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Meet the new head of Rugby’s Bilton Grange Prep

Gareth Jones will be keenly remembered by pupils at his previous school for his dressing up box – with guises ranging from Shakespeare to the Hungry Caterpillar and He-Man. Muddy finds out more about his plans for BG.

Gareth Jones, the charismatic new incoming head at Bilton Grange Prep (BG), Rugby, is going to be sorely missed at forward-thinking seaside prep school, St Andrew’s, in Eastbourne, Sussex. The sporty father-of-three is looking forward to taking up his new post in September 2021 – and bringing up his famous dressing up box!

He’ll be joined by wife Jemma, a teacher and an England Masters hockey player, and their children Ava, Jacob and Darcie.

Muddy chats to Gareth about his leadership style, exciting future plans for BG and his favourite hobbies…

Can you tell us about yourself, your hobbies and background?

Arriving into the world as the youngest of ten children – seven boys and three girls (although one of my sisters sadly lost her battle with cancer last year), I believe this has equipped me with an unusual combination of contrasting characteristics: I am both competitive and patient; determined yet easy-going; unassuming yet eager to meet new people and build relationships.

Happy childhood, though perhaps as the youngest I was left to get on with things too much, and almost lost my drive in my final year of school, though that in itself has made me a more rounded educationalist. I had a gap year lined up and my adolescent ambitions were veering towards the military (Royal Marines) at the time. But the gap year, working at Lichfield Cathedral School, changed everything. I then did a degree in English with History before completing my PGCE and then I took my first job at the Dragon School in Oxford.

I had many roles at the Dragon. First and foremost teaching English and History. But also, as a form tutor, Director of Sport, Director of the Extended Curriculum, Head of Year 7 Housemaster, Chairman of the Common Room to name but a few. I also coached the 1st teams in rugby and football and ran the athletics and tennis squads. From there I moved to St Andrew’s Prep as Head where I am now.

My hobbies – I love sport. I still play some five-a-side footie if I can. I have got into golf over the last year and this will become a key sport going forward I think. I have also enjoyed tennis and now that my children are playing regularly it makes for a great family game.

I enjoy travelling. Not so much recently but I have been lucky to lead school trips to Morocco, Brazil, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Japan. And a few years ago, the family and I visited Hong Kong and Shanghai. We’d like to see more of China and also visit America to see more there too.

I love quizzes and playing strategic mental games – favourites are Perudo, Mexican Train Game and Sequence. I enjoy reading, especially biographies and, in another life, I might have become a sports journalist. The writing of Simon Barnes is an inspiration. Writing a published book still lurks somewhere as an ambition in the back of my mind.

You’ve clearly been an active, energetic presence at your current school and led by example – from painting beach-hut style shelters around the school to swimming in the sea every morning for 64 days to raise funds for the new pavilion. What are the achievements/legacies you’re most proud of?

I hope that being energetic and getting stuck in will, in itself, leave a legacy. I have seen colleagues embrace change and get out of their comfort zone and that’s what life is about. There’s an energy and purpose here now of which I am proud and I hope it remains.

I suspect I’ll be remembered for my dressing up box – whether it be Shakespeare, the Hungry Caterpillar or He-Man (among others).

There are the tangibles – a brand new sports hall in my first year, the boarding house has had a complete overhaul and is now a first-class home for all our boarders; the pavilion was refurbished primarily to be a Common Room for our senior pupils but is also multi-purpose with a mini kitchen so is a great function room for match teas and other parental events; a new play area for the younger pupils and we have also just opened a new wellbeing hub, called the Snug, in the heart of the school.

I feel the school is very forward-thinking with its pastoral care – and for me this is perhaps the most important legacy. I feel there is a greater understanding of the relationship between academic and pastoral development and the need for all pupils to be emotionally literate and secure.

The school’s approach centres around developing character, and that means both morally strong and intellectually curious. The improvements and changes we have made to the curriculum, including pulling away from Common Entrance and developing our own Bridge Curriculum, have had a very positive impact on the children’s ability and willingness to learn. There’s still the same ambition but we have reduced the anxiety that comes with it.

What are you most looking forward to about moving up to Warwickshire and are there any places you’d love to explore with your family?

