Meet the headmistress: Mrs Rebecca Mitchell

Heywood Prep is all about developing confidence, resilience and a passion for learning. Headmistress Rebecca Mitchell explains…

Walk through the gates of Heywood Prep and the first thing you’ll notice – apart from a few peacocks strutting about – is an incredible energy, emanating from both children and staff.

“All our visitors comment on the warmth and friendliness of the school,” laughs Heywood’s headmistress, Rebecca Mitchell. “It’s a very happy place, which also strives for excellence for each of our children. And it’s busy too – when I walk around, I’ll see children rehearsing plays on stage, practising their sport, playing music and immersed in art.

“Then I’ll go into the science room, where I might find Year 5 children working on pneumatics and hydraulics. They’ll show me what they’re building, using syringes and lollipop sticks, and they’ll talk with such enthusiasm about what they are doing. It makes me so proud that they want to share their passion.

“I’m not an intimidating head, who makes the children sit bolt upright and fall silent when you enter the room. In fact, I stand on the gate every morning and greet every one of our children by name – they’ll often bounce onto the gravel and tell me how well they did at a sport competition, or chat about something exciting that’s happened at home.

I really know every child, so I’m constantly aware if someone needs celebrating, or who might need a little extra support.

“In many ways Heywood is a traditional prep school, with a head boy and girl and a house system, but our staff also add a huge injection of joy into that mix. Whether that means dressing up for World Book Day or skipping down Corsham’s high street in Christmas hats for Heywood’s seasonal video, they ignite a great sense of fun.

“And they have such strong relationships with our children – they really understand how to keep their passion for learning alive. In turn, our children know what the boundaries and expectations are, and they have a huge respect for their teachers and each other.”

A tailored approach to learning

It’s this understanding and knowledge of each child that enables Heywood Prep to ensure every pupil thrives, gaining confidence and resilience, as well as realising their academic potential. Small class sizes, of around 14, mean staff can really get to grips with what makes them tick. They continuously assess how each child is coping with their academic work, and whether they need to be stretched or perhaps have a little extra support.

“We support each child with our Individualised Learning Programme,” says Mrs Mitchell. “Five days a week, every pupil attends a 30-minute session, which has been carefully chosen to answer their specific needs. If they are a weaker speller, they might join a spelling support group, along with perhaps a maths booster session, a strings music group and a gifted and talented sport session. It’s a tailored approach to learning, which means nobody gets pigeon-holed. Instead, we can nurture or stretch each child in the right way for them. We promote excellence, and if a child is reaching 80% of their potential, that just isn’t enough.

“Our role at Heywood is to discover what each child shines at, and we do that by offering a broad range of opportunities. If we can find an academic subject, IL, after school club or specialist subject that allows them to explore an interest or talent, it really boosts their self-esteem. And when children find their strengths, it gives them the confidence to tackle the areas of life that they perhaps don’t find so easy. We all need to be able to say, “It’s ok, I find this hard – but I’m really good at this.”

Building strong foundations

Of course, children will only thrive if they feel safe, secure and happy. And that is why pupil wellbeing is at the centre of everything that happens at Heywood Prep.

“Every child will face difficulties and pressures in life, and we have a duty to develop their resilience,” explains Mrs Mitchell. “The worst thing for a child is to dent their confidence. It takes so long to build, then in a quick swipe it’s gone. We have to remember that every child is on his or her own journey too – everybody will learn to spell and get to grips with their eight times table, but it’s important we move at the right speed for that child. And if you give children confidence and resilience, then they will get there.”

So, how does Heywood support the children’s emotional needs? As well as dedicated daily tutor time, they are encouraged to use the worry boxes in class to confide any anxieties. Then during lunch and break, the door to a dedicated calm space, called The Burrow, is always open. Here, children can chat to a member of staff about anything that’s on their mind, and the information is shared with form tutors, so they can offer support in turn.

“Giving children somewhere to go for help is really important,” says Mrs Mitchell. “They need to know that it’s ok to say that you’re struggling. We encourage the children to write our Positivity Postcards to one another too, which they pop into the school post box. It’s a great way of celebrating one another’s strengths, and it’s so special for a child to know that they are appreciated by their friends.

“But so much of what we do at Heywood is invisible to the outside world. Our staff we are constantly talking behind the scenes about who might need additional support, and who might be feeling low. And if a child is struggling with confidence, we do everything we can to nurture them. For example, we might put on a house chess competition, because we know that child is great at chess and that it will give her self-esteem a boost.

“There’s no doubt that everything we put into place at this young age has huge impact on their future. If a child learns to acknowledge his feelings and seek help when he needs it, then he isn’t going to fall apart when he hits his GCSEs. It’s crucial to develop resilience and create happy, lifelong learners who love going to school.”

Wrap around care

For busy parents, life is often a constant juggling act, and Heywood Prep does its utmost to lighten the load. Wrap around care is available from 7:30am until 6pm, and there’s a fun-packed after school club programme on offer, as well as a holiday club too. After school sessions are refreshed termly, and include everything from rugby sessions, taught by a Bath RFC coach, to fencing, judo, mindfulness and sewing.

“I love seeing our pre-prep children trotting out of cookery club, holding little tubs filled with goodies,” laughs Mrs Mitchell. “We offer Cozy Club too, for the younger pupils. Not everyone wants to bolt around the playground at the end of the day, sometimes you just need to build Lego and watch cartoons.

“Most of our families have two working parents, so we are very flexible if a train is cancelled or a meeting runs late. We offer homework club too, for our older pupils. It means everyone can enjoy family time when they get home, instead of squeezing in study at the end of a long day.”

It’s fair to say that Mrs Mitchell comprehends these challenges as well as any parent, for she has three young children. Her younger son and daughter currently attend Heywood, while her older son recently started Westonbirt. At weekends she’s often found cheering him on at the edge of a rugby or hockey pitch, or exploring the arboretum with the family’s Cockerpoo, Milo. And if there’s a birthday on the horizon, you’re likely to find her baking some pretty impressive cakes.   

“My children are very different to one another,” she says. “I understand the challenges that come with a headstrong child and I also understand parents who need to access our learning support department. I know what it’s like to receive a specialist report and feel your heart break, when you read how your child is struggling. But ultimately, I’ve been able to experience first-hand just how much all our children – and parents – benefit from what we offer at Heywood.”

Guidance and support

When it comes to supporting parents, Heywood offers regular information evenings too, ranging from pre prep maths and phonics guidance, to help with senior school choices.

“We guide our parents, from nursery right through to secondary school preparation,” explains Mrs Mitchell. “If you’re trying to help a young child with maths homework, the last thing you want is friction because you’re not explaining addition in the way they’ve been taught in class. It’s important to help parents understand how to support their children and this applies all the way through Heywood, including when the time comes for senior school applications.”

Invaluable life skills

So, when those children leave for pastures new, what do they take from their time at Heywood Prep?

“Throughout their time with us, I see our children developing a real awareness of who they are,” says Mrs Mitchell. “And it’s so exciting to watch their confidence grow. That child who nervously sucked his thumb throughout the nursery nativity might later take on a leading role in a performance with aplomb. It’s wonderful to see the progression, as they excel in their own hobbies and interests.

“Ultimately, we want our children to have the confidence to seize every opportunity they are offered. We want them to think ‘yes, I’ll have a go,’ and really make the most of life. It’s so important that they know they can succeed, and that they have that resilience too.

“We can’t possibly know what career our children will choose as adults, but we do know what skills they’ll need. Collaboration, communication, confidence, compassion and the ability to motivate themselves are all invaluable, whatever path they take. And with that, Heywood gives them an excellent head start.”