Swapping the rugby pitch for the school yard

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Ian Shuttleworth was ranked as one of the top three UK goal kickers. Now he is one of the youngest heads. Neil Hudson reports.

As a rugby player, Ian Shuttleworth spent a good deal of his time outdoors and now, as one of the youngest headteachers in the country and head of Westville House School, Ilkley, he’s encouraging teachers and pupils to do the same - even to the point of holding English and maths lessons in the woods.

Sporting fans will recognise both the face and the name. Ian Shuttleworth - or ‘Shutts’ as he was known - was at the top of his game for more than a decade, playing rugby union for Otley and Huddersfield. At one point he was ranked among the top three goal kickers in the country, reaching number three in the national weekly rankings. It’s something he remembers well.

“I took my goal scoring very seriously,” says the trim 41-year-old. “I was 21 and I had all these little habits I used to do before I would even kick the ball. I would fiddle with my socks and tap the ground three times with my foot. It sounds silly and it may have looked silly but it worked for me. It was the repetition of it which I needed.”

The anecdote speaks volumes about his outlook on life in general. The father-of-two - he has a son, Leighton, 13 and daughter, Mariella, 10, to wife Emma, who is also in education and head of a nursery in Wakefield - has a measured tone and a calm, considered manner.

“My life has been built on loyalty and dedication, which in a way goes back to my Welsh roots and my father and grandfather.” Both made a name for themselves playing rugby.

Ian Shuttleworth playing for  Otley.
Picture Jim Moran.

Ian Shuttleworth playing for Otley. Picture Jim Moran.

“And that feeds into what I want to achieve here, making one of the North’s best schools even better.”

He started his playing career at Sandal Rugby Union Club as a fly half and full back and in that he was following in the footsteps of his father, Martin, 65, who captained Wakefield during the glory years of the 1970s and ‘80s.

But the link goes back even further, as his grandfather, John Leighton Davies, who was the first Welsh rugby union player to be signed professionally in the 1950s, joining Wakefield.

Ian is proud of the link and glad it’s been carried on by his own son: “I’m immensely proud of that, my son is into his cricket and rugby and he was contacted by the Welsh exiles, as I was in my 20s, although I didn’t realise they’d lowered the age limit.”

It means him travelling to places like Llandudno and Colwyn Bay on a Sunday morning but for a man who spent years doing a two-hour commute twice a day just because he had a passion for teaching, it’s par for the course.

He began his teaching career as a PE teacher and later director of sport but then jumped at the chance to become deputy head at Wakefield’s QEGS, the job he held prior to his current role, which he took up in September 2015.

“This was a big challenge for me, a big change, it was also a big change for the school, because I followed two very long-serving, respected heads but within ten minutes of being here, I felt relaxed. I want to move the school forward and we’re very keen on promoting outdoor learning and the ‘forest schools initiative’.”

The big project at the moment is the £1m early years development centre, currently under construction at the rear of the school, which is a former nurses home. It will enable them to expand from 126 pupils to about 140, a modest but important increase Ian hopes will help them become the best school of its kind in the North of England.

“The extension will create a brand new nursery and reception and entrance hall linked to the main school. We thought that in order to deliver the standard of education we wanted, we needed this building. It also lends itself to outdoor learning and ‘forest schools’, which is one of the big initiatives across the country at the moment.”

And so to that: the idea of children being taught ‘among the trees’, or sitting on sawn logs while they take a maths class might seem idyllic but at Westville, it’s a regular occurrence.

“We have just started a forest school club, which runs twice a week and is already oversubscribed. The children do all sorts of really creative outdoor challenges: building shelters, building things from wood, free style of investigation using their imagination. watersports, climbing, going on walks.

“English, maths and science, every subject you can take out there, we do it. An example of taking English out there is you might ask them to create an image from sticks and stones and they would do the planning stage outside before going back to the class. It lends itself to geography and orienteering.

“I openly encourage controlled risks to be taken by the children. For examples, being allowed to climb a tree. If you fall out of it (from a safe height), you learn a lesson and might climb a tree differently in the long term. The risk is always assessed. This approach gives children chance to explore their limits.

“Research suggests children need access to the outside, it improves their results in the class and I’ve seen that at previous schools I have worked where we have introduced this approach.”

He’s not a man afraid of getting his hands dirty either, or his shoes, as he proves as we tramp through the mud of the building site to access the Holloway Hut - named in honour of a previous headmaster, Charles Holloway - which has a fire pit in the middle, surrounded by log seats.

It’s an exciting time for the school and a challenging one for Ian, who is clearly excited about its future.