IN A CLASS OF ITS OWN
ParentFolk’s Jade Wright gets a tour of Birkenhead School from its inspiring headmaster Paul Vicars
We were all told as kids that we ‘mustn’t let the school down’. Well, the same goes for teachers, and when Birkenhead School headmaster Paul Vicars took up the challenge of running the London Marathon, his pupils were determined to make sure he did them proud in the knowledge that every single footstep was being closely monitored by pupils and parents. No pressure, then.
“I’m not a runner – I realised that a long time ago, and I was reminded of it by my own children, who along with lots of parents and pupils were able to follow my progress in the race online.
“It was particularly embarrassing that thanks to modern technology they could track me slowing down each five kilometres, but knowing they were all cheering me on and running for such a worthwhile cause meant that I absolutely had to make it over the finish line and lead by example.”
Paul, 46, did just that – and raised more than £8,000 for children’s hospice Claire House. The challenge was all part of the Oxton school’s ethos of working within the local community, reaching out beyond their leafy grounds.
As Wirral’s only co-educational selective school, it offers small class sizes, an impressive academic results record and superb co-curricular activities to help nurture talent and grow students’ confidence and life skills.
Paul sees his role in the community – both inside and outside the school – as vital to his job. It’s hugely varied and can see him tackling a wide variety of tasks.
“We invite our reception pupils into the office each year and they do some drawings and ask me lots of questions,” he explains. “They ask me what I do all day? Do I go to lots of meetings? Do I sit behind my desk all day? The answer is that I try not to – I try to be out and about, because that’s how you really know what needs to be done.”
His office walls proudly show off works of art from pupils, who range from three months all the way up to 18 years old.
“It’s a great community and they build friendships to last a lifetime,” he smiles. “I thought that was something which was more common in boarding schools, but we see it here too, and it’s something really special.”
Paul’s own education saw him go from Epsom College to St Andrews, before a brief City career in accountancy.
“I always coached sport – cricket mostly, but any kind of sport really – and I realised that I enjoyed that far more than being an accountant,” he says.
His vocation lead him to a job teaching geography at Shrewsbury School, becoming a housemaster and then deputy head.
“I loved Shrewsbury but as soon as I came to interview here I knew it was the place for me. The ethos of the school, the feel of the place, sometimes you just get that feeling.”
The family found a house just around the corner and Paul’s three children – Jack, Sam and Polly – are pupils in the prep school, while wife Vikki teaches history.
“With so many after-school events, living close means I can pop home to say goodnight to the children and be back for parents’ evenings or concerts or whatever happens to be on that night,” he says.
There’s certainly plenty for pupils to get involved with. As we walk around the school, from the well-equipped design department – with state-of-the-art 3D printers – to an outdoor classroom and a lunchtime yoga class, there are opportunities for students to find their niche.
Last term they staged West Side Story, showcasing the array of talent on stage, as well as teams of students and teachers working backstage, designing sets and making costumes.
Sport is a vital part of school life, with students taking part in rugby, football, lacrosse, cricket, netball, tennis, hockey, and golf, both during and after school.
“Whether it’s through performing arts or sport or any of the other co-curricular activities, teamwork plays a huge part,” says Paul. “When we look at the skills young people need to go out into the world, the ability to work as part of a team, as well as individually, is a huge part of that.
“Whatever their niche is, we want them to find that here.”
There’s a focus on careers, tailoring the options to suit each child and equipping them to take on future leadership roles.
“Whether they want to go straight into a higher level apprenticeship or go to university we look at the options and support in every way we can,” says Paul. “Whether that’s tailoring an Oxbridge application – and the things that can help with that – or hosting career conferences, drawing on the expertise of the School alumni and business links, or looking at entrepreneurship and vocational training, it’s about giving them the tools to do whatever they want.”
From talks from Clare Balding to Sir Tony Robinson through the School’s ‘Inspiring Talks Series’, and wide-range of trips both at home and abroad to destinations such as NASA and Nepal, the School aims to foster a love of learning which will stay with pupils throughout their life. This is supported by a network of alumni, who keep in touch and share their expertise with the next generations of Birkonians through organised regional and national dinners, events and Birkonian weekends.
Paul’s aim is to offer opportunities that look to inspire every child, so that they can discover their niche and lifelong interests, during their time at the School.
From what we see, and the opportunities available at the School, Birkenhead School, is a School that is developing well-rounded individuals with a strong sense of community and the skills needed to succeed.
Birkenhead School, 58 Beresford Road, Oxton, Wirral, CH43 2JD, www.birkenheadschool.co.uk<http://www.birkenheadschool.co.uk>