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Leadership in 2020

Mrs Bingham says creating a democratic culture at South Hampstead is key to enabling pupils to leave with a sense of personal fulfilment and confidence.

Q What do you think it takes to lead an independent school in 2020?
I think one of the most important things is to be grounded. You need to know what your values are and what you think is important in education because there is a wealth of debate out there. You learn huge amounts from talking to other heads and everybody’s got an idea, but you need to know what you think is important, otherwise you risk being buffeted by the winds of change in educational opinion. You’ve also got to know where you want to take the school, but you’ve got to be adaptable about that. And I think the final thing is you’ve got to be great at recruiting people.

Q What has it been like at the helm of a school during the coronavirus pandemic and what’s been your strategy for getting the school through it?
This may sound odd, but I’ve been teaching now for nearly 19 years and in a strange way it’s been a professional highlight. I say in a strange way because no head would want to find themselves in this situation. The thing I say to my school is that whilst this is not going to be easy, it’s going to produce lots of creative ideas because it’s forced everybody to adapt very quickly. Everybody has had to pull together. I have been so grateful for the extraordinary energy and agility of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) family. I think I’ve also learned to be quite accepting. There were 41 different updates from the Department for Education before we went into half term, so I was left not really knowing what was going to happen, and you just have to learn to accept it.

Q Who do you most want to thank for helping you be a school leader?
All the staff, without a shadow of a doubt. They have absolutely gone the extra mile. I went into school yesterday to check on preparations for the reopening, like signage and hand sanitiser, and I said to the director of finance and operations, ‘What can I do?’ He said, ‘It’s pretty much nearly been done’. That’s the staff all over, they just do things.

Q Are there any leaders that inspire you?
I think Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, has led her country during this pandemic with what appears to be dignity and crucially, transparency, and I think that’s what has been at the heart of our success in leading the school through this period. The thing that people keep saying is thank you for communicating with us. Even if you don’t know what the answer is, you’ve got to communicate with people because that’s the only way you can help them cope with those feelings of uncertainty. I think she’s done that brilliantly and I think there are an awful lot of people who could learn from her.

Q You set yourself an environmental challenge this year; how did this come about?
It was the girls who inspired me. The sustainability movement in the school really started taking off last year and it is one of our strategic priorities to be as carbon neutral as possible by 2026. Last June, the girls published an edition of the school magazine about throwaway fashion which inspired me to give up buying new clothes. I think this has generated further interest in the topic, but it was the girls who started it. It’s also inspired the younger girls. While the older girls are interested in the political angle and demonstrations, that’s a big thing for an 11-year-old to understand, but they can understand that they could give up plastic water bottles, for example.

Maybe it makes us a little freer to rewrite the rules.

Q Does leading an all girls’ school make a difference to the way in which you lead?

I think it’s important for me to run a relatively democratic school because the thing I want our students to leave with is a sense of personal fulfilment and confidence. At South Hampstead, we are in the business of empowering female leaders. I want to create a democratic culture where the girls feel they can come to me and say, I’d like to run with this idea, or I’d like to run this event. I try to make it an open-door culture, rather than a top down hierarchical structure where they feel they can’t really make change. I am sure there are lots of coed and boys’ schools that have a very similar culture. Girls’ schools are nimble and adaptable to change. Maybe it’s because they don’t have quite so many hundreds of years of tradition or because women haven’t been part of the establishment in the same way for generations – maybe it makes us a little bit freer to rewrite the rules.

The article first appeared in the June issue of Independent Education Today.

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