An interview with Jo Webbern, Head of Bedales Pre-prep School, Dunannie, 2010-18

When we meet, Jo Webbern is adorned with a pair of Pudsey Bear ears. So are her staff and, of course, the children of Dunannie, over whom she keeps a good-natured watch throughout our conversation. It’s Children in Need Day, the atmosphere is excited, boisterous but suffused with warmth and encouragement. Jo is overseeing life at a school whose educational beliefs tally exactly with her own and always have done, ever since she was first inspired by the Brown Owl of her Brownie group as a young girl.

DH (1 of 9) (Large)

“I wasn’t only a Brownie, you know,” she says. “I also became a Guide later and then a Queen’s Guide but I always particularly adored Brown Owl, who was warm, friendly, kind and funny. She had been trained at the Froebel Institute, the same place that produced the first Head of Dunhurst, as it happens, and from my early days, I remember thinking that I wanted to be exactly like her.”

Teaching wasn’t the only possibility on the young Jo’s horizon when it came to considering a career, however. “There were boundaries in my childhood, naturally, but I was always given the greatest possible support by my parents to go ahead and explore life,” Jo remembers. “I was a bit of a tomboy, really, adored cars and if I wasn’t going to become an actress, which was a huge ambition of mine at one point, then being a rally driver would have been a fabulous alternative. Teaching happened in the end, mainly because I thought that it would be a more secure thing to do!”

Just as she had always planned, Jo emulated her former mentor by gaining her Froebel Certificate of Education (in 2017 students were credited with a degree). “What I loved about the Froebel approach was that children were listened to, individuality was encouraged and each child’s personal characteristics were enhanced and developed,” Jo reflects. “When I went to Froebel, the Plowden Report into primary education in Britain had just come out and while there were plenty of ideas out there, how to put them into the educational structure seemed to be a bit less certain. Practical considerations were sometimes lacking in those days but people were on the right track. It was properly recognised that a child’s early years are the most crucial of all – the building blocks, the monkey bars, the sand-pit and all the rest of it.”

A native Welsh girl, Jo headed homewards in order to gain her first practical teaching experience: “Yes, back to the Gower, where I managed to gain a really sound overview of teaching at a number of different schools. I taught inner city children and those from the farming communities and it was a great way to learn my craft.”

Eventually, the time was ripe for what had long seemed inevitable – Jo’s return to London to teach at the Froebel Demonstration School, Ibstock Place, the jewel in the crown of the Froebel Institute and a place where Jo would spend 26 contented years. “It was a wonderful school, a hands-on and spontaneous place at which to teach and to learn,” she enthuses. “Children were climbing trees the whole time, bashing around and being allowed to make their own mistakes, learn from them and ultimately apply those lessons as they moved through life. You might suddenly decide that your class would put their coats on and head off to the park in those days without any thought about permission slips or health and safety assessments. Perhaps you would all jump on a train and go and see an exhibition about the Romans – those were magical years for teachers, a time when you weren’t as restricted as you might be in the modern world. I do feel today that there is too much attention paid to control of the curriculum, that it is too carefully crafted. There has to be room for innovation and spontaneity.”

“The early years are a time when children are like a sponge; the idea for teachers must be to instil a love of learning and independent thinking in them, alongside the sound base of core standards,” Jo continues. “When I look at Year 3 in Dunannie, for example, rehearsing for their Christmas play and so taking time away from their English or maths lessons, I think how worthwhile it is. The children are learning how to work together and support each other, at the same time as they are developing their own confidence and creativity.”

Jo happened to leave Ibstock Place on the same day that Terry Wogan abdicated from his eternal reign over the airwaves of Radio 2. “It was strangely coincidental to me that we should be simultaneously leaving jobs that we loved after the same length of service,” Jo observes. “It was the right thing for me at the time, though, there were a few family matters that needed to be sorted out as well and so off I went, not without a tear in my eye.”

She would not be lost to teaching for long. A vacancy for the role of Head arose at Dunannie and Jo’s name was put forward for the post by her own former head. “I knew a fair bit about Bedales for one reason or another,” Jo explains. “I’d come here as a visitor and been so impressed; the ethos at Ibstock Place and Bedales had always been closely aligned and a number of pupils had moved on from one to the other. Sarah Webster, my formidable predecessor but one at Dunannie, was also someone whom I knew well and liked a lot. It was as though the stars aligned for me – I was free to move and now here was this wonderful opportunity to come to a place that I admired so much and now wanted me to lead the school. I felt so honoured.”

Starting as Head at the beginning of a summer term was unusual but, as Jo readily confirms, allowed her vital time to see what her priorities at Dunannie should be: “I had a clean sheet and the chance to familiarise myself with the school, to stand back, observe and reflect – and later, to implement. The only thing that took a bit of getting used to was the first-name terms but I soon saw what an enabling tool it was for the children in a conversation. One little boy seemed to think that my first name was Jwebbern, rather than Jo, so that’s what I became!”

Jo’s major preoccupation was that spontaneity should regain its place at the heart of the school – what she terms the ‘Dunannie factor’. “It seemed to me that some of the teachers had perhaps felt themselves to be under a control that was too tight,” she says. “I felt that it was necessary to restore their voice to them and allow them to express themselves through their teaching – reinstitute the ‘we can’ mentality. This is such a precious time in a child’s life and there is a danger in assessing them at every step of the way at such a young age. Of course, we measure the progress of the children but at this age more than most, children achieve different things at different times. You can achieve a Level 3 in writing if it’s especially beautifully done, but no grade can reflect the amount of effort that has gone into producing it.”

Encouragement and applause, then, would become Jo’s watchwords for Dunannie under her stewardship. “To see children skipping in to school, eager to learn, is such a wonderful thing. What we’re all trying to do here is to impart transferable skills that will prepare children for life at Dunhurst, Bedales or somewhere completely different,” she says. “Parents have a crucial role to play in that too, of course, and it’s vital for us to establish a healthy relationship with them. They need to trust us but it’s also important that they understand that we know what we’re doing. We will always listen to their views and concerns but equally, parents must be able to listen to us. Friedrich Froebel once said that a mother is a child’s first teacher and that’s true but it’s the school that has to be trusted to make those lessons work.”

It seems strange, contemplating so much exuberance and evident delight at the Dunannie of today, that Jo Webbern will no longer be a part of it after this term (Summer 2018). “I kept my retirement under my hat for a while but I’m a firm believer in leaving the party while I’m still enjoying it,” she says. “Once again, it’s absolutely the right decision for me. I have so loved the privilege of being Head here and I want to hang on to the very best of memories, the most satisfying that I’ve ever had.”

So what comes next? “I will find plenty of things to do,” Jo laughs. “I have a husband to keep an eye on and a golf handicap to bring down and I’m looking forward to doing a bit of voluntary work and a lot of travelling. Forty years of high-priced holidays will be a thing of the past for me and I intend to make the most of it. Of course I shall be sad to leave but I’ll circle back here from time to time once it’s appropriate to do so and my successor Victoria has had a chance to breathe and put her own mark on things. You can be sure of one thing: I shall never abandon the connection that I have with this place. I value it far too much.”

Jo Webbern was originally interviewed by James Fairweather in November 2017, and minor additions were added in June 2018 prior to publishing.

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