INTERVIEW: Northampton High School head teacher talks about heading into new phase of development

Dr Helen Stringer
Dr Helen Stringer
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New Northampton High School head teacher, Dr Helen Stringer, tells Ruth Supple how she feels enormously privileged to be taking the school into its next phase of development . . .

How are you settling into Northampton High School?

“I’m loving it and getting to know everyone in the community here at school. I have met all the staff and am having tea parties in small groups so I can get to know the girls. I tell them they can talk to me about anything they want in the tea party and we are having such a range of conversations. It is an enormous privilege to have the opportunity to serve Northampton High School by leading it in its next exciting phase of development. I have been impressed by the confidence and can-do attitude of the girls. Their zest for learning and for life shines through. These qualities are vital for success and happiness in a world full of opportunities, pressures and uncertainties. At NHS, they are nurtured by an ambitious teaching and learning ethos complemented by superb pastoral care and strong school-family partnership.”

The school used to be based in Derngate, at what is now the Charles Rennie Mackintosh house at 78 Derngate, before moving to Wootton in 1992. How old is it?

“It was founded in 1878 and there is an amazing archive of photographs picturing how the schoolrooms were at Derngate. At least one member of staff remembers being there and the lovely thing about this school is we have generations of families - grandmothers, mothers and daughters - who have studied here.”

Now you are in state-of-the-art facilities with how many pupils and staff?

“670 pupils and 150 staff, and we go from nursery up to upper sixth. Some of our pupils go right the way through education with us, like our current head girl, while others join us at different stages. Our sporting facilities are open to the public, like the new, state-of-the-art gym, which opened in 2014, along with tennis and squash courts, and a 25-metre swimming pool. The school is a member of the Girls’ Day School Trust, and we compete against other members of it in all kinds of events from sport to, more recently, a 3D printing challenge. It presents lots of exciting opportunities and the school benefits from an influential network of connections, has a voice in national educational debate and provides a platform for promoting girls’ education in its broadest sense.”

Your background is in history. (Dr Stringer graduated in history from the University of Bristol in 1984, before taking an MA and DPhil at the University of Sussex, specialising in mid-16th century England). Do you still manage to teach it while juggling the demanding role of a headship?

“I teach year nine but don’t teach exam classes because of time. I really enjoy teaching that age group - they are 13 - and we are looking at World War I at the moment. I am also trying to bring interest in the local area and its history in this building. The Eleanor Cross is round the corner from here and, long before I came to Northampton, I had heard about it because I have always been very interested in the history of Eleanor of Castile, who was quite powerful in her way and was quite an influential person. It would be good to link our school to her as a pioneer of women’s learning, which she was in her time.”

Are you enjoying living in Northamptonshire and finding out about its history?

“Very much. I love Northamptonshire and its countryside. I’m living in a very rural part of south Northamptonshire with my husband and our dog and we are trying to explore the area on long walks and finding out about its history. You can know a lot about a place by its history.”

History doesn’t get that much emphasis in education, it seems, these days. Yet many people seem to enjoy finding out about their ancestry and there are many TV programmes about things like that. Isn’t that somewhat contradictory?

“It’s very interesting. People are naturally interested in history because it is what makes our memories and gives us our identity. But I think, going back, the way history was taught in school wasn’t very exciting. I meet many people who tell me they hated the subject at school, but love it now. And that’s the beauty of history; you can study it through books, documentaries and TV programmes afterwards.”

Does NHS specialise in one particular field?

“In an independent school we are able to keep the breadth of subjects and one thing we pride ourselves on is offering wonderful opportunities for our girls in whatever area they choose. We want them to use their voice and see there are no barriers to what they can achieve. Our pupils have gone on to excel in all kinds of areas and in subjects like science and engineering, where there still aren’t as many women. I’m passionate in my commitment to breaking down barriers to success for girls and young women. I am looking forward to working alongside the governors, staff and parents at NHS to ensure that every student leaves school equipped to take her first independent steps towards fulfilling her ambitions, meeting life’s challenges and making her contribution to an ever-changing world.”

Have you any ex-NHS girls who have gone on to become famous?

“Louise Pentland, who writes the hugely successful blog, A Sprinkle of Glitter, is an ex-NHS pupil and using the power of social media to fight for gender parity. Eliza Manning Butler, who used to be head of MI5, and the author, Anne Fine, are both ex-pupils here too. We have had lots of girls who have gone on to become very high up in companies and in the areas they have pursued.”

It must be an incredibly rewarding job, finding out where someone’s strengths are and nurturing them to achieve their full potential...

“It is about finding the right thing for each individual, whether that’s law or medicine, architecture or fashion journalism, creative or performing arts to engineering. Not all our girls go on to university either. Some will do apprenticeships and internships. It’s what is right for them.”