share their revision when studying; the person who doesn’t feel lonely shut in their bedroom… so in a sense the emphasis should be on the pluses, especially as for them, it is their world, they haven’t known it any differently.’

Still, managing students and their individual problems is challenging. ‘We now have a more systematic approach so that if an issue needs to go to someone more senior or experienced there is route for that,’ says Lorna. ‘But the strain on external services, whether that be social services or health means we have to deal with issues at a much higher level internally before we are able to access the resources that we need. This is for problems such as high-level mental illness, serious family breakdown and concerns about neglect. Whether it’s because there are actually more of these cases now, or it’s simply because they are more recognised, today I think we are having to deal with more cases.’

The other major issue is financial. ‘When I took over as head, funding was probably the best it has been for a very long time and it really isn’t now,’ says Lorna. She has calculated that in the current academic year, the school has seen a reduction in funding, taking into account cash reduction and the effects on unavoidable increases such as the rise in national insurance payments, of half a million pounds in an eight million pound budget. ‘With the best will in the world, finding that kind of saving in one year is extremely difficult,’ she says. ‘The issue of funding is becoming increasingly difficult and I don’t know now many years we can manage this kind of shortfall without a serious reduction in what we’re able to do and the high quality in the way we do it.’

She is leaving, says Lorna, not because of any of the above, (although they do not entice her to stay on), but because it is the right time for her. ‘I have been here for 27 years and I just feel it is time to go and do something different,’ she says. ‘I also think that it is the right time in the school’s development for a new person with some new thoughts to take it onto its next stage of development.’

Lorna, who lives in Wimborne, currently has no firm plans bar a holiday in France and finding time for ‘simple pleasures – being able to make a decision without having it pre-planned in the diary, playing the piano and walking the dog more,’ she says. ‘It has been a privilege to be the headteacher of Gillingham School. Seeing colleagues working together and supporting the kids and being able to facilitate them being able to do that has been a huge pleasure. And every day I am incredibly proud of what the children achieve, and take no credit because really, it’s nothing to do with me, it’s down to the work of the students and their teachers.’

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