Mrs Connor-Earl has been the Headmistress of St Mary’s School, an independent Catholic school in Hampstead, since Sept 2016. She was previously Director of Studies and Head of Prep Boarding at Ardingly College Prep School, Sussex.
What drew you to St Mary’s School?
When I decided I was ready for headship and started looking at schools, I realised very quickly that I wanted to be at a Catholic school because I believe they have a very unique ethos and my faith is very important to me. I say to parents that choosing a school is like choosing a house; you just get that feeling. The moment I walked in the door here, I just knew. There was an overwhelming sense that this was the right school.
What has been your priority since you arrived?
In my first term, I was able to teach and get to know all the children in the school. St Mary’s School is a very kind and happy place. For me though, that meant that sometimes the girls didn’t challenge themselves enough, so I have introduced the four key habits of learning or the 4Rs.
The primary one is that children are encouraged to be risk takers, not only in their play, but also in their learning. I say to them every day, if you’re making mistakes, you’re learning. If you’re getting things right, you’re just reinforcing what you already know. Hand in hand with this, you have to teach them resilience, because if you’re teaching children to fail then you need to teach them how to keep going and we reward the girls who do that. The third ‘R’ is that the pupils are respectful, not just of each other, but of themselves and the world around them. Finally, pupils are encouraged to be reflective on their faith, their behaviour and their academic work.
What other changes are happening?
Over the summer, we removed the IT suite. In a world where technology is embedded in our daily lives, it felt alien to direct the girls to a separate room to use ‘technology’. Investing in the latest IT equipment and bringing learning to life is a key priority at St Mary’s School and our ambition is to become a centre of excellence in Computing. We have invested in new iPads and laptops so they are more accessible to every pupil in the classrooms. I have also invested in MacBooks for the Music Department to create digital music. This term, we have several exciting initiatives that we are planning to implement such as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). This will allow us to communicate more effectively with parents and in turn allow them to engage more directly with their children’s learning.
Do you have any examples of how to teach children to become more empathic?
We have girls from different backgrounds and faiths at St Mary’s. Empathy develops when you give the girls a chance to talk to each other so they really understand their respective experiences. Our intake includes a range of girls with different cultures, languages spoken at home and places they have lived in the past. The girls benefit hugely from that exposure.
How does the admissions policy work?
We are an inclusive school and give priority to Catholic families and siblings. After that, the list operates according to the time of registration. Boys can stay until 7 years old, but they typically leave at 4 now that many of the local boys’ schools start at that age.
Would you be open to pupils of other faiths and profiles?
Absolutely. Our family-oriented ethos is extremely important to us and we warmly welcome other faiths and cultures into our Catholic Christian community. We don’t tell children what they have to believe; it’s about giving children the opportunity to have space to think about their values.
When do the children have this opportunity?
We are extremely fortunate to have our own School Chapel and it is at the heart of our school. We have something called “Praying Together,” which is a time for the year groups to come together and reflect on their faith. The other day they said the Hail Mary in all the different languages that they speak. Those times are very much about celebrating the uniqueness of every child.
You’re also open to multilingual children?
Absolutely. That’s the norm here. I think it’s such a great gift. The more languages they can speak the better. I would never take that away from children.
Tell us about how you prepare the girls for 11+ exams?
The whole curriculum prepares them for these exams. In terms of educational values, many people believe that the sole purpose is to teach the children the knowledge to pass an exam thus moving them forward to the next school. However, I believe that by solely fixating upon this, we often fail our children by forgetting to teach key habits of learning. If we can instil these learning habits at a young age, they quickly become embedded and used throughout their lives. As children develop and flourish across all the year groups, we continue to teach all the subjects until they leave in Year 6. Music, drama, art and sports are an essential part of life at St Mary’s School and help pupils build valuable and social skills that last a lifetime.
When do you start talking to parents about the next school for their daughter?
We schedule a personal meeting with each parent in Year 5 and then again in Year 6. Not only do we discuss which schools would be suitable academically, we also cover the best choice for their individual personality.
We are justifiably proud of our excellent senior school results. Every year, the girls gain offers and academic scholarships from the best schools in the country, including St Paul’s Girls’ School, North London Collegiate School, City of London School for Girls and St Mary’s Ascot. We have a fantastic range of schools that we have built strong relationships with and send our girls to. I tell parents they need to send their child to the school where they will thrive.
Where should they aim to be in the class in their senior school?
It completely depends on the child. Some children need to be in the top 30% of their cohort for their self-confidence. There are other children who achieve better when they’re in the lower half.
How much change happens between when they start and the end of their time here? How often do they unexpectedly bloom or regress?
Children do develop at different rates. In Reception and Year 1, children mature very differently and much of their performance in the classroom is tied to literacy. We endeavour to deliver our curriculum in a way that takes account of the children’s development and needs and encourages them to discover their individual talents. It is our role to give every child the opportunity to shine. And, we believe that our exit results support this long-term approach. Every child has a different academic journey and it’s important that we support them at each step of the way.
What do you think of the amount of tutoring generally going on these days?
Do I encourage tutoring? No. However, there are cases when parents find that it helps their child, especially if they don’t have time to give them one-to-one attention. We are a forward thinking, innovative school that understands the demands of 21st century life. So, we are trying to help parents who have very busy lives by starting an After School Club until 6pm every day. The children will have a light supper, complete their homework or reading with teachers and have time to play. Then, when parents get their child home, they can focus on being parents.
What do you think are the qualities that make a good head?
My vision is to help and inspire the girls and boys to become their best selves. So, you need to be able to listen and to be adaptable. It’s also very important to be reflective on the day that has just passed and to make the time to come up with exciting plans for the pupils. Sometimes, you have to be very courageous to make the right decisions for the whole St Mary’s community. Fortunately, I have great faith this is what I was meant to do.
What do you think is one of the biggest challenges in raising children today?
Because of the messages they hear and the technology they have around, I think it’s very hard to keep them being children. They are also under increasing pressure to perform at the 11+, 7+, 4+. We need to tell them that they don’t always need to get it right and to be perfect. They don’t need to always be doing schoolwork and formally learning. They also need to be running and playing and enjoying themselves.