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Hot off the press: meet the new head at Crosfields School

Exciting times at Crosfields School in Reading – it's just appointed its first ever female head. Caroline Townshend talks to Muddy about her move to Berkshire and plans for the future

Big news at Crosfields in Reading. Not only has this modern, diverse school launched its Senior School, it has just announced a new head will be joining the Crosfields family in April 2023. Caroline Townshend will be leaving her post at London’s Eaton Square and escaping to the country to start a new adventure with her young family. She’s a cool, calm impressive woman – and is the first female head in the school’s history. We gave Caroline a grilling to see what makes her tick and what’s in her in box when she arrives.

Caroline Townshend New Head Crosfield School Reading

Welcome to Crosfields! To start off, can you tell us a little about yourself…

I have been at Eaton Square in London for four years. Prior to that, I was Head of Lower School at St John’s Leatherhead. Both schools very much deliver a rounded education with a focus on developing each individual child. Early on, much of my role was figuring out the school’s place in the market, ensuring we remained true to our core values as the Senior School has grew and progressed. There’s also been a lot of focus on pulling together common strands between the Prep and Senior schools. Some of the outcomes we want to see at age 18, we’re starting to work on from the age of two.

Throughout my career I have loved teaching biology and psychology. I enjoy all aspects of school life and value the importance of the outdoors for being physically and mentally well. I have a huge interest in sport – through school as well. I have a big passion for charity, developing meaningful charity partnerships and the role of service including the importance of DofE. [The first group of Crosfields pupils have now started their DofE training].

I also have two young children who I thoroughly enjoy spending time with and I look forward to them joining Crosfields too.

What will you miss most about London?

I’m based in W1. The best part is that London is our classroom. For example, we go to the theatre weekly. That’s just not a realistic possibility for schools outside of London. It’s a bigger trip. But I think you’ve got to engage with learning on a really meaningful level, and being in central London makes that so easy.

There’s an increasing amount of discussion about ‘What is the purpose of school?’. It is about content to the point of passing your GCSEs, but we’re also here to teach you skills and to help you find values that are important to you.

It’s the softer skills that are needed: communication, creativity, adaptability, teamwork. I often say to parents if I can get my children to 25 without any major mishaps and they’re in a good place, mentally and physically, that will be a real achievement

Crosfield School Reading Senior school building

You’re the first female head in Crosfields history, what does that mean to you?

I feel I should high five myself. I haven’t really thought about this until I became a mum and had to navigate being a mum and a Head. Recently, there have been some fantastic women appointments in schools where there have only ever been male heads and they have been real role models for me. My style is not to be a powerhouse. I think women in certain sectors had to have those characteristics initially to get into leadership positions. Leadership has changed. Now you can be a mum. You can be empathetic. You can lead with the heart, yet still be decisive and act when needed. Collaboration is so important to ensure the school community is a happy, positive one – particularly where you’ve got younger children. You don’t want people to be in fear of a hierarchical system. People at all levels have fantastic ideas and you want them to be able to express them and feel they’re heard.

How do you feel about moving to Berkshire?

Excited. Really excited. I grew up in California, so my life was outdoors. My daughter is currently at a nursery in London, chosen purely on the basis that it’s in the middle of a park. That link between the outdoors, play, childhood, mental health and wellbeing are incredibly important. From a whole family point of view, it’s fantastic. She’ll join Crosfields when I join, and I’m just really excited for them to have access to all that space.

What plans do you have for Crosfields?

I have Senior School set-up experience, and one of the first things we need to do is clarify who we are. The Crosfields team asked me: are we a big school or a small school – because we are a big Junior School but a very small Senior School – and how does that work together? The priority is to achieve that first set of strong GCSE results and ensure the older pupils are truly Senior School students – not senior students in a Junior School environment – with roles and responsibilities that recognise their increased levels of maturity.

We also want to develop common strands across the Crosfields community . We talk about empowering individuals, so we need to make sure there are opportunities at each level throughout the school. We will be championing co-education all the way through. In the Junior School there’s less difference, but you must recognise the strengths, challenges and the different stages of development. We must truly be championing girls, for example. At my current school we set up something called ‘LeadHERship’ and ‘Girls on Board’ (Crosfields do this too).

