JLife speaks to Dr Graham Purves about his first term as The Grammar School at Leeds’ vice principal and head of senior school.
Hi Graham, tell us the story behind your move to The Grammar School at Leeds (GSAL).
I grew up in South Shields on the north east coast and studied Physics at Christ Church Oxford, before undertaking a PhD in Atomic Physics at Durham University. What I enjoyed more than the research was the undergraduate teaching. On finishing, I applied for several physics research positions and when the professors told me ‘don’t worry, there won’t be any teaching involved’, I remember feeling a sense of disappointment.
A careers advisor at school once asked me if I’d thought about teaching. Most of my family are teachers, so I was adamant at the time that whatever I did, it wasn’t going to be teaching. I bumped into him again a few years ago and I told him he must have seen something I hadn’t!
My life could have taken a very different direction, but I followed what I was passionate about and applied for a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE). I was fortunate to have a lot of opportunities in my placement schools and early teaching posts, and in due course progressed into senior management, first at King Edward VI Southampton, and subsequently at The Portsmouth Grammar School.
It was there I saw the advert for GSAL, and aware of the school’s esteemed reputation, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It’s in a beautiful part of the world, I remember camping as a child on the North York Moors, so to revisit that was a great attraction for me. When I was fortunate enough to be offered the role, my family and I bade farewell to the south coast and set off for our new home in Yorkshire.
What’s the experience been like so far?
It’s wonderful to come to a school already operating so successfully. Every morning when I get up, I’ve been raring to get to work. As one of the largest independent day schools in the country it’s a busy place with lots going on. We’ve got wonderful pupils who have been extremely welcoming, and a huge number of fantastically dedicated, approachable staff who care deeply about the children we have the privilege of educating. The extra mile they’re willing to go outside lessons to support pupils is astounding.
There’s a wonderful story of John F Kennedy visiting NASA. Walking down a corridor, he meets a janitor and asks: “What do you do here?” The janitor puts down his mop and replies: “Mr President, I’m helping to put mankind on the moon.” I love the sentiment, in that everyone here at GSAL is working to get the best for our pupils.
How are your children enjoying GSAL life?
They loved their first term at GSAL and have thrown themselves back into school life in the new year. As a primary pupil, my daughter is at the school’s Alwoodley Gates campus, so I bump into her occasionally at lunch time – so far, she has been delighted to see me! She has signed up for sports clubs, coding workshops and started learning an instrument, having decided that one lunchtime a week just for play was enough. My son is having a whale of a time at the nursery and pre-prep, Rose Court, where there are so many opportunities in and beyond the classroom.
The senior school put on an astronomy night for the Rose Court pupils, and it was one of the highlights of their year. Working with senior school pupils and teachers is something they’d never get the opportunity to do in most primary schools. Some of the questions you can be asked by the younger children and their capacity to understand are phenomenal – that’s one of the advantages of working together across all phases.
What will be the impact of Rose Court’s move from Headingley to the main campus this September?
It’s a really positive move for the whole school – unless you ask my son, whose highlight of the day is the ride on the shuttle bus from Alwoodley to Headingley! Bringing Rose Court up here affords younger pupils access to amazing facilities on the wider campus, as well as their own learning environment specially designed for their age group. There’s something lovely about having that whole GSAL family on one site. It helps to bring the community together, creating a cohesive experience from our three year-olds in nursery to our 18 year-olds going off to university. My daughter really enjoys the mentoring and buddy systems they have with upper years– the more we encourage links between year groups, the greater the sense of community.
What can GSAL pupils present and future expect going into the new decade?
We’re delighted our hard work has been recognised by the Independent Schools Inspectorate with the double ‘Excellent’ rating following their inspection last term. Plus, The Sunday Times recently named GSAL its Northern Independent Secondary School of the Year in the Parent Power Schools Guide, another accolade that makes us extremely proud.
The facilities we have are astonishing. Our sports facilities are arguably the best of any day school. Our new state-of-the-art 3G pitch for rugby and football was officially opened by Eddie Jones, and is in regular use by local sports clubs as well as our own pupils.
As a teacher, you’ve got a huge amount of influence over the pupils in front of you. As you progress through leadership positions, that influence extends to all the pupils and teachers in the area of school you hold responsibility for, so there’s a great opportunity to enable everyone to achieve the best outcomes they can.
We’re supporting our pupils not just academically but in every aspect of their lives. Focusing solely on academic performance can be to the detriment of pupils. At GSAL, the academic, co-curricular and pastoral are combined, with the individual at the centre of everything we do.
To discover more about what GSAL has to offer, visit gsal.org.uk!