‘It was everything’ - Retiring headteacher of Thetford school reflects on almost 17 years at the helm
- Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017
He's become a familiar face in Thetford, and a well-known name in education. After almost 17 years at the helm, Lauren Cope speaks to the headteacher of a Norfolk primary after his sudden retirement.
When Dr Andy Sheppard took over Redcastle Family School more than 16 years ago, he was certainly given a baptism of fire.
The Thetford school, then struggling, was facing an Ofsted visit, something which sparked two members of staff to walk out, and later saw inspectors threaten to intervene.
'Fortunately,' he said, 'we had the local authority on our side, and I managed to convince Ofsted to give me another 18 months. I said 'come back in 18 months, if things are the same you can shut us down and sack me'.'
It was a challenge they accepted - and one which, one and a half years later, saw inspectors rate the school good.
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It was the first of many battles in a 16-year headship, which, set to the backdrop of a changing education system, has seen Dr Sheppard become the school's second longest-standing headteacher - missing out on the title by just 12 months.
He has now decided to step down - a sudden decision prompted by health concerns which he said was the 'right thing to do'. Prior to settling in Norfolk, the father-of-one spent years teaching in international schools - with what should have been a holiday to Australia interrupted by the offer of a role in Singapore, and later moves to Saudia Arabia, Egypt and India.
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It was after he moved back to Dorset that he met, and married, wife Debbie, and the pair took up teaching posts, and later
a headship for Dr Sheppard, in the Canary Islands.
After a stint in Papa New Guina, the couple, who have been married for 20 years, moved back home for good, and worked at a Hastings school.
'I actually loved the job at Hastings and would have liked to stay longer, but because it was only a temporary role my wife said she wanted us to be somewhere more permanent,' he said. 'So I said I'd take the first permanent job I was given - and that turned out to be Redcastle. In a funny twist, a few weeks later the Hastings school called and offered me a permanent job.'
But the move to Nelson's county was one which saw author Dr Sheppard fall in love with Redcastle, its 'fantastic' pupils and colleagues - in particular, former chairman of governors Pat Pearson, his deputy, and now acting principal, Liz Russell and 'gem' of a colleague Frances Newton.
'It just got under my skin,' he said. 'When I first arrived it was a matter of getting the school out of the dire situation it was in, but it took over my life.
'It was everything that was important to me, my sole interest. I loved being there and was never happier than when I was in my office, walking through the corridors - to the point where me and my wife started holidaying in the Scottish Highlands so I could get away.'
Over the coming years, the school, formerly Redcastle Furze, has boasted good exam results and is now rated good by Ofsted.
Dr Sheppard himself became a familiar face in the community - he celebrated the school's diversity, in 2005 teaching in its twin town of Skawina in Poland, and promoted a healthy lifestyle when he shed eight stone in 10 months in 2006.
He's also been unafraid to hold his own on decisions. In 2008, he attracted attention after revealing he had promised all 240 pupils a bar of chocolate if they made it to the half term break without exclusions - a ploy which dramatically cut exclusions.
The pupils, Dr Sheppard said, have been 'fantastic' - 'they went to school to get on, to succeed, and hungry to make something of themselves'. But he said education was now 'not the same job I went into 40-odd years ago'.
'I think the biggest disruption is all the academies business,' he said. 'I'm very opposed to academies - I think education should be run by the local authority, who have the experience and knowledge.'
He praised those working in education in Norfolk, and said the 'flack' the county received for its standards in recent years was unjustified. Looking to the future, Mr Sheppard said the decision to leave the school had been 'very hard one', but that he was confident he'd left the popular school in the capable hands of Mrs Russell.
And though he said there is work on the horizon, after next year he hoped to travel, including a visit to his son in America.
With almost 17 years behind him, he said: 'I will miss it, and the pupils - Redcastle is a good school which has good people teaching good pupils. It's time to move forward, reappraise and change, but we already have the basics – that's all you need.'