ESTABLISHED in 1832, Rose Hill Preparatory is one of West Kent’s most prestigious and long-standing schools. It has nurtured thousands of happy and successful pupils from both its original site on the Tunbridge Wells’ Lower Common to the purpose- built location in Culverden it moved to in 1966.
For the past two decades, David Westcombe was at Rose Hill’s helm as Head Teacher, but when it was announced earlier this year he was set to retire, the search began for someone to succeed him.
That person was recently revealed to be Emma Neville, the school’s first female Head, who was previously Deputy Head of Caterham Prep school in Surrey.
Emma officially starts her new role on April 1, but before doing so she agreed to talk exclusively to the Times about her plans for the future of Rose
Hill, a private co-educational establishment which is home to 300 students aged between 3 and 13 years.
She begins our interview by saying how ‘very excited’ she is about her new job, and how she was afforded the ‘totally unique’ opportunity by Caterham Prep to spend time at Rose Hill in order to get to know the place.
“Caterham have been so supportive,” she reveals. “They have been completely brilliant in allowing me to have some transfer time in order to get me on to the best
footing at Rose Hill. I am in a very fortunate position.”
Emma, who has a Masters in Leadership and Management from Clare College, Cambridge, was at Caterham, another co-ed private school, for just over five and a half years, and before that taught at the renowned independent day and boarding school Bishop’s Stortford College in Hertfordshire. So what was it that attracted her to Rose Hill, a far smaller educational establishment in comparison?
“There was something very magical about it that immediately drew me in,” says Emma.
“The school’s whole ethos about individuals coming first is so true. It’s very much about the children here, and then of course, on top of that, the facilities are just phenomenal. It’s so well catered for.”
When I ask her how it feels to be making history as the school’s first female Head Teacher, she is quick to respond.
“It’s a great, great privilege to be appointed as Head, but being the first female one is a little bit unimportant to me in the great scheme of things. Leading the school is my primary objective.”
It’s clear Emma believes that being a woman shouldn’t be a stumbling block to anything: “I want to make sure that there are equal opportunities for pupils here, and for them to realise that regardless of their gender there are so many things for them to achieve.”
She cites getting more girls into the school’s science labs, and the Design and Technology facilities as good examples. “We’ll be making sure we open up those opportunities.”
Emma is also keen to keep the school’s scholarship scheme in place for those who might not have the means to access a private education but would benefit from it.
“As we move on, I think all types of diversity are going to be fundamental in this school’s future,” she states. “Rose Hill already recognises that not everybody can afford school fees, and there is already a good bursary scheme in place, so we would want to continue to support that. The idea is that you are enabling some pupils to make choices they wouldn’t ordinarily have, and to support them academically, musically and in sports – we want to take away barriers, really.”
For someone who has such an obvious passion and razor-sharp focus on children’s education, it’s surprising to learn that Emma wasn’t originally thinking about going into teaching.
“I have a massive passion for the arts and I really thought that would be my career,” she says. “I wasn’t anticipating teaching at all before I started my degree, but I ended up helping in a primary school teaching art and skills that the children wouldn’t necessarily have had access to until they were in secondary school.”
That’s when everything changed for her: “I was completely immersed, and it encouraged me to reflect on my own education and the inspiring staff who taught me. They were so driven, enthusiastic and really passionate about their teaching, and what a difference that made to our lives. That brief experience really changed my my path.”
This led to Emma working at Bishop’s Stortford College, where she taught ‘right across the campus up to GCSE level’. She admits this gave her something of an advantage.
“I think having that knowledge and understanding of how children tick as they grow up is a bonus, but having said that, the staff at Rose Hill really know their business and are very dedicated.”
When I broach the subject of whether she will make any sweeping reforms, Emma says that it will be more of a slow-burn process.
“It’s too early to talk about any fundamental changes as Rose Hill is in such good order.
“My first impressions were that it was really exciting and had a real educational fizz to it. So I think it’s more about changes over time and tweaks, but nevertheless we need to keep pace with change and development in education, as well as the world around us, to ensure that Rose Hill is right at the top and delivering the highest possible standards to all aspects of school life.
“The ability to remain agile and responsive are really necessary parts of the process, too.”
How would Emma describe her personal educational ethos? “Fundamentally, schools have got to be a place where children feel safe and where they can learn through a variety of different activities and are having fun.
“I think taking risks and occasionally failing are essential parts of learning. This allows pupils to leave confident but not arrogant and ready to build on their successes and their achievements.
“Obviously we’re aiming for academic success, but that’s not at the expense of having happiness and fulfilment. It is about finding that right balance, and the staff here provide pupils with a really varied and rich programme with ample opportunities for them to develop their confidence, resilience and own personal leadership skills, and ultimately that is what I believe leads to your academic success.”
Emma, who tells me she would have probably become an architect, curator or milliner if she hadn’t gone into teaching, says that she and her ‘incredibly and supportive’ husband Reza are currently in the process of moving to Tunbridge Wells.
“We feel it’s an important part of this exciting challenge, and we really want to be part of the local community. It’s such a warm and vibrant town with a rich heritage, so we’re really looking forward to being here.”