It is hard to believe headteacher Cath Bufton-Green when she says she never really intended to go into independent school teaching.
When she talks so passionately about her career leading and advising schools, it seems implausible that her PGCE was only ever a “fallback” and her first career plan was to become a police detective.
“I loved solving problems and loved trying to work things out, I had that instinct and curiosity and I therefore thought that was going to be the career for me,” she says.
But as she applied for the police force, she took some supply teaching work and was taken on for two terms at a primary school in Somerset. And she never looked back, despite being accepted by the police.
Five years in state schools and a move to the independent schools sector were then followed by a speedy rise to her first headship — of Surbiton High Junior Girls — at age 32. “It was a little bit rabbit in the headlights. I oozed loads of confidence but I obviously didn’t have the experience of being a head.”
She says she “learnt on the job” with support from her team and eventually took on the headship of Surbiton High Boys’ Prep as well. From there, she became head of Chandlings in Oxford.
“Naively, I thought ‘maybe we will be through the worst of the pandemic by then.’”
She was appointed to the role during the first lockdown last June. “I think people thought I was mad,” she says of taking on a school at such a difficult time. But she was keen to get back into schools as a head and be able to see the end results of her staff development work – something that consultancy didn’t always allow.
She took over the school in January, just as the country was going into lockdown again.
“Naively in June last year I thought ‘maybe we will be through the worst of the pandemic by then,’” she says. It was, of course, one of its lowest points.
School closures mean Bufton-Green has only met the children of keyworkers in person – for the rest it has been on a remote basis only. She has so far led assemblies, read stories to different year groups and “dropped in” on remote lessons.
She created some “real world” connection by sending postcards to all 273 children in the post.
“I think there’s a real value to being part of a schools group…the benefits you get are enormous.”
She has already met staff and has been engaging with parents through the school website, weekly newsletters and a Google Meet Q&A session.
From her visits earlier last year, Bufton-Green stresses the 275 pupil school has a “family feel”, something she wishes to maintain.
“The school is big enough to have that vibe and intensity, but it’s small enough for everybody to know everybody.”
Despite enjoying the intimate vibe of a smaller school, Bufton-Green speaks very highly of being part of a schools group.
She says: “I think there’s a real value to being part of a schools group…the benefits you get are enormous because you get that shared practice, the learning from each other, teachers are able to create their own little cluster groups, you’ve got the pupil opportunities between schools and you’ve got the safety in numbers.”
She is keeping the details of her future plans for the school under wraps until it has returned to normal, but she wants to ensure that the curriculum allows for a focus on skills and competences as well as academic knowledge.
“What I really want to hone in on a bit more is the skills, characteristics and attributes aspects of a school experience…I want to be sure that our curriculum is fully exposing these children to the types of skills they’re going to need in the future,” she says.
“The children love it when they see teachers being real people.”
Looking at Bufton-Green’s own range of extra-curricular skills, she will no doubt bring huge energy to the role. She has a music degree and plays the trumpet whenever possible at school events. She is still smarting from the cancellation of a Double Brutal Iron Man event she was due to compete in in North Wales.
“I do like to show my human side to the children,” she says, recalling her participation in charity events which involved being “sat in a paddling pool covered in custard, jelly and cornflakes.”
She has taken part in the ice bucket challenge and staff at Gateway recently recorded a “Footloose mashup” video to be sent home to pupils.
“The children love it when they see teachers being real people,” she says.
One wonders if she would ever have had this much fun in the police force.