Q&A: Grantham headteacher John Gibbs to retire

Headteacher John Gibbs. 977D
Headteacher John Gibbs. 977D
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John Gibbs, the headteacher of the National Junior School in Grantham, will retire later this year after 21 years at the helm.

Mr Gibbs, who has also served for seven years as executive headteacher of Harrowby Infant School, tells Richard Yetman about his careeer.

* Tell us about yourself.

I’m the eldest of five children - the youngest being the only girl - and in certain respects I’m one of life’s nomads. My parents were in the forces and I spent much of my early childhood and schooling living abroad in exotic places such as Hong Kong, Kenya, Singapore and Stoke On Trent! This has given me an appetite for travel ever since.

After A-levels I worked for several years in a variety of jobs including sales and accountancy but decided to embark on a teaching career after completing my degree from Nottingham University in 1976. I worked at several primary schools in Leicestershire before becoming head of a Leicestershire village primary school in 1983.

In 1988 I moved to the headship of another primary school in Leicester before becoming Head of the National School in 1993. In January 2008 the National School federated with Harrowby Infant School under one governing body and one headteacher and I have been the Executive Head of both schools since then, a very enjoyable and fulfilling experience. I have had several spells on secondment during my career working as a Local Authority Adviser in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire and was involved in a British Council project in Moscow.

During my early career I was heavily involved in sport both in and out of school and acquired an FA Coaching badge and swimming and gymnastics teaching qualifications. I was actively involved with Melton Mowbray Swimming Club and am a qualified ASA official having judged and refereed at swimming galas for many years.

I also gained an MA degree in Management from Loughborough University in 1985 and was a part-time tutor on the Open Unveristy MA programme for 25 years from 1988 to 2013. I was the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) Lincolnshire county secretary from 2006 to 2013 and currently serve on the East Midlands executive as a former president.

On a personal level I have been married to Mo for over 40 years - we met in our first week at uni - and we have three grown-up children who all live and work away from the area and we are looking forward to the arrival of our first grandchild next month.

* You said in your letter to parents it had been a privilege to work in a very special place. Why did you say that?

Both Harrowby and National are very special places. We have children from a wide variety of backgrounds and abilities and we are proud of our church school status and ethos. Harrowby is such a friendly school and indeed our claim to be the school “where the children’s smiles are the biggest in town” can be verified on visiting!

As a large, four-form junior entry school the National has a unique atmosphere and visitors always comment on the enthusiasm of the children and the variety of activities the children are involved in both in and out of school. The Swimarathon last weekend when the Nash occupied all 8 lanes for an hour is a case in point.

I have also worked with many exceptional colleagues during my time at the schools.

* What have been your proudest achievements in your time at the schools?

I suppose seven successful OfSTED inspections and five Succesful Church School inspections would be a good starting point, not so much the gradings as comments such as “good teaching and outstanding leadership are largely responsible for the recent rise in pupils’ attainment”, “the classrooms are a buzz of extremely purposeful learning because pupils’ behaviour is outstanding and they are thoroughly interested and attentive” (Harrowby OfSTED 2013) or “Pupils’ enthusiasm and successes in musical, sporting and artistic activities are an important factor in their personal development” and “the school is a very caring and cohesive community that welcomes pupils from all ethnicity, faith, social or cultural backgrounds” (National OfSTED 2014).

I am also immensely proud when meeting former pupils who talk with passion about their memories of the schools. Last year I received an email from an ex-National School pupil now living in Australia who was about to emabark on a teaching career having been inspired by teachers in her primary school years. A month later an ex-pupil emailed on the day she received her final exam results to become a qualified doctor, amazing that she should take the time to do this on such a momentous day.

* How have the challenges faced by teachers and headteachers changed over your time at The National School?

Accountability has increased greatly over the past 20 years or so. This is generally a positive move but the amount of beauracracy seems at times to be out of proportion to the main core role of the job, looking after and educating pupils. One former collegue of mine said he was retiring a couple of years ago so that he no longer had to complete the 54 page annual health and safety audit for the Local Authority.

