Interview: Ruth O’Sullivan, headmistress, South Lee School

Ruth O’Sullivan, who became headmistress of South Lee School in September last year, says it is a “huge privilege” to be involved in the early learning journeys of the adults of the future

Q. You started your new role as headmistress of South Lee School in September; what has the experience been like so far?

It has been absolutely fantastic. The best bit about it has been getting to know each and every one of my pupils. I have the most wonderful conversations with them and their curiosity about life and learning is infectious. The parents at South Lee are very supportive too and I have a really hardworking and talented staff. I am very lucky indeed.

Q. You were previously deputy head at St. John’s College School in Cambridge for 14 years. Were you worried about taking the next step into headship, and would you recommend it to others?

I wasn’t really worried about it, more excited at the prospect of running my own school. I was very lucky to have been at a fantastic school where I learned loads and an equally fantastic state school in London before that. It was the right time for me to move and take on a headship, as my children are a bit older now.

I would recommend it to others, although I would warn you that your school will occupy a place in your head and heart at all times, so it is important to make the effort to keep a good work/life balance, as otherwise it will become all consuming.

Q. Having worked in prep schools, do you think this stage of education is a particularly important one?

Absolutely, it is the foundation of all learning. It is at this time that you nurture children’s curiosity and natural zest for learning and turn that into something that lasts for life. Small class sizes, specialist teachers and breadth of curriculum allow prep schools to spend lots of time with individual children and offer a wide range of learning activities and experiences.

It is a huge privilege to have a hand in moulding the early learning journeys of the youth and adults of the future. What an amazing job!

Q. What are the challenges of running a small independent school?

As with all independent and state schools regardless of their size, money is an issue. The economic climate has made it difficult for parents to be able to offer their children the fantastic education an independent school can provide. For schools, affordability of fees for parents and value for money are hugely important. Balancing this with growing operational costs is tricky.

Q. What do you think makes South Lee School stand out?

So many things! South Lee is a really happy, vibrant, ‘family feel’ school – perfect for the formative years of a child’s education. An innovative, challenging curriculum which puts equal value on academic, creative and sporting subjects, alongside an emphasis on learning about social and emotional needs, makes for a wonderful, all-round education.

South Lee prides itself on nurturing and encouraging our pupils to be innovators of the future, by offering plenty of opportunities for leadership and problem-solving learning.

Subjects such as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and maths), philosophy and debating offer many possibilities for the children to access and initiate fantastic skills and enquiry-based learning – all things that will be so very important for employability in forthcoming years.

Q. What was your favourite subject at school?

I adored English literature and maths. I still love literature now and I read a wide range of genres. I was going to be an accountant when I left school because of a love of number problem-solving, but I wanted to teach young children more.

Q. What issue in education are you most passionate about?

Ensuring children’s social and emotional wellbeing is as well-catered for as their academic needs. Life is pretty stressful already nowadays, so it is really important to me that my pupils get a fantastic curriculum, but they are still allowed to be children.

I strongly believe that children learn better when they are happy and relaxed and, most importantly, when they feel that they are listened to and know that they have a voice.

We spend time at South Lee learning about ourselves as individuals, how to talk about and deal with our emotions, and how our brains function best for us as individuals and learners. Time is built into our curriculum to do this on a regular basis.

Q. What is your favourite book?

It depends on what mood I am in. I love the Summer Guest by Justin Cronin, which is a beautiful story about love and family. I also love The Count of Monte Cristo, the epic novel by Alexander Dumas, in which good ultimately outwits evil. Classic and superb.

Q. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I have three children and a dog, so life is always very busy. I love spending time with them and my husband, cooking, travelling, lots of sports and being with my friends.

Q. If you weren’t in education, what would you do instead?

This is difficult because I can honestly say if I was choosing again, I would definitely choose the same career path. If not, I probably would have done something else to do with helping people, so a doctor or midwife.


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