A NEWLY appointed headmistress at a private school in Yorkshire has warned that Education Secretary Michael Gove’s planned shake up of GCSEs could be a missed opportunity because he has “not come up with any new ideas”.
Dr Tracy Johnson, who has started as the new head at Gateways School in Harewood near Leeds, this term, has called for the country’s education system to return to a culture of learning for learning’s sake rather than focusing on performance in league tables.
Mr Gove plans to replace GCSEs with English Baccalaureate certificates in the key subjects of English, maths, sciences, languages and humanities such as geography and history.
He claimed these new exams will restore rigour to the education system by doing away with modules, cutting down on coursework and judging pupils’ ability in an end of year test.
Dr Johnson voiced disappointment, however, that a wider debate on how and what students are taught in schools has not taken place.
“My first thought was that it was shame he has not come up with any new ideas.”
She told the Yorkshire Post that any rethink of the system should ensure pupils are encouraged to love learning for learning’s sake.
“It is important to value subjects which have an intellectual value.”
She said she was keen to promote subjects such as Latin since they helped pupils to develop learning skills which they could use across other subjects in future study.
And Dr Johnson said she welcomed plans to promote academic rigour and wanted to see her pupils leave school as well qualified as they could be.
But she voiced concern that simply changing the way exams were sat would not improve the system.
Dr Johnson has taken charge of the small independent school after a successful teaching career in the private sector.
She had not planned to enter the profession at all and had been studying at university to become a scientist.
She graduated from the University of St Andrews in 1993 with a degree in laser physics and optoelectronics and gained a PhD in 1996.
“I would never have become a teacher but while I was studying for my PhD I did some undergraduate tutoring and found that I absolutely loved it.”
This experience led to her taking a PGCE in teaching science and from there she has never looked back.
She joined Gateways from Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire - where she was the deputy head teacher of a co-educational independent school for pupils aged between ten and 19 which had around 530 students.
Before this she had worked as a teacher of physics and a housemistress at Cheltenham College from 2000 to 2007.
Dr Johnson was born in Canada, grew up in Northern Ireland and went to university in Scotland before starting a teaching career in the south of England.
She told the Yorkshire Post she was delighted to be moving to the region.
“We moved up in August. It really is a gorgeous part of the world.
“I spent two summers holidays in Whitby as a student so I knew what a lovely place Yorkshire was and I am delighted to be returning,” she said. “You get a vibe from a place when you visit. I got a sense when I visited here that this was a warm school, it was very friendly and it has a real sense of community. It really does match my values and fits with my ethos.”
She said she was attracted to the job because of the size of the school which allows staff to know each of their pupils as individuals.
“If you don’t get to know your students how can you advise them? Because that is an important part of what our job is.
“Yes we teach them but our job is also about guiding and supporting them. The size of this school allows staff and pupils to build relationships.
“This can happen at a bigger school if you really try hard at it but at a school like this you don’t have to try it is something that just happens. Teachers here are hugely committed to the school, teaching outside of the timetable.”
The school currently has around 400 pupils. Dr Johnson said she would like this to be a “little bit bigger but not hugely so.”
She said a slightly larger school would be able to broaden the opportunities of students and offer more subjects.
“There is a very good state system locally so we have to be constantly ahead of the game and making sure we offer something else to parents,” she added.
This year the school has taken on four international day students from China for the first time.
“We already have a small Jewish community and a small Muslim community. The international students will add to our diversity.”
Gateways School is an all girls school from the age of 11 to sixth form but has a mixed nursery, early years and preparatory school.
Having taught in co-ed schools but been a student at an all girls school she said she believed the set up at Gateways offered pupils the best of both worlds.
Dr Johnson, who is married with two young sons, has replaced former headmistress Yvonne Wilkinson.