Heather Hanbury is a fan of getting things wrong. In 2012, she shot to national attention when she pioneered the concept of “failure weeks”, designed to teach her perfectionist pupils that failure is fine and often necessary on the path to success.
She chuckles as she describes her initiative being the subject of a question on Radio Four’s News Quiz: “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. Her appearance on Woman’s Hour presumably came a close second.
Now, the idea of encouraging children to learn to be bold and see failure as a positive is mainstream, especially in high-achieving independent girls’ schools.
“The search for perfection is one of the biggest enemies of achievement and I go on and on about it to the girls and to the staff,” says Hanbury, who, as the new president of the Girls’ Schools Association, continues to bang the drum for messing things up.
Indeed, Hanbury’s own life has taught her that career paths are not always smooth, and changing your mind can be a huge strength, not a weakness.
“The search for perfection is one of the biggest enemies of achievement.”
Prior to her teaching career, she was a management consultant – setting her sights on being a senior partner. But Heather Hanbury “fell out of love” with the job before achieving this and moved into a second career as a charity fundraising manager.
This too proved unsatisfying but she eventually struck gold when she decided to train as a teacher in her mid thirties, climbing the ranks to head by age 48, first at Wimbledon High School and then at Lady Eleanor Holles School.
Her previous careers, she says, were definitely an advantage as she entered school leadership.
“The best training for being a headteacher is being a management consultant, at least being one in the late 80s and early 90s was.
“Turning your hands and your mind to things very quickly, spinning from one discussion about one topic to another, producing reports quickly…being able to have a business overview.”
“The best training for being a headteacher is being a management consultant.”
But despite her confidence with the spreadsheets, like many people, she still feared failure.
“My biggest worry starting as a head was ‘when things go wrong how well will I manage?’” she says.
“How good will I be at keeping things smooth and calm and keeping the show on the road at times of difficulty?”
The potentially emotionally difficult aspects of the job – facing angry parents, upset teachers and distressed children – were daunting.
“The amount of emotional support that headteachers give is way beyond anything I ever imagined it would be. Maybe it’s just me…”
These challenges aside, Hanbury stresses the importance of her and her colleagues providing role models to her pupils and being authentic. This, she says, is better than explicitly teaching girls about the challenges women still face in work and life.
“What I don’t want is people closing their own doors before they get to them.”
She says: “The point is they see women juggling…my deputy head was a single parent and she was open about that and we have gay couples and gay parents, divorced parents, people without children, women who’ve struggled to have families.
“It’s not that we’re spilling our entire personal lives to the students but they can see around them women both managing and succeeding and sometimes struggling and sometimes having to manage things that are complex.”
She adds that it would be “lovely” to prepare boys in exactly the same way – as they watch men juggle their lives.
“If we need to do this, we need to do this to all young people,” she adds.
Hanbury is also not afraid to spell out the importance of romantic decision-making in a person’s ability to achieve success on their own terms.
“A really important choice a woman makes in her career is her choice of life partner. It’s nothing to do with your job it’s to do with who you choose to support you in your path and boys need to hear that message as well.
“Nobody can have everything but they have a right to have as much as they can manage. What I don’t want is people closing their own doors before they get to them.”
This philosophy is clearly what lies behind Hanbury’s strong belief in the power of girls-only education – even despite modern-day trends away from gendered arrangements.
She points out the prediction that Europe is still three generations away from true equality in the workplace at the current pace of change.
“In a girls-only environment girls learn that they are in charge.”
“There is a lot of research that shows that when boys and girls are together, girls tend to set their sights a little lower, they somehow lack confidence in their abilities…the interaction that a teacher has with boys in a co-ed classroom is between 10 and 30 per cent more than the interaction they have girls in the same classroom.”
In a girls-only environment girls ‘”learn that they are in charge”, says Hanbury and “if they don’t speak up there’s nobody else to do it for them.”
“It’s important that girls don’t feel that life is one giant competitive misery.”
They learn to be leaders and good team players, she says, and they “take it for granted that when they step up into the world that they will have a place there, they will be listened to and they deserve to be heard.”
She adds: “My big thing is to make sure we’ve got girls who go out into the world and don’t see it as a frightening place, who don’t feel that life is one giant competitive misery…if they’re not enjoying their job, if they’re not happy in their lives…then do something about it.
“I want all the girls who leave our schools to have that sort of attitude.”
And in line with her role modelling spirit, it’s a philosophy that Heather Hanbury has lived by throughout her career.