Crosfield School Reading theatre

Can we expect a Crosfields Sixth Form in the future?

If you really want to be a true all-through school and want to be encouraging your students to go from Y6 to Y7 and beyond, then focussing on the 3-16 timeline is the most important. There are lots of great local Sixth Form options and at this stage there is not a plan for Sixth Form at Crosfields.

What about the academics at Crosfields? Are you happy with this current level?

Academically it’s very strong with excellent across the board in inspection reports. Senior is very much about skill development in KS3 (Years 7-9). Until you get that first real set of exam results, there will always be a question about what you are offering? During the pandemic, the centrally assessed grades (CAG) process forced schools to be really, really thorough and critical of their pupil progress data analysis. What we have been able to do is draw that down to KS3, so that we know our tracking process is better because of what we learned through Covid. That can provide a lot of reassurance for parents until the first set of GCSE results are secured and then you’ll be able to refine and go on from that.

Are GCSEs fit for purpose?

There’s a lot of discussion amongst the bigger school groups about whether they can engage in some kind of reform. They’ve got the skills and knowledge to collaborate and propose a new way forward. I’m onboard with that because what you’re talking about is preparing students for the future and, in my view, GCSEs in their current form may not be the best way to do it. You’re focussing on outcome grades at age 16 and what we want to be focussing on is a lot more to do with collaboration and preparing students for the unknown. If you look at all the people who coped well with Covid, it was the ones who had the coping skills.

I went to a talk recently by Professor Guy Claxton. He was talking about character+ education and how important it is that we develop it in all areas of school life. For example, a student can be taught how to throw a rugby ball, but the teacher can’t stand on a pitch and throw that ball for them. We have to do the same in the classroom; it can be too easy to give in and give students the answers. We don’t see transfer from the rugby pitch to the classroom. It is for us to create those opportunities to develop those same skills and that’s what I want to drive across the school.

What exams would you have?

It’s tricky. We’ve seen where we’ve been given increased freedom with coursework, that it has been mishandled. There are too many pressures on teachers to be accountable for that. But I think there is a space for a hybrid model of exams and skills-based assessments. I run public speaking at my current school – it is essential we all have the ability to speak in public. Even if you don’t stand up on stage, you have to be able to voice your opinions in a meeting. In America, they focus a lot on public speaking through education. We just don’t do it in this country and I think you can see that on a day-to-day level when you look at our key public speakers, it’s something we really miss out on. It’s really easy to embed into all areas of the curriculum, in the way we do with technology, but we just don’t do it – yet.

Crosfield School Reading nursery

Would you like Crosfields to be seen differently?

Right now, I imagine Crosfields is seen as a well-established Junior School setting up a Senior School. A few years ago, the common view was to leave senior school education to Senior Schools. But that view has shifted. For me, Crosfields needs to become 3-16 and be seen as one school, where you are coming in and remaining with that community.

To do that, we need to re-establish our identity as a 3-16 school, build links with Sixth Forms, feeder schools, UCAS and Oxbridge. This will come from the senior team in post, me joining and then the first set of GCSE results. It just needs a bit of time to allow that Senior School to embed and settle in.

The Junior School is very well established, but for me Nursery might be the next thing we would look to develop a little bit more. I’m mindful that there are a couple of schools in the area going co-ed, the educational world changes all the time and we need to make sure our Years 4, 5 and 6 feel that Crosfields can offer them what they feel they want from a senior education.

Crosfields School Reading Junior School Guess Who? game

What are your challenges?

Until you have your first set of GCSE results, selling the ‘why stay with you’ or ‘why come to you’ message is harder when there are other tried and tested alternatives. Change can take a long time. But we have an opportunity to cherry pick the best bits and build the school we want. We can come in with fresh ideas and apply it to a blank canvas. It’s  actually our strength.

What child would thrive at Crosfields?

A child that gets stuck in. If you’re genuinely going to have an all-through school, then you aren’t just going to look at academic ability. Sometimes I’ve come across parents who say they have really bright children, so they’re not interested in the co-curricular provision. But I’d say this is not the right school for them. We want the children to get stuck into the swimming, drama, music, or whatever it might be. The co-curricular activities are a fundamental part of education. A willingness to get stuck in and try new things and to be a kind positive member of our community is really important.

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