As headship appointments go, Elizabeth Bone’s is somewhat serendipitous. The former Weald of Kent pupil who attended the school from 1990 to 1997 now finds herself at the helm of this outstanding grammar, which has sites in both Tonbridge and Sevenoaks and boasts just over 1,500 pupils.
Earlier this year, Mrs Bone had been thinking of making a change in her teaching career. After years of working at senior leadership level in a variety of schools, both selective and all ability, she felt the time was right to pursue a headship.
When a few months later Mrs Bone was contacted about applying for the role of Headteacher at her former alma mater Weald of Kent, following the departure of its previous head, Maureen Johnson, it seemed too good an opportunity to resist.
“It was a case of perfect timing,” smiles Mrs Bone as we sit down to chat in her office, which is based at the school’s original Tonbridge site on Tudeley Lane.
“I’d been a senior leader and senior deputy and an agency called me about the Weald of Kent job and it seemed that everything aligned perfectly.
“I mean how often do you get to go to an interview and talk about your experience of your old school? That’s a very unique thing.”
The mother of one’s obvious love and passion for this school, which also has boys in the sixth form, clearly won over the board of governors as in July Mrs Bone was told she had the job.
And although she has only been in the role for a few months, her vision for the school, which was recently ranked 98th in the Sunday Times Parent Power schools list, is crystal clear.
“Weald of Kent has always been about demonstrating the love and care for each individual pupil, which then allows them to go on and do their own thing. So my job is really protecting the heart of the school.
“The first thing I said to members of staff here was that on my watch this school will never be an exam factory. That’s not what we’re about. It’s the individual care that is so important, and that’s what all my experience teaching in schools has shown – that when things work well it’s because the school, the students and the staff know and trust each other. When you walk around here you’ll see our girls smiling, and that’s very much like it was when I was here.”
She goes on to say that having the main focus on nurturing instead of mercilessly pursuing a position at the top of the league tables has resulted in pupils gaining some ‘pretty stonking results’.
“That doesn’t happen by forcing students into choices that aren’t right for them,” she continues.
“That happens by pupils finding out what they love, what their flair is. It comes from learning how to fail well and then to pick yourself up. To develop the resilience to go on and be amazing.”
Mrs Bone cites that it was exactly this type of supportive approach to learning that led to her wanting to become a teacher herself.
“I had such a wonderful time here and I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. But I didn’t go into it straight away. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making the choice to go on to teach because it felt so comfortable here. It was almost dangerous to leave school, go to university, then come back to school – especially when this school is such a unique experience.”
Mrs Bone worked for a couple of years in London before deciding that she did, indeed, want to pursue a career in teaching. So she worked her way up, becoming Deputy Head at Invicta Grammar School for Girls in Maidstone, and most recently Senior Deputy at Meridian High School in New Addington, Croydon. She admits her time at this ‘very different’ type of all ability school has been her biggest challenge in teaching so far.
“Each school I had taught in until then had been Ofsted rated Good or Outstanding – or Outstanding by the time I’d left – but I felt that I had a gap in my career. I felt a need for a real challenge and wanted to turn something around, which is why I went to work at Meridian.
“When I joined it was in Special Measures, but it has since pulled itself out of that and it’s on a journey, albeit a lengthy one, but I’m so glad I was part of that. It was a very different experience, but one I’m really glad I had.”
So stepping into Mrs Johnson’s successful shoes must be like a walk in the park, then?
“Mrs Johnson has left a great legacy and I’m lucky to be stepping into her shoes, but I will be leading in my way,” Mrs Bone states.
“I want to have a look at the little things that make a difference to how people feel and how they can perform. For example, how we can best make use of our staff time because I’d rather they spend the majority of their time with the students, so it’s looking at how we can achieve that. It’s about more teaching and learning, and less bureaucracy and box ticking.
“I really want to emphasise how important that teacher/student time is. We have a school crammed full of amazing professionals who know how to teach their subjects. They know how to share that knowledge and that love in their particular area, and it’s really my job to let them do it.”
And she is not afraid to stand up for another thing she believes in as being key to a student’s and school’s success:
“I think it’s about being brave. Saying ‘no, we’re going to do what we know is best for the individual’. I’m not going to jump through hoops for Ofsted or for league tables. I’m going to do what’s best for the girls – and the boys who are in our sixth form – and allow my staff to do the same. The biggest challenge actually is having the courage of your convictions to say ‘no I’m not going to play this game. I’m going to do it our way’.”
And with Tonbridge Grammar just down the road, and Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar nearby, does Mrs Bone ever feel she has something to prove to the other girls’ schools in the area?
“I don’t think one is better than the other. We’re all very different and have our personalities and we all seem to do what we do very well. And for us here at Weald of Kent that centres around the individual, and the care given that allows them to exceed their expectations.”
Her predecessor, Mrs Johnson, was responsible for establishing the controversial addition of the school’s Sevenoaks Annexe, a separate site that now houses just over 200-odd girls in a state-of-the-art building. They visit the Tonbridge site once a fortnight, while senior leaders such as Mrs Bone visit twice a week. How does she feel it has been working now the annexe is in its second year?
“If you go and spend any time there you will feel that it’s absolutely part of the same school.
“I’ve got an amazing team who’ve timetabled things beautifully. It doesn’t feel any different for the students or the staff – I mean the lunch queue is slightly shorter – but apart from that there is no difference, apart from the buildings.”
Talking of which, does Mrs Bone have plans for the Tonbridge site’s girls to make more use of the superb facilities that are on offer in Sevenoaks?
“We are looking at opportunities to send more Tonbridge pupils over,” she confirms. “We’re looking at how we can ensure that all the Sevenoaks facilities can benefit the girls here at Tonbridge, as the facilities are available for all pupils to use.
“It’s such an exciting place to work and the expertise we have around the school is astonishing. I’m very lucky to have that knowledge and support.”
But ultimately Mrs Bone is all about nurturing what Weald has at its heart – regardless of which site the pupils are on
“I think it’s the opportunity to protect what is so central to a Weald education,” she says. “I benefitted from one and I want to ensure that girls and boys of the future have that same opportunity.
“This is my chance to give back to a school that gave so much to me.”