Interview with: Jennifer Young, headteacher of Parish CE Primary School

A winning formula

Surrounded by terraced houses in the streets of St Helens lies Parish CE Primary School. Built in 1912, you can immediately tell the school was, and continues, to play a huge part in the community.

Leading the school is Jennifer Young, 39, from Prescot. Jennifer studied English and German at the University of Liverpool and undertook a teaching placement in Austria for 10 months during her degree. Whilst she enjoyed living over there and making new friends, she didn’t enjoy the teaching element as much as she hoped.

She said: “I came back from Austria, and I was absolutely adamant that, although I had always wanted to be a teacher, teaching wasn’t for me. I went into the final year of my degree feeling a little bit lost.”

However, after graduating, Jennifer had a change of heart. She explained: “After university I decided to volunteer at my old primary school and I thought to myself I’ll give it one more shot and that maybe younger children might bring back that love for teaching.

“I volunteered with one of my old teachers, Mr Kynaston, at Malvern Primary School in Huyton. He was just amazing and being there every day, I would watch him with admiration. His teaching was like an art! The crafting of his lessons and how he made things that were so complex suddenly seem so simple. He completely inspired the children and would always share his love of literature – it was that which brought that love back for me. I soon decided to go into primary education and completed my PGCE.”

As a newly qualified teacher, Jennifer landed her first job at Parish in 2006.
She said: “Within two years, I was made the English lead which was kind of a dream come true for me as an English graduate, as that is my real passion. In 2011, I was successful in applying for the assistant headteacher role, then a few years later I become deputy headteacher.”

It was in 2020 that Jennifer was appointed headteacher of Parish, just 10 whole days before the UK was put into lockdown.

Jennifer said: “If you had said to me when I arrived here in 2006, never having been to St Helens before, that in 2020 you would become the headteacher of this school, I would never have believed it. I never imagined that my career would take place within this school, but this is such a special place to me that I have never felt the need to move.

“I have been so lucky with the senior leadership team that I have worked for, they must have seen something in me early on that I didn’t see in myself at that time. They placed so much trust and responsibility in my hands that it has been a really natural progression.”

For Jennifer, she had had 10 days of normality and was enjoying life as a new headteacher before the school community was thrown into the chaos of COVID.

She said: “A lot of experienced heads have said to me “Wow it has been a real baptism of fire for you” and it really has! Navigating those first few months was very difficult and trying to learn the trade of headship, whilst taking on board all of the extra challenges that COVID threw my way, was really difficult.”

Jennifer still classes herself as a fairly new headteacher, and whilst COVID hasn’t taken over things as much as it did at first, it’s still always there. She said: “Had I joined the school as headteacher not knowing Parish, I think what probably would have happened is that COVID would have taken centre stage and all my efforts would have, quite rightly, been focussed on how to get through that turbulent time. But for me, because I knew Parish’s past, and I knew its future and where it needed to go, I didn’t have to make COVID the key player.”

Becoming headteacher during these unprecedented times could have had a detrimental effect on any new leader, but not for Jennifer, as the school is proudly part of the Liverpool Diocesan Schools Trust and with that, comes a broad network of likeminded schools and a wealth of support available from other headteachers and the trust itself.

Taking it all in her stride, Jennifer has transformed parts of the school that needed modernising and has created improved learning environments for pupils. She has even revisited the school’s Christian vision after realising the previous motto didn’t resonate with staff and pupils.

She said: “We worked with staff, governors, parents and the children to look at our vision and our motto. We really thought about: How we live together? What do we want to achieve? What is our collective vision? That created a new Christian vision, a new motto and some new values – faith, hope and love – which are now integrated into absolutely everything that we do. It’s created a real sense of togetherness and a real sense of community.”

Last year at the Educate Awards, Parish celebrated winning the Innovative & Creative Literacy Award for the third year running. Visitors to the school will notice that it is such a literacy rich environment.

She said: “We say that ‘reading is the beating heart of all that we do’ and it really is the lifeblood of this school, so much so that it’s just become innate for us to prioritise reading and literacy. We have to do that because of the socio-economic context of the school, it does mean that we do have a
higher than average number of children who are deemed to be disadvantaged and perhaps don’t have a library of books at home.

“We have to prioritise reading. We must bring the wonderful world of books and the world of wonder that reading opens to our children. Our aim is to excite them about it and really make them want to read. We often say, ‘learn how to read here and read to learn later on in life’.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the library is the beating heart of the school, but it doesn’t stop there. In each classroom there are beautiful reading areas which encourages pupils to pick up a book and every lesson contains an element of reading, from reception to Year 6.

“When COVID hit, it was a real challenge for us because we didn’t want to let the passion for reading go. It had to remain at the forefront of all that we did. We worked with authors who Zoomed into children’s homes and classrooms, we held lots of fun reading competitions and recorded ourselves reading and put special effects on top of our voices.

“Almost everything that we did was based on reading and when you look at the impact of school closures on our school, reading was one of the areas that that was hit the most and so whilst we had to do what was right for the school, we also loved to do it because it’s just part of who we are at Parish.”

Also, part of Parish is a rainbow – not just within the school logo – but it also forms part of the curriculum.

Jennifer explained: “In the bible the rainbow represents hope, and it represents God’s promises to the earth, so we started to build on that using our faith and what would our hope and promises be for the children of Parish? That led to the development of the rainbow curriculum.

For us, it is about breaking down any barriers to learning that children may have, irrespective of starting points. We have this unwavering hope that they will find success academically and in life – that’s our promise to them.”

The promises come through as acrostic of the word rainbow:
Encourage Resilience and perseverance
Develop Articulate learners
Influence aspirations
Nurture curiosity
Instil British and Christian Values
Provide Opportunities to build upon knowledge and skills
Promote Wellbeing and health

The rainbow theme continues for pupil leadership too. Parish pupils are given the opportunity to become a Rainbow Leader and play an active role in school. This approach reflects on Parish’s commitment within the Rainbow Promises, particularly for ‘Inspiring Aspirations’.

Towards the end of the interview, Jennifer recalls seeing a statistic about the number of senior leaders looking to go into headship and how it has plummeted over the last 18 months.

She said: “I think it is a very sad statistic but one that I can understand. We’ve got a very exacting Ofsted framework and that is now operating at full pelt, not to mention the well documented challenges over the last two years. The challenges we have faced have been felt by the whole of education.

“What I would say to senior leaders, if you have headship in your sight, go for it! You will be well supported. People often say it’s lonely at the top, but it isn’t because there’s so many opportunities to network and there are people out there who are generous with their time. If you can be part of a network, or part of a multi academy trust, you’ll never feel alone.”

Jennifer added: “It really is the best job in the world. It does have its challenges and some days I do wonder whether I should get a job in Tesco but 95% of the time, you’ll go home every night completely fulfilled and with a sense that you are truly making a difference to your community.”

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