All schools manage their own budgets which was not the case when I first became a head. Most primary schools now have bursars and school business managers, inconceivable even a decade or so ago but all part of a progressive move forward. My training in accountancy came in handy after all!

Schools have been encouraged to become more independent and Harrowby and National became academies in 2012. We retained our names, though, because we are proud of our heritage and believe the title academy is our status, not our raison d’etre.

The changing nature of the OfSTED framework – which has only been in existence for 20 years – does not leave room for complacency for heads or teachers but with revisions received termly it’s not so much raising the bar as moving the goalposts or indeed the signposts to the stadium.

Schools cannot expect to receive a bottomless pit of funding, and value for money is right and proper in any area of public expenditure but one of the biggest challenges at the moment is to continue to raise standards in an era of general funding cutbacks. I’m sure teachers and heads will rise to this challenge.

* Do we we give our children in this country a better education today than when you started your career?

We give children a far better education today than when I started my career. There have been clearer expectations of what should be taught since the National Curriculum was first introduced in 1989. The curriculum is much broader and wider and indeed more challenging. There are frequent revisions to this, as there should be, after all society is evolving, the world is moving on, a school curriculum should reflect this.

There are frequent tests, too many in reality. We are the most tested nation in the world and as the saying goes, you don’t make a pig fat by weighing it.

* What interests have helped you relax from your demanding role and what do you plan to do in retirement?

My main interests have been in the field of music, sport and the arts. I am a lifelong supporter of the mighty Stoke City and as a season ticket holder I watch all the home games and quite a few away.

I do get a bit of stick from children when we lose but having beaten Manchester United and Chelsea recently it’s been very quiet on a Monday morning. I did get more nervous about our promotion run-in a few years back than an impending OfSTED inspection.

Last year I managed to watch Stoke play at Craven Cottage on a Saturday lunchtime and then just made it in time to Twickenham for the start of the England v France 6 Nations rugby match. I’m going to the British Indoor Athletics Championships in Birmingham and was fortunate enough to get tickets to a number of events at London 2012 Olympics and also, going further back, the Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

On the music front I have a large CD and vinyl collection and have been to many concerts over the years. I actually saw Jimi Hedrix perform live at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, much to the amusement of my daughter and friends who rang me from the 2013 festival there last summer.

I also visit the cinema and theatre frequently and am an avid reader, especially of historical fiction and history in general.

On retirement I plan to do more of the same. I’ve been to a lot of football league grounds over the years and maybe visiting all 92 is a possiblity.

Glastonbury is one festival I’ve never been to because it’s always in term time so that’s definitely on the to-do list, along with travelling, starting up some new hobbies and doing some charity work. My wife also has a very long list of jobs for me.

I’m also looking forward to frequent visits to see my children and their partners and our new grandchild. My daughter has just accepted a teaching post in Dubai so I think a visit there will also be a distinct possibility.

I also plan to finish converting all my cd and vinyl collection to mp3 format which will keep me very busy.

However that is all in the future. I don’t retire until the summer so I’m looking forward to the rest of the school year first.

* If you had not worked in education, what career would you like to have pursued.

Obviously playing in the successful Stoke team of the 70’s alongside Jimmy Greenhough, Alan Hudson, Gordon Banks, Terry Conroy ... unfortunately two left feet and shortsightedness would have proved a hindrance. Maybe lead guitar/lead singer in a rock band then.

* In three words, what should a child learn before they leave school?

Believe in yourself!

* Do you plan to stay in the area?

I’ve lived in Melton for the past 40 years and have enjoyed its central location. The area has been a great place to bring up children and is also handily placed for visiting Nottingham, Leicester and is not far from Grantham for the direct trains to London. It’s also a good journey to Stoke from there. We have not decided whether to stay in the area long term or not at this stage.