Rising to the challenge: an interview with Rosie Allen
After the first month of the new academic year, we speak to the newly appointed head of The Paragon School, Rosie Allen, who tells us how she’s adapted to the role during these extraordinary times and why The Paragon’s staff and students have a buzzing sense of optimism for the coming year
Q: You’ve had a period of months – since June this year – of working with Andrew Harvey, The Paragon’s previous head, to adapt the school around the challenges of Covid-19 to make it a safe place to study and work. How rewarding has it been to work with Andrew over that time?
I was appointed way back in February, when HS2 was still dominating the headlines and there were only three confirmed cases of Coronavirus in the UK. I don’t think it is an understatement to say that we are now in a very different world. From the moment it became apparent, in early March, that Covid was going to have a significant impact on education, Andrew and I agreed that we needed to work together to steer The Paragon through. Like everything else in the past six months, the plan was developed as we rolled it out, helped enormously by the fact that Andrew was and is held in such high esteem by the pupils, parents and staff at the school. Some time around July the baton naturally passed from Andrew to myself, by which point his partnership and guidance had put me in a very strong position in terms of my knowledge and understanding of the school. I can’t thank him enough.
Q: What was your most recent position before arriving at The Paragon and how long were you there
My experience as part of the founding team of Radnor House, a co-educational independent school in Twickenham, has certainly prepared me for dealing with the impact of Covid. Setting up a school was an amazing experience and required nimble leadership, alongside the need to delve regularly into the operational while keeping a clear focus on the ‘big picture’, plus lots of hours in a day. The skills I’m drawing on at the moment feel very similar! I was head at Radnor until 2018. Prior to accepting the headship at The Paragon I had been working at a number of schools and across the education sector more widely as a non-executive director and school governor.
This period of part-time work allowed me to settle my young family into the Bath area after our move from London, while waiting for the right job to come up.
Q: What were your first impressions of The Paragon, and how much has the school been transformed by the arrival of the pupils this month?
One word – magical. There is something incredibly special about the whole site and I would challenge any first-time visitor not to be captivated by it. It really does feel like being immersed in a wonderful, cherished childhood; a safe haven full of adventure and love. Having all the children back this month has only added to this – the sense of joy is palpable. There is also a real sense of purpose too, something which the children, and staff, now value more than ever.
Q: What sort of adaptations have been necessary at The Paragon school to make everyone – teachers and children – safe and secure?
We have kept things simple with the three core principles of regular hand washing and sanitising, effective social distancing and an enhanced facilities cleaning regime. We regularly reinforce and repeat these messages as, if everyone plays their part, then what we offer to the children day to day can be as close to ‘normal’ as possible. We are very fortunate to have small class sizes and plenty of space at The Paragon, so really it’s just been a case of tightening up our systems and ensuring that bubbles do not cross in the playground, school hall or other areas of the school. We’ve adapted our clubs and activities so there is minimal mixing of bubbles and, where it does happen, we ensure social distancing is maintained between groups. We’ve also moved to an in-car drop off and pick up for parents at the start and end of the school day to limit adults on site. Parents have been incredibly proactive in doing their part – it really feels like we are all working together to ensure the children have the most positive experience possible.
Q: How affected to do you feel pupils have been by the pandemic and by lockdown? Are any of them nervous about coming back? And how can you reassure them?
Lockdown was difficult for everyone, and naturally for some children and their families it has brought anxiety. But there’s a real sense at The Paragon of the opportunities lockdown brought as well, and most of our children already have some very happy memories from this time. There were certainly a few nerves on the first day back, but the children have settled back into their old routines brilliantly, as well as getting used to new ones. We are very proud of them. Additional support is in place for those who have needed it, but so much of this comes from the exceptionally positive relationships which the teachers already have with their charges. Time is a great healer, as is a listening ear and a few encouraging words. I have found that every teacher at The Paragon understands deeply this important part of their role in the children’s lives.
Q: Tell us about why you like living in Bath. How does it compare to London?
We live to the south east of Bath on the way to Bradford on Avon. Having moved here in early 2018 from south west London we haven’t looked back. It’s the perfect combination of country and city living, exactly the environment my husband and I hoped for to raise our family. We met one another when we were both living and working in Sherborne, Dorset, and have very fond memories of our time there. Coming back to the south west was always the plan after the ubiquitous stint in London.
Q: You have a young family – do you ever find it hard to draw a line between school and personal time
Any working parent will tell you that compartmentalising is something you have to be able to do if you’re going to make it work. Once I’m home with my kids each evening, my phone goes in a drawer and my mind switches off from work. As you can imagine, with a six-year-old and a one-year-old, the dinner, bath and bedtime routine is joyful chaos. Therefore getting the laptop back out once they’re in bed to clear emails and reconnect with school matters feels like downtime.
Q: What measures have you been able to put in place to support pupils who have lost crucial classroom time over lockdown, and may therefore feel less able to cope with the curriculum?
We were fortunate that the whole of Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 were back in school full time from the 1 June. For the other year groups we ran a special holiday Learning Programme two days per week during July. This focused on getting them reacquainted with the classroom and curriculum, as well as the more social aspects of their learning. Our focus since term started in September has been on ensuring children feel happy and settled. It is no secret that happy children learn best, meaning any gaps in learning are quickly bridged.
Q: Will the school still have assemblies? What’s your technique for keeping your children’s attention in assembly?
Assemblies are the highlight of my week! Every Friday each class ‘bubble’ tunes in to a live streamed celebration assembly which involves me running round the different classrooms and distributing awards to those pupils who have demonstrated one or more of our Paragon values in their work or conduct. It’s great fun racing around the school hearing the children clapping and cheering for one another, and the sense of anticipation about which classroom I will be popping up in next certainly holds their attention. The best part of the assembly is announcing the house point totals, which I do from the middle of playground surrounded by classrooms. Hearing cheers and groans emanating from every window as the placings are revealed is great fun.
Q: What subject did you previously teach and do you still take some lessons?
I qualified as a history teacher after completing my degree – I love the subject and really miss teaching, although I’ve also taught geography, RE and of course maths and English at preparatory level. For now, I’m not in the classroom in a teaching capacity, but as soon as there are fewer limitations on staffing and mixing bubbles I will be looking for any excuse to get back there.
Q: Is there a good balance of male and female teachers at the Paragon and do you feel that this is important?
The priority is having the best teachers, male or female. Boys and girls all need a diverse range of positive role models and I feel they certainly get this at The Paragon. We have scientists, professional musicians, two ex-Olympians and a capped rugby player on our staff – but I’m not going to tell you their gender.