INTERVIEW: Emmbrook School’s new headteacher Nick McSweeney sets out his vision

Emmbrook School
The new headteacher of The Emmbrook School, Nick McSweeney. Picture: Phil Creighton

A WOKINGHAM secondary school has a new headteacher – but he doesn’t need to learn the ropes as he’s a familiar face to pupils and staff alike. 

Nick McSweeney joined The Emmbrook School 14 years ago and stepped up from the role of deputy headteacher in the summer. 

Six weeks into the new term, he is enjoying the challenge of his latest promotion. 

“I started in June on an acting basis,” he explained. “But I have to say, it was a surprise to me having to transition from being deputy headteacher, to being headteacher, in terms of

how much busier my day is: How many more people I need to talk to, the impact of my email inbox is – it’s very tangible, the length of the days are longer. 

“In all honesty, the reward of that is having the ability to shape and impact what a school is, is really something special.”

That goes beyond Emmbrook, as Mr McSweeney has been able to link up with other schools. 

“I want to be outward-looking and have those links with colleagues outside.”

He admitted that the transition from deputy to head means that people now view him differently, but he’s determined to be accessible. 

“I’m not a headteacher who locks themselves away. My door is open all day, anybody that wants to come in and talk to me can do. 

“I’m not going off to conferences, I’m here running the school.”

One of the reasons why Mr McSweeney has been at Emmbrook for most of his teaching career is the atmosphere that the school has. Ten of the current staff roster came to the school as pupils, and there are more volunteering as classroom assistants. 

“They want that experience because they’ve had a good experience here,” he said. 

“When you visit the school, it feels warm, it feels friendly. 

“But at the same time, the changes I’m implementing are starting to really raise standards. We’ll keep what’s great about Emmrbook, that ethos and our character, but we’ll really drive forward on the academic front so the results are truly outstanding.

“We’re a good school at the moment, but I want us to be an exceptional school. We’ve got all the ingredients here.”

And Mr McSweeney, who admits to being a perfectionist, is going to keep driving the ‘calm, productive’ school forward: “We’re getting better, we’re not perfect yet and I want it to be”. 

This drive on standards includes behaviour and uniforms with clearly defined protocols that staff and students can understand. 

“It’s not about being draconian, but we’re about having really clear high standards, that we’re enforcing in a really clear, systematic way, because children need to know where they are. They need to know the boundaries. 

“When they know that they can behave because we’ve set expectations.”

He added: “Once you get the basics right, you can then start to do the exciting things in the classroom. So we’re looking, I think, offset now have a new and renewed focus around the curriculum.”

And this focus on the broader curriculum will help develop the character of the school’s students. 

“My mantra is based around three values that I want us to instil in developing the students: respect integrity and personal responsibility.

“I think teenagers love the idea of respect, so it’s really important to me that [the teachers] model respect to them.”

And how this plays out involves pupils visiting the head’s office – not for punishment but for hot chocolate. 

“In the mornings I meet with students who have been sent to me by their head of year for a positive talk. We talk a bit about their lives, what’s going well and also what needs to be improved in the school as I want everybody to share that responsibility of making this school the best it can be.”

School discipline is regularly raised as an example of declining standards, but Mr McSweeney feels that the Emmbrook can set its own standards, starting from the top. 

“I think you model the behaviours you want, so I model to the staff and we as staff model to the students the behaviours we expect. 

“I’m not interested in corporal punishment myself. It’s not how I parent and it’s not what we do here. We have a balanced behaviour system that has rewards and sanctions. The vast majority of students don’t need anything much more than a detention system. 

“Like any school, in any area, we’ve got a small number of students who have really complex family backgrounds, and home lives, and therefore we might need more specific support for them. And that can involve some, some multi-agency work.

“For the vast majority of students, it’s support, not punishment.”

There is, of course, more to a school than academic achievements. 

Mr McSweeney is delighted with the Emmbrook’s cultural offerings. 

“The contribution made by the performing arts department is really something special to Emmbrook. We have a long-standing tradition of our drama and music. 

“In this time when funding is difficult, it’s challenging, but we try and do everything we can to keep a broad range of opportunities open. It’s really important.”

As part of this, the school is bringing back its annual Christmas concert at St Paul’s Church. 

“It will be a real community event and a really special thing.

“When I think about the specific moments that have brought me the most joy in the school over the years, it’s almost always been those drama productions and music concerts. And I know that students just get so much out of it.”

But this is very much part of Mr McSweeney’s vision for The Emmbrook. 

“This is a good school,” he said. “And we’re only going to get better from here on. I’ve got a lot of energy and a lot of ideas. I think based on the progress we’ve already made, the energy I feel from the staff, who are really, really united around this, and the positivity I’m feeling from the students and the support received from parents – with those ingredients we’re going to produce something special here. 

“That will be good for us, good for our students and good for the local community we want to serve.”

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