It is two days before the end of the school term and I’m sitting in the headteacher’s office at Sir John Cass’s Foundation Primary School.
I’m here to catch up with Tim Wilson during his last few days in charge of the school before he heads off to the other side of the world to start a new job, and a whole new life, as the education director for the state government of South Australia. I wanted to have a chat about his reflections as headteacher at the school and his feelings as he embarks on his next posting Down Under.
‘Cass’, as everyone colloquially knows it, is the only state-funded primary school located within the boundaries of the City of London and enjoys an ‘Outstanding’ rating by the government regulator, Ofsted.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, it is a popular school. Mr Wilson tells me that they currently receive more than three applications for every place in the Reception class. So what is particularly unique about this school? According to Mr Wilson, location has a lot to do with it.
“Being in the Square Mile and our relationship with the City of London Corporation certainly colours events,” he says, citing the school’s regular involvement in all the pomp and circumstance that is inevitably associated with anything to do with the Corporation.
This includes the school’s regular participation in the Lord Mayor’s Show parade and other unusual events such as the ‘Beating the Bounds’ ceremony that I wrote about in this column a few months ago. And then, of course, there is Founder’s Day when all the pupils join a procession around Aldgate to St Botolph’s Church to celebrate the birthday of Sir John Cass.
As any Cass pupil will be able to tell you, Sir John was the wealthy merchant and philanthropist who established the school in Aldgate in 1709 and left provision in his will for this to be financially maintained in perpetuity.
Also in attendance at Founder’s Day is an impressive list of civic dignitaries including the Lord Mayor, a cohort of City sheriffs and aldermen, and a mace-bearing beadle, all sporting full ceremonial regalia. Mr Wilson certainly has a point about the school’s unique location making it special. We certainly didn’t have anything like this in the small, rural Irish primary school I attended.
“The Corporation is very involved and maintains a keen interest in how the school is performing,” says Mr Wilson, adding that Cass is probably the only primary school in Britain where the local authority’s director of education attends all the meetings of the school governors.
Mr Wilson stumbled across the school unexpectedly one day while walking through Aldate. He was immediately intrigued, wondering what business a primary school had being located in heart of the City, overshadowed by the glass and steel skyscrapers of corporate finance. His curiosity was further piqued when he heard they were looking for a new headteacher and he decided to apply.
Another factor swaying his decision to apply was the fact that Cass is a church school. “I like working in church schools,” he says noting that his previous posting at Princess Frederica Primary in Brent was also a Church of England Voluntary Aided Primary School.
Mr Wilson explains that local authorities don’t directly manage voluntary aided schools, and so they have an independent feel to them that a lot of the new academies lack.
I put it to Mr Wilson that he must surely be delighted to be leading a school rated as outstanding by the statutory body responsible for reviewing the calibre of the nation’s educational providers. However, he is quick to point out that “a school is so much more than an Ofsted grading”.
“Things that are easy to measure and quantify are not necessarily the most valuable,” he says, adding that a more important outcome for a headteacher to strive towards is the ability to provide subjects that children can really get their teeth into and enjoy.
Elaborating, he talks about the focus that has been placed on music and the performing arts during his time at the helm. He recalls his pride at recently watching pupils perform a play called The Nose, based on an adaptation of Nikolai Gogal’s famous short story of the same name. “It was absolutely brilliant,” he recalls with a broad smile.
And then there are the musical performances. Mr Wilson informs me that the school orchestra has played at some pretty impressive venues, including the Guildhall and Mansion House.
Such extra-curricular activities have clearly formed an extremely important element of Mr Wilson’s commitment to provide as broad an education as possible to the children at his school.
“We’ve been very focussed on providing our pupils with every possible opportunity. I want them to be good at everything, and so the curriculum must be rich,” he says.
So how would he summarise his time as headteacher? “I think I underestimated how hard it would be,” he laughs recounting that as he began packing up his office the other day he came across a photo of himself taken just a few short years ago sporting dark hair and a dark beard – both are now liberally speckled with grey.
“This has been my first job as headteacher. It’s a big job and I felt very responsible, but it has been enormously exciting to be working in the public sector education system. I’m a passionate advocate for state schools.”
Asked to reflect on his greatest regret, Mr Wilson says without hesitation that he considers it a great shame that the mooted expansion of Cass into a two-form entry school is not going to happen.
This proposal was much talked about in recent years but ultimately didn’t materialise because not all key stakeholders could be convinced of the benefits. Parents will be aware that there was a double intake into Year 1 last year to help demonstrate the business case for a considerable expansion of the school.
However, this ‘bulge class’ is now to remain a one-off, and Cass will continue as a one-form entry school.
Mr Wilson laments that this will inevitably mean the loss of a very substantial amount of additional funding that would have been used to significantly develop the school.
So what awaits Mr Wilson in the future under that big, blue Australian sky? His new job as an education director will see him assume strategic responsibility for a cohort of 20 local authority schools in the Adelaide area, with the aim of raising the standards in each of the schools within his portfolio.
These schools will cover a diverse range of the socio-economic spectrum, from the affluent suburb of Adelaide Hills to the comparatively deprived district of Elizabeth. This is a challenge he appears to relish, although he acknowledges that it will be very different to frontline teaching.
Looking forwards, Mr Wilson is very confident that Sir John Cass’s Primary School will continue to thrive. “This is a school with a big personality,” he says with a smile.
He leaves reassured that he is passing the baton into the very capable hands of new headteacher, Miss Alex Allan. The two teachers have worked together extensively for many years. Miss Allan was the assistant head at Princess Frederica Primary during Mr Wilson’s tenure as deputy head. A few years ago, she joined him at Cass as deputy headteacher.
Mr Wilson is particularly keen to point out that as the school bell rings in the new academic year this coming September, Miss Allan will be making her own little piece of history – she will be the first female headteacher in the entire 309-year history of this remarkable school.
I will miss Tim Wilson’s cheery smile at the school gate each morning as I drop my little girl off at school. As he sets off to pursue new challenges I’d like to thank him for all his hard working in ensuring that Cass has maintained its position as a beacon of academic excellence for our kids.
The school is a community asset of which we should all feel justifiably proud and I wish the outgoing headteacher the very best of luck as he heads for pastures new.