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Season of the new starter: an interview with headteacher Paul Dwyer

Paul Dwyer, the new headteacher at Redmaids’ High School, talks managing energies for a marathon rather than a sprint while navigating a very different sort of school term

September threw far more than the usual sorts of changes and challenges at our city’s schools this year. Guiding Redmaids’ High School through them all has been one of the autumn term’s many new starters, Paul Dwyer, who has just taken the reins from Isabel Tobias as headteacher. With his previous post as deputy head at North London Collegiate, and having completed his undergraduate degree in history and PGCE at Oxford, Mr Dwyer has strong experience in girls’ education and is known for encouraging teachers across the globe to challenge themselves. He regularly speaks at national and international conferences on education, hosts a podcast designed to help teachers reflect on their practice and was president and a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching.

But it wasn’t just his impressive CV that bagged him the Bristol job. Groups of students had a chance to talk to the candidates during the process and the nine girls who met Mr Dwyer concluded that he was just the sort of approachable and personable person they’d like to lead the school – respecting tradition while sharing the students’ desire for more sustainable practices within school to address climate change. He acknowledged the importance of supporting lower year groups on their journey towards sixth form, said Tuqa from Year 10, while Phoebe from Year 13 recalled his comments around celebrating the school’s academic success even further. We caught up with Mr Dwyer ourselves to find out a little more about his ethos, and how the first month has been.

TBM: So, why Redmaids’ High School?

Mr Dwyer: I am a passionate believer in the transformative nature of education for all, and it is clear to see this has been a core aspect of Redmaids’ High since the beginning. It’s a privilege for me to a part of this community with its combination of strong respect for our heritage and history and forward-facing perspective of what education can and should be. Not many schools can trace their foundations back to 1634 while considering deeply what knowledge and understanding our students will need in 2034. I’m also passionate about girls’ education, the opportunities that it can provide and the role it has to play. I’ve been fortunate to work in some wonderful girls’ schools during my career, and Redmaids’ High is perhaps the most storied and warmest school environment that I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of. This, combined with their firm commitment to outstanding pastoral care, made it an obvious choice for me to apply for when the opportunity arose and I am incredibly grateful for the chance to lead this tremendous school. Bristol is such a beautiful and lively city that is steeped in history; I have very fond memories of time spent here and look forward to creating more with my family.

How has the team coped so far with the new challenges of a very different sort of term?

We are indebted to all members of our community for helping to make the start of the new academic year as successful as it has been so far. From our support colleagues who have worked tirelessly to ensure the school site is ‘Covid-ready’ to the teachers and students who have all adapted to bubbles and helped us return safely, everyone has had a role to play in getting this year off to a great start. Teachers have had to make adjustments to their approach to ensure that lessons are taught safely while still demonstrating to students the joy to be had in learning, while students are attentive to the changes we have made. Using technology creatively and thinking about the new pathways it can open for great teaching and learning has always been a strong part of Redmaids’ High’s approach and so we were well equipped to adapt quickly to the ‘new normal’ of lockdown and to make our safe return to site.

Not being able to invite parents in to see performances, whether on the hockey pitch or in the orchestra, has been hard but students and staff have adapted brilliantly

How have the children found things so far?

I have been so impressed with the maturity and ability to adapt shown by students across all year groups. From Year 7 who have managed the transition into Senior School with aplomb, through to Year 13 who look forward to the exciting opportunities that lie ahead for them, everyone has engaged so well with the new year and been incredibly supportive of one another. They have continued to throw themselves into school life and the sounds of laughter and learning around the site have reminded us of the strength to be found in a community being physically together.

What measures have you put in place to help with fostering positive mental health in staff and pupils?

We have always tried to ensure an open atmosphere around school, where students and staff feel able to talk about their mental health and the challenges that they face. We pride ourselves on the strength of our pastoral system, where all students have someone they know they are able to talk to, as well as being encouraged to think about proactive strategies for developing positive mental health. Similarly for staff, we have tried to ensure that there is someone they feel able to talk to about the difficulties of our current circumstances and we are working hard to promote an environment where everyone feels seen and noticed. Communities depend on the strength of that individual attention, whether in a colleague dropping by to say hello or the opportunity to share ideas about teaching in a bubble. We haven’t taken this feeling for granted and owe a great deal to all members of our staff for their efforts and support to one another.

What’s gone really well?

Seeing students still participating in a range of exciting and scholarly lessons, engaging with one another outside of the classroom about what they have enjoyed and found inspiring and how they might continue the conversations has been a real joy for all of us to see!

What’s been the biggest challenge aside from the logistics of children moving around the site?

Not being able to celebrate whole school assemblies or invite parents in to see performances of their daughters, whether on the hockey pitch, in the orchestra or up on stage, has been hard already and will only feel more difficult as the year develops. We hope to return to a greater degree of normalcy before too long, but we also know the likely long-term impact that coronavirus will have. Managing ourselves and our energies for a marathon rather than a sprint will also be something we need to keep in mind.

Not many schools can trace their foundations back to 1634 while considering deeply what knowledge and understanding our students will need in 2034

Paul Dwyer

What exciting plans do you have for this year?

We’re building something very special at Redmaids’ High and we look forward to being able to share more about our work very soon. If education is to be transformative it needs to be ambitious for all involved and this is the basis of our direction. Letting students run away intellectually and model scholarship to one another while delighting in the possibilities beyond the classroom will always be important for us and I can’t wait to highlight how we plan to build on this in the coming months and years.

Have you read any brilliant books lately?

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power, President Obama’s ambassador to the UN. This is a powerful memoir by an incredible woman, who remains honest about her idealism and desire to make the world a better place, while also recognising the compromises she had to make in a variety of high-profile political positions.

What is your favourite film or TV show?

As a history and politics teacher I have always had a tremendous fondness for The West Wing. It’s perhaps a little dated in some respects now (notably the fashion choices of its characters!) but holds up as one of the best TV programmes I’ve seen. My favourite film is less cerebral, but no less witty in my opinion – 10 Things I Hate About You.

The sounds of laughter and learning around the site have reminded us of the strength to be found in a community being physically together

Paul Dwyer

What is your greatest achievement?

I’m incredibly proud of my daughter and the person she is fast-becoming, even though she’s still only two. Having the chance to lead the Chartered College of Teaching as president is also something that I will always count as among my most treasured achievements.

What is your favourite memory from your school days?

I am fortunate to have many great memories from my time at school, but one that sticks out is a conversation with my history teacher in Year 12 about university applications and what might be possible for me. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that this conversation helped put me on the path that led to my joining Redmaids’ High as head, and has always served as a reminder of the difference that teachers can make for each of our students.