Warwickshire, I am told regularly, is a beautiful county but it is not one I know too well yet. So part of the appeal is to get on my bike and explore the countryside. We have friends and family reasonably near, especially after living in Oxford for 16 years so it will be nice to team up with them.

Warwick Castle

One of the places I cannot wait to visit again is Warwick Castle. To me it is the best historical attraction in the country – a full example of the evolution of the castle in one place. I am also keen to explore Shakespeare’s Stratford and to make the most of being in the rugby heartland with top clubs near by.

What are the five key features you’re looking to build on at BG?

BG is already a wonderful school and my overarching aim is to ensure it remains a benchmark for excellence in all facets of school life.

  • The relationship with the Rugby School is still in its infancy and although the philosophies of the schools are united, I want to streamline that alignment even more so that there is a ground-breaking and innovative pathway from the foundation stage through to 18. That said, it will be a best of both worlds scenario in that, for those that want choice,  Biltonians will continue to access some of the top public schools in the country, other than Rugby.
  • The school is taking bold steps in pulling away from Common Entrance in all but the core subjects and we will be looking to develop the curriculum so that it creates a smoother transition from Years 7 & 8 into Year 9. From the earliest ages, we are seeking to embed a set of core learning habits in every pupil so that they develop the intellectual character and attitude to question, analyse and problem-solve. This then will ensure every child is reaching their academic potential, whatever the level.
  • A lot of our ambitions will revolve around first-class IT. I’m excited about the global reach that comes with being part of the Rugby School Group and its overseas developments. Through state of the art video conferencing, collaborating with schools in Thailand or Japan, say, becomes easy and this will lead to ever more innovative and fun ways to enhance education. Global partnership learning is something we will be looking at very closely and we intend to take it way beyond a simple exchange programme – teachers delivering lectures to whole year groups in each school at the same time. Assemblies. Shared staff CPD. Pupil-led entrepreneurial and philanthropic projects, that sort of thing.
  • Boarding is an important feature of life at BG. Even though there are more day pupils these days, the school retains the heartbeat of a boarding school with its school day structure. There will be a good deal of investment over the next few years to provide some of the best prep school boarding facilities in the country. Not flashy with no soul but quality family- orientated boarding with the children at the heart of the decisions.
  • Finally, the co-curricular opportunities, especially sport, music and the performing arts. These are already strong in many ways but I want to ensure we leave no stone unturned in maximising the use of the 90-acre classroom and exploiting the sporting, musical and creative expertise that we have a pipeline to at the Rugby School Group.

You’re keen on developing creative opportunities for children to express themselves, how do you feel this is best achieved?

Creativity brings a sense of freedom. Rules are often obsolete when we are being creative and we have permission to take risks and try new things. When we take the time and energy to develop new ideas, we learn to understand, trust and respect ourselves which, in turn, leads to better expression and articulation of our thoughts. And furthermore, we often become more confident, less stressed and more adaptable when problems come along that require a solution.

At BG, I want this creative spirit to be embedded so that it lasts a lifetime. This can come from singing, acting or dancing; or art and DT and computing. Many children take LAMDA and music lessons and there are many chances to perform either in choirs, shows or mini presentation evenings

Pupils at Bilton Grange absorbed in a DT lesson

At your current school you’ve put in place a new community awards scheme, described as a bit like a junior Duke of Edinburgh award. Do you have plans to establish anything similar at BG?

In reading the obituaries on Prince Philip recently I was struck by the number of times the DofE ‘changed lives’. He knew the importance of securing values and attitudes in young people from an early age and his award is about building self-belief, confidence and friendship, encouraging initiative and ambition and, most importantly, about fostering a sense of community and team-work.

That, to me, is at the heart of a true education and is certainly behind the award I introduced here. And yes, I think there is room to introduce something similar at BG too. But I would need time to assess the lie of the land first and see how it fits in with what is already there.

BG already has the Bilton Cup which is awarded to the child who has made the greatest all-round contribution to school life. The points that children collect go towards their House / Section too so the foundations are already there plus there are other societies like the Brownies, Guides and Cubs. So I do think there is room to develop an award which revolves around service to others and in which everyone feels valued for what they can offer.

You’re quite far from the sea in land-locked Rugby, will you miss the beach and is it too early to say if you’ve sought out any alternative challenges?

This is a good question. We are going to miss the sea. Right now I literally have a three min run and I’m in the sea. We like going to the north Norfolk coast which is not too far so perhaps that will be our outlet.

