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Interview with: James Allen, headteacher of Beech Hall School

Nestled in the market town of Macclesfield, Cheshire, is Beech Hall School – an independent, non-selective school for children aged 6 months to 16 years old. The sprawling 16-acre site includes expansive playing fields and a heated outdoor pool. The school was once a large country house but in 1926 it became a preparatory school and overt he years the listed buildings have been sympathetically modernised in order to meet the needs of the students today.

At the helm is headmaster, James Allen who came to the school in 2015. Originally from the South of England, James studied English and drama at the University of Exeter, during which time he took on a lifeguarding role at West of England School for the Blind, which later then became a part-time evening care job within the school.

James said: “I really enjoyed it and I liked working with children with additional needs. It also coincided with my second teaching practice which was in Torquay.

“I had a rather idealistic view of Torquay, I thought it was going to be a beautiful little seaside town and the reality was actually very different. I had a Year 6 class of only 20 pupils who were really challenging, and their parents were really challenging too.

“I then started to understand that there were areas of deprivation in Torquay that I wasn’t expecting and so that coinciding with working for West of England School for the Blind, it pointed me in the direction of children with additional needs and so by the time I graduated in 1995, it was really clear that this was an area of education I wanted to work within.”

James soon started working in a special school and then very quickly started working around inclusion for schools and local authorities, working between mainstream schools and independent special schools.

Whilst working for Professor Michael Lewis at Riverston Group at a non-selective independent school, working with eight or 10 local authorities around London, the group started looking to buy another school in the North West, specifically Beech Hall School.

James explained: “I had never planned to work outside of London – I love London and I went to school in the heart of London. Michael said to me ‘I’m looking at this place in Macclesfield why don’t you come and have a look’.

“I came up and it was a lovely sunny day, the swimming pool here was open – and I’m a keen swimmer – and I thought well there wasn’t many things tying me to London, so I thought why not. At the time, student numbers were low and the school required some investment.

“I thought it could be a good project and in three or four years I should be able to turn things around and then I’ll go back to London – and that was eight years ago!”

James added: “It has been a lot of fun and it has been a challenge and I like living in Cheshire now, although I don’t think anyone up here will accept me as a northerner! But I have the best quality of life.”

Since James’ arrival, student numbers have from grown substantially from 67 to 155. This growth is one of the things James is most proud of.

He said: “When I started, we had a combined Year 7 and 8 class of three but now we have no spaces left in Years 9, 10 and 11 which I’m very proud of. I would put it partly down to the support from families who saw that we knew where we were going and the fact that we provide an incredibly individualised approach to education and learning that works for some children – and when it works, it really works!

“That is down to a huge amount of hard work on behalf of my colleagues who acknowledge the unique school we are. I genuinely believe Beech Hall is a unique school – I know every head says that but we are and I’m very proud of it.

“We have a real focus on children as individuals and nurturing individual talent and individual interest – we have a very diverse school.”

There has been a steady growth in academic success too, with a 100 per cent pass rate in GCSE maths and a 94 per cent pass rate in GCSE English.

James added: “For a non-selective school that is huge and I am really proud of our academic success.”

Back in 2018, Beech Hall’s Year 11 students weren’t the only ones to sit their GCSE exams. James decided to join them too.

He said: “I was going through the questions of a mock maths exam and I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if I sat that year’s GCSE paper. I then mentioned it to some students who all said I should do it and that I should also do an English one, as I’m an English teacher. It was a bit of a risk!

“However, it was good to go through the process and for me to experience exactly what they experience. I remember overhearing a student talking about something maths related and not having a clue what he was talking about and having this deep panic.”

James added: “I ran out of time during my English exam and our English teacher couldn’t believe I didn’t have time to proofread my answers.

“I learnt a lot from it in terms of how we support our children on the days of exams. One of the things I’m really clear about now is that we don’t have lots of chatter and hype in the classroom beforehand, it should be calm.” 60 per cent of Beech Hall’s students are from a reasonably close radius, with the rest travelling from Buxton and further into Derbyshire, and some even from Manchester and the Wirral.

With an outdoor pool on the grounds, it is no surprise that swimming is a huge part of school life. In 2020, a group of intrepid students signed up to swim the English Channel in a relay style swim for charity, and not even the pandemic could deter their training.

James said: “Keeping inline with the COVID laws, we were able to have two students training in the pool with a divider. The challenge offered us all a really good focus during COVID. We had two teams cross [the channel] in 2021 and another two teams in 2022, and we’re currently training a new squad for 2023. The boats are already booked for 2024!”

James, together with swimming coach, Nicky, ensure students get to train in open water too, whether that’s in the Liverpool Docks, Salford Quays or in Colwyn Bay.

James added: “It is important that they get used to swimming in different waters and experience being amongst jellyfish because they’ll be stung in the channel, and they need to keep swimming, so we train them to deal with jellyfish stings and not fuss about it.”

Incredibly the school has managed to raise over £40,000 for Mencap and earlier this year, the school was shortlisted in the Educate Awards for their triumphant fundraising efforts.

The school is situated amongst other well-known Cheshire schools, but what makes Beech Hall School standout?

James said: “The end goal is the same – you want your kids to achieve everything that they can possibly achieve academically because that’s what opens doors and we’d be foolish to think any different.

“Sometimes parents say to me that they aren’t worried about academic success and they just want their child to be happy, but actually

I am worried about academic success because we’re doing them a disservice if we don’t worry about that.”

He continued: “I was really lucky that I went to two schools and I was really happy in both of them

– I loved going to school. I want that for the children of Beech Hall, I want them to bounce out of bed and bounce into school and I’m pretty confident the vast majority do exactly that. I want children to be enormously confident in who they are, in their own skin, in their own individuality, in their own quirks and their own idiosyncrasy.”

James’ vision for Beech Hall School is to continue to grow steadily. He said: “The goal is probably circa 200-220 [students], our maximum is 180 in the current facility.

“We’ve just been through a space audit with a team of architects to look at use of space and where we need new classrooms. I don’t want us to become something that is beyond what I want us to be now, and the focus must still remain on each individual student. I know our children incredibly well, I know our families really well, and I think they deserve that and that is partly what you’re buying into with an independent school education. Children shouldn’t slip through the net, there just shouldn’t be an opportunity to do that and I think you get to a point where you’re a size where you can’t do that.”

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