Gareth Jones believes strongly in the prep school years as a time for shaping children’s values and character, to prepare them for academic and life challenges ahead.
And character, one suspects, is something Jones had plenty of opportunity to develop in his own early life.
Growing up as the youngest of 10 siblings, he believes this gave him some qualities that are vital to running a prep school.
“It has had not an insignificant impact on me as a person but also I think as a teacher, the educational philosophy I have,” he says.
“Being the youngest gave me an unusual combination of contrasting characteristics, I’m both competitive and patient, determined yet easy going, unassuming yet eager to meet people and build relationships, because that’s what it’s all about. That sort of grounding has influenced me throughout.”
These qualities led him last September to the headship of Bilton Grange Prep, where he and his family are just settling into life after he spent six years as headmaster of St Andrew’s Prep in Eastbourne.
“Being the youngest gave me an unusual combination of contrasting characteristics.”
Bilton Grange is a key feeder to Rugby School with which it merged officially in 2020, joining Rugby School Group.
He says he has always enjoyed working in prep schools because of the variety of the job, he says. His first teaching job at the Dragon School in Oxford saw him working in numerous roles from English teacher to director of sport and housemaster.
And teaching the full age range always adds spice, he says: “Doing an assembly with reception requires some dark arts that I’m slowly learning.”
But what inspired Jones — who had expected to join his brother in the Royal Marines — to go into teaching at all?
He says he had become a little disillusioned with school until his former prep school head, the Rev Andrew Walters, introduced him to the idea of spending a gap year working in one.
So at 18, he went to work at Lichfield Cathedral School, Staffordshire, which he loved.
He says: “The gap year changed everything so I decided to go to university and did English and history then a PGCE.”
He says he was “very lucky” to find his first post at The Dragon School, teaching his university subjects, which he believes build key skills in young people.
“Doing an assembly with reception requires some dark arts that I’m slowly learning.”
“It is so important to be creative and imaginative but also understand how to form an opinion and how to substantiate that and back that up,” he says.
But what of his plans for Bilton Grange? He describes it as “a very traditional school” and “with tradition comes many strengths”, but says he wants to “play down the regimentation” that can sometimes come with that.
He says: “Schools need to be child centred and pupil centric and for pupils to start to take more responsibility for their learning. Getting children to think about what they want to learn, that is at the heart of where I think education needs to go.”
The school has introduced Team Project Week, where pupils from Year 4 to 7 work on projects together over a number of days and present them to the other pupils.
“We can create something that is just as rigorous, which assesses children and provides information in a more rounded way.”
He says: “It was incredibly useful in so many ways in getting the children to think about what they did. We don’t reflect enough in schools.”
Hand in hand with this, the school has already begun a “tentative” move away from the strictures of Common Entrance.
He says: “There are aspects of Common Entrance that are good and the curriculum in some subjects is very good, we still need to be benchmarking against CE and it is still recognised by senior schools as a premium programme of learning.
“But I do think there are other ways of doing it… we can make tweaks, we can create something that is just as rigorous, if not more, which assesses children and provides information in a more rounded way. It isn’t just based on a set of exams in a three-and-a-half day period, but we could be providing academic data that shows their learning journey across a couple of years.
“In core subjects we have to make sure we have a consistent approach and CE does provide that…but we are strongly considering how we can bespoke it even more. The job then is to convince senior schools that it’s the right thing.”
Alongside this, the school is looking to increase its international outlook, now it is part of Rugby School Group which includes Rugby’s overseas campuses in Thailand and Japan. This will include everything from intercontinental online lessons to real-life visits abroad.
Another key project for the coming years will be building up the school’s brand new independent chorister programme – which will be the first of its kind in the country.
“The chorister programme opens access to seriously high level music teaching from Rugby School.”
Recruitment has been taking place this term for the programme which will offer scholarships for children in boys’ and girls’ choirs.
Jones says the programme will increase diversity at the school and offer some amazing opportunities to talented individuals: “That is a very exciting place to be, it opens access to seriously high level music teaching from Rugby School and will help these children to aspire to top level music.”
But he stresses it will be just as important to provide music and sport on all levels, not just for the supremely talented.
Indeed, he has an appreciation that everyone will take a different path in education, and not everyone will show early promise.
His own many siblings all took very different routes but forged successful lives all the same.
He adds: “What you need is belief, encouragement and recognition that all things are possible and it doesn’t matter which route you take.”