Jo Nugent explains how a very traditional school has embraced modern approaches to learning – and even has a teacher who designs video games
With its red sandstone Jacobethan architecture, Tower College in Rainhill, Merseyside, looks, at first glance, like an old-fashioned kind of place.
With wood panelled walls, manicured gardens and a tower visible from afar, it would be easy to believe it is a highly traditional centre of learning, filled with dusty tomes, didactic teaching and the odd ink pot lingering in an old cupboard. The reality of this school, which has 318-pupils plus 120 in its day nursery, is a little surprising.
In fact, in recent years the co-educational college has worked hard to create modern, forward looking education provision that honours its past.
In 1947, Charles and Muriel Oxley, discussed their own children’s education and dared to dream of owning their own school. Despite family concerns that a private school in St Helens would “never work,” Charles set about finding a suitable building to house his new school.
The building was beautiful, set in stunning grounds, under a canopy of trees, in the village of Rainhill. Following the war, it needed much repair and, like everything else in their lives, they set about this with determination and pride. On 6th April 1948, with Charles as principal and Muriel as bursar, they opened the doors to the first and only independent school in Rainhill.
“Management realised that the school would need to evolve, without compromising its strong identity.”
And so, Tower College began its journey; the school was to be a reflection of traditional Christian values. However, forward-thinking Charles and Muriel accepted pupils of all faiths, with the emphasis on tolerance, respect, kindness and courtesy. Thus, the school thrived, not only gaining a reputation for providing an education of high academic standards but also for being true to the ethos that continues today.
In the 72 years that have passed, the school has remained in trusted hands, with only four principals to date. Charles Oxley sadly passed away in November 1987. Muriel, determined to maintain the school’s values, became principal and proved to be an exceptional leader, until her passing in December 1993. It was their only daughter, Rachel Oxley, who became principal, continuing to build upon the values and beliefs that the school had been founded upon by her parents. Despite the new and increasing economic challenges faced by the independent sector, she was highly successful in running the school, retiring in 2018. Rachel Oxley remains proprietor and clerk to the governors; her brother Daniel is a long-standing governor and advocate of the school.
In looking for a new principal, Rachel Oxley sought to find the right “architect,” realising that the school would need to evolve, without compromising its strong identity. Andrea Bingley was appointed in September 2018.
Like many, the school has faced a challenging time. Socio-economic factors and the global pandemic have meant that, more than ever, Ms Bingley has had to ensure that Tower College is known as a beacon for academic learning and achievement; a community of like-minded people who work hard for themselves and each other and a place where pupils and staff are supported and understood.
Vice-principal Craig Wells, principal Andrea Bingley and assistant vice principal Rebecca Wright
Despite adversity, in recent months, Tower College has had a resurgence of interest from prospective parents, with an exceptionally high success rate from visits and taster days. The school has received interest from national newspapers for its innovative online learning provision, where teachers offered a full suite of live subject lessons.
Ms Bingley says: “with challenge and change ever-present, our aim is to reinvigorate our educators and learners, through continued evaluation of our provision and practice. It is imperative that we have clear direction and focus, with contingency plans and flexibility.”
“Who could fail to be excited by a computer science teacher like Mr Glover who designs video games?”
Over the last two years, Ms Bingley has also appointed several new staff members who bring with them fresh approaches to teaching and learning.
First, there is computer science teacher Mr Glover, who designs video games, then Spanish teacher, Miss Perry, who is able to recount her experiences of living across Europe. In Key Stage 1 there is Miss Midgley, who achieved outstanding lesson observation feedback throughout her training.
Tower College now has a strong and valued team. The school is committed to ensuring that the latest developments in teaching and learning are applied in their classrooms. This is coupled with a new tier of management, allowing staff to grow and work to their strengths. There is a renewed vigour around the school, and new ways of working, assessing, enriching and caring for the pupils are being brought in.
The concept of continuous improvement is one that is familiar to many in the business world and is key to how Tower College is led. Openly discussing what is working, what is not working and establishing any barriers to the development of the pupils and school is an everyday occurrence, allowing management the flexibility to respond to any situation or development. This would not be possible without Ms Bingley being surrounded by a team that she trusts. However, she recognises that in a school, it’s not only the trust between the staff and the leadership that is important – keeping trust between the school, the pupils and our parents is vital.
“Transparency is everything and parents value this open approach.”
In a time where messages are often confusing, unclear or even contradictory, the school prides itself on clear and transparent communication with parents. Equally, the school encourages pupils and parents to have a voice; regularly participating in surveys about the school and pupil wellbeing. When it comes to success, the school shouts from the very top of the tower but is equally vocal when there are issues to be addressed. Transparency is everything and parents clearly value this open approach.
Alex Dixon, a parent of three children at Tower College writes, “It is remarkable how a team of dedicated teachers, covering all levels of experience and subjects, have adapted to provide such a high level of expert tuition and genuine care for my children. There is a simplicity and directness to communication, continued excellence and the true spirit of determination.”
In the spirit of this openness, the newly appointed vice principal Mr Craig Wells, has been working with the pupils in the Upper School to revitalise the role of prefect. As a result, what was once the school office is being repurposed into a Year 11 common room, to reward those who served as prefects in Year 10. The room will be equipped with computers, a careers corner and a pool table. This space will allow pupils to prepare for their exams, next steps to college and beyond, surrounded by the traditional architecture, which stands sentinel to each year group that passes through on their journey.