Otherwise I have already had a look at the open water swimming options in the area and just down the road is Draycote Water so I am sure there are some new water sports I could try. As for new adventures, it might involve cycling. Maybe a tandem cycle with Jemma (she’ll hate me for suggesting that!)

Do any of your extra-curricular interests inform your role as head?

Playing sport helps to clear my mind and re-energise the spirits. And that is important as a leader. The weeks where I am consumed by work and I cannot get out are when I feel I have less clarity.

I read too and although I find novels difficult to keep on top of during term-time, articles in magazines or from newspapers keep me in touch with what is going on and offer chances for reflection which inform my weekly thought-blog. I love spending time with my family and my children are at an age when we can do things together, like bike riding or rock pooling.

What first inspired you to become a teacher?

As a 10-year-old, I remember being totally surprised to have done so well in an English exam; the teacher was simply very kind and fair and, from that moment, it was always my favourite subject. Kindness and fairness were qualities I have always looked out for in good teachers ever since.

At around the same time, we had a new Headmaster, the Revd Andrew Walters, and by a quirk of fate, it was the same man who had been head of a rural school in Wales where my elder brother had spent his gap year. And he introduced a gap student to my school who was tremendously sporty and someone we almost hero-worshipped.

I decided I wanted to do the same when I was 18 and by then Rev’d Walters was at Lichfield Cathedral School so I worked there and learnt a fantastic amount off a wonderful man.

Who’s influenced your style of leadership?

I think one learns from the people one works for and indeed alongside. So Revd Andrew Walters was one and then the two Heads at the Dragon, Roger Trafford and John Baugh, each taught me the value of encouragement, trust, emotional intelligence and a calm pragmatic approach to any situation. 

By nature I’m a collaborative person and not confrontational. I believe that all things are achievable through effective communication and that is about relationship building. I know my own mind but I enjoy hearing what others have to say too – it’s empowering to the staff team and gives them buy-in and sometimes challenges me to reconsider.

My style is and always has been to work at least as hard as those around me and I have learnt a lot about establishing a culture of commitment and diligence. I think this comes from playing lots of team sports and I do feed off a lot of sporting philosophies. Perhaps the greatest influence has been the All Blacks rugby team whose culture is based upon acknowledgement and not judgement.

Many institutions are still too focused on judgement and all that does is lead to negativity and a lack of willingness to own mistakes. Acknowledgement leads to more honesty and a willingness to give things a go without fear of failure.

What do you most enjoy about being a Head?

I love the variety of every day and the different hats I have to wear. Sometimes the conversations are tough but that is what makes the job interesting!

I don’t teach in the classroom as much as I used to but I relish the assemblies and chapel addresses which is when I get to do my teaching – imparting my thoughts and values on the pupils and perhaps my colleagues. I enjoy meeting parents and talking to them about their children. And I love seeing the smiles on the faces of the children when they come to tell me something they have done well. I absolutely love handing out awards or ties and commendations!

And, for me, there is no more glorious sight than seeing the fields awash at playtime with children happily lost in their imaginations, all having a great time.

The 90-acre outdoor classroom at BG includes three woodland areas popular for tree-climbing

How are your family feeling about the move?

Jemma played for the England Masters team a couple of years ago in both the European Championships in Tilburg, Holland, and also in the World Cup in Barcelona. Interestingly, her former England juniors coach is a member of the local club so there is a good chance they will hook up again and Jemma will get involved in the local leagues.

She certainly intends to be involved in coaching at BG and with the life of the school generally. She was Head of PE at the Dragon – it’s how we met – and prior to that at Monkton Combe School in Bath. We ran a boarding house together and generally we work well as a team so this will be no different at BG.

Our eldest daughter Ava will be going into Y10 at Rugby School. Darcie, our second daughter will be joining Y8 at BG and our son Jacob will be going into Y6. They’re all excited about the move although a little nervous too, partly because they will be leaving such good friends here in Eastbourne and partly because, right now, they have not had a chance to visit the school or where we are going to live. It has been a very strange year in that sense. 

Bilton Grange’s is hosting a virtual Pre-Prep Open Day for children aged three to eight at The Nest – Year 3 on Friday May 7 at 1.30pm. For further information and to register visit here. You can read our Muddy review here.

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