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Principals behind school’s success

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Melanie Butler talks to St Clare’s head Paula Holloway about how the college’s internationalist ethos has contributed to its outstanding academic performance

It feels very strange walking into the headmistress’s study at my old school some forty year after I left. I have come back to interview Paula Holloway, the current principal of St Clare’s Oxford, and she seems much less fearsome than my headmistress, the legendary Miss Dreydel, though I detect perhaps the same steely determination.

The kind of determination that led Miss Drydel, who was disabled during the Second World War and founded the school with her friend Pamela Morris, to encourage international reconciliation in war-torn Europe, to turn the school into the highest-performing college for fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds in England, according to government performance tables.

Paula Holloway has had a meteoric career in education, working in Hong Kong, South Korea and Dubai, where she ran the girl’s school for the ruling family, before returning to Britain where she ran two boarding schools and then coming to St Clare’s nine years ago.

Impressive for someone who started off in education ‘by accident’. After university she went into banking, which was she admits a bit of a mistake, and when her banker husband was posted to Hong Kong she answered an advert for a geography teacher and got it.

‘It was a Chinese medium school with 58 students in the class – they had very little English and I had no teaching qualifications,’ Paula explains. ‘It was a real challenge but I loved it.’

Her wide international experience made her perfect for a boarding school which pioneered the International Baccalaureate and currently enrols students from over fifty different nationalities. ‘To do this job,’ she says, ‘you need more than that; you need to have a clear academic vision, really like young people and have a good business brain.’

So the banking experience comes in useful.

‘You need to understand business. You have to keep the school full. Remember St Clare’s had two founders – Anne Drydel had the vision but Pamela Morris had the business brain. If it wasn’t for Mrs Morris the college might not have survived in the early days.’

Thanks to Mrs Morris and, I suspect, to Paula Holloway, St Clare’s celebrated its sixtieth anniversary last year. The last twelve months have seen stellar successes: four students received a perfect score on the IB (awarded to just 0.25 per cent of candidates worldwide), and the school achieved a pass rate of 99 per cent. It has also opened a new science and mathematics facility, the Pamela Morris building, which cost £3.3 million – just one of the investments costing over £6 million which have taken place in Paula Holloway’s time as principal.

So what is the secret of St Clare’s success?

‘Recruitment has remained very strong. If you don’t have students you can’t invest. Then we have a common ethos – not just in the boarding school but across all our activities: the language school, the junior summer operations, the university foundation year. We have a clear mission based on Miss Drydel’s commitment to internationalism.’

There is, she points out, an Anne Drydel building too – one of 25 which the college owns in north Oxford.

‘And you have to have a clear management structure. We meet together with the managers of all the operations. We plan things together – we are all working to the same end.’

This explains, she argues, why boarding school summer schools do so much better in British Council inspections on average than those run by private language school chains. ‘We have the systems in place. We have the know-how. We have the experience to scaffold student learning, to support them, and the knowledge to work with lots of different nationalities.’

She is quite a fan of inspections, and St Clare’s has lots of them – the International Schools Inspectorate twice (once for the sixth form college and once for the university foundation course), the British Accreditation Council, Ialc and, in the week following this interview, the British Council. ‘We learn a lot from all of them,’ she says. ‘They keep us on our toes.’

In many ways the school that Paula Holloway describes is very like the one I went to – liberal, international with few rules but firm ones: no smoking, no drinking, a heavy emphasis on punctuality. ‘And no bullying. There is no bullying in this school,’ she emphasises. But the academic results are much more stellar, all the more extraordinary in a school that does not run tests for applicants. ‘We do it all on interview. We ask for school records and references, but we interview all the students personally. We even judge their English on that.’

There is little doubt that the system works. ‘The students here are so enthusiastic,’ says Paula. ‘So hard-working, so supportive of each other.’ It is clear that Paula and St Clare’s are a perfect match and my old school has found a perfect principal – the best of Miss Drydel and Mrs Morris all in one dedicated educationalist.