When Bex Tear first took a tour of Badminton School nearly nine years ago, she says it was the pupils themselves who convinced her it would be a brilliant place to work.
“When I was touring the school with the girls, the two of them disagreed on something and they literally stopped and they engaged in a conversation and explained and came to a conclusion,” she says.
“I thought ‘I want to be a part of this.’ These are young people who are listening to each other, evaluating what they are saying and that was something quite special.”
After getting to know it more, she says she could see Badminton, in Bristol, was not “your usual school”. It was continuing to embrace the pioneering spirit of its feminist founders, encouraged free thought and debate and pupils’ ownership of their learning.
“We don’t have many prizes, we don’t have prefects, it’s much more about personal application and full engagement.”
After being offered the job of headmistress in 2012, she left her deputy headship at another girls’ boarding school, Wycombe Abbey, to take over the helm.
She says: “We don’t have many prizes, we don’t have prefects, it’s much more about personal application and full engagement with whatever you do.
“I quite like that we’re not too set in stone here and I really like the challenge of having to innovate.
“When you take on this job at Badminton you’re really given permission to enable that because you don’t have to do anything ‘the Badminton way’. Yes, there are standards which of course families and pupils expect…but you really are given permission to keep taking it forward.”
Set up in 1858 by Miriam Badock, the school is known for pioneering opportunities for girls, taking traditionally “male” subjects such as science and sport seriously. The school welcomed its first international boarder in the year it opened.
“If we get stuck in a rut, we are not as optimum in any role if we are not challenged.”
And the value that the school places on pupils taking ownership of their learning and reflecting on it is one that Tear lives by herself. Despite being a busy school leader, she sees it as part of her job to continue to learn and be challenged intellectually.
After a state school education and a scholarship to an independent sixth form, she attended the University of Exeter and started her teaching career as a chemistry specialist. But she recently completed a diploma in entrepreneurship at the Cambridge Judge Business School.
“I’m always looking for ways to learn,” she says, I think it keeps me fresh and looking at things from different directions which I think you need, if we get stuck in a rut we are not as optimum in any role if we are not challenged.”
She is keen for staff to also have opportunities to develop their own learning and have access to good CPD. “It’s going to be a challenge for everyone coming out of Covid with financial constraints and a lot to do, but if you stand back and think ‘what’s education about?’ and if we’re going to get young people to believe in that, then we’ve got to be those people ourselves,” she says.
“I’ve always worked where I’ve had amazing leaders who have really shown a lot of sponsorship towards me.”
Badminton is one of the schools involved in the Bristol Education Partnership where state and independent schools work together, mentoring and sharing good practice.
“Initiatives like that are very cost-effective and very empowering and enabling,” she says.
The partnership allows schools to pool resources and hold events and talks for staff and students.
From her own positive personal experiences, Tear herself also understands the importance of senior staff developing more junior ones too.
“For me I’ve always worked where I’ve had amazing leaders who have really shown a lot of sponsorship towards me and really engaged in my learning and development process and that’s enabled me to progress.
“That’s a huge part of education we should always be looking to develop not just the students but ourselves, those around us, so I think that professional development is a hugely important thing in education.”
And as Tear, her staff and pupils expect to be constantly moving forward, so must the 500-pupil school. The key challenges, she says, are remaining relevant and being accessible to as many people as possible.
“It’s a model that has to be constantly reviewed to make it more accessible and I think we’re always on a journey there, we’re not there yet…”
She says it is vital for the school to remain relevant and ensure that their business is one that people still want to buy into.
“We can’t get bigger as we’ll lose the essence of the community…we have to find ways to make a big experience in a small context.”
Her goal now is “to continue to steward this school in the manner intended, to keep it being pioneering.”
She says: “It really works because it is a community. We can’t get bigger because we’ll lose the essence of the community and so trying to run a business on this scale, a lot of what I do is having to innovate around the edges to find other revenue streams, find ways to make a big experience in a small context.
“Other schools will merge, get bigger, have a massive new hall or drama centre but that’s not the Badminton way of doing things, we are staying as a small community, how do I innovate and provide a big experience in a small context? We’ve done a lot of work in recent years with partnerships so for me it’s about thinking differently and providing an equivalent but unique opportunity in a small setting.
“I need to continue to challenge myself to meet all those new distractions elsewhere that make sure my pupils are getting just a good an experience as elsewhere – if not better – within this small caring community.”
Parents might ask, she adds, how will they get a big theatre experience, how will they get the challenge of debating in a big arena?
She says, by way of an example: “We’ll take our theatre company on tour and we’ll take it to the Edinburgh Fringe.”
Despite these challenges, she is proud of the school’s modest size.
“Continuing to deliver a world-class experience in a small community context, you’ve got the best of both. At Badminton you’re never going to be lost, you’re going to be talked to and known all the time.”
Many parents would think, who needs a £5m theatre complex when you have that?