Inspiring Women in Education, Clare Turnbull

For this International Women’s Day, we meet Clare Turnbull, Head of Prep at the Royal Grammar School, Guildford Dubai and one of’s Inspiring Women in Education.
This article is part of an editorial series on Inspiring Women in Education
Inspiring Women in Education
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Inspiring Women in Education
This article is part of an editorial series on Inspiring Women in Education

Clare Turnbull is new to the UAE’s education sector, but certainly not new to the RGS family of schools, having been Head of Prep at the UK school for the past 12 years. Now happily living in Dubai, and hard at working preparing for the opening of RGS Guildford Dubai, we’ve chosen Clare as one of our Inspiring Women in Education.

Clare, can you tell us who or what inspired you to become an educator?

I knew from a very early point in my life that I wanted to be a teacher and I have never wavered from that. For me, that moment when somebody learns something new…and you’ve contributed to it, well that is the greatest buzz that there is!

I have been really lucky to have lots of influential people in my life, who have guided me on the road…but two women in particular spring to mind. They were both family friends and I came to call them both my adopted aunts! First, there was Dr Lorna Kendall, who was an academic (in fact, she was one of the first women to receive a PHD), a teacher, a university lecturer and one of the founders of Christchurch College, a teacher training institution in the UK. She could be very brusque at times, but what I came to love about her was that she truly saw people for who they were on the inside. That was something that struck me about her, she was constantly surrounded by all sorts of different people, but yet their values, their heart, soul and spirit were always the same. They were just ‘came in different packages’, to use her words. Her advice to me was to always be true to myself, to be my best self and I have always tried to live by that.

Miss Whewell was the second of my adopted aunts. I met her when she was in her 80’s, after she retired from her career as a headteacher. She was just one of those people who was full of knowledge (she never stopped reading!) and always had a profound interested in people and in the world. She had worked at some of the most challenging schools in Kent, and even 40 years later, people would come to her door and thank her for the impact she had had upon them at an early age. She saw that my vocation was teaching and said to me ‘Clare, you know your vocation, now don’t play around at it really, really well’.

Can you tell us about your career up until now?

I studied Middle School education for my degree, specialising in French and sport. It was a five-year degree course, which was great fun – I mean, I got to spend a year teaching in France!  After graduating from Exeter University, I moved to Nottingham where I worked in a variety of inner city schools. Having grown up in Kent, I wanted to experience proper city life!

After a stint at a very special grammar school in Northamptonshire, I moved on to Maidwell Hall, a beautiful, boarding prep school. We had a lake, lots of trees and we were able to give our students a really holistic, Enid Blyton-like experience! This taught me so much about the power of learning outside the classroom. You know, when you are going for a walk with children and there’s not that intense eye contact that there might be in a classroom, my goodness do they open up and tell you different things! You can be den building and covered in mud, and they will suddenly ask you that deep and meaningful question about, I don’t know…evolution! That was a real joy.

Eventually, my husband and I decided to move south, to be closer to family and closer to London for both our careers. I became Deputy Head at Lanesborough School, which is the prep school of the Royal Grammar School Guildford and three years later I became Head. At the RGS, I came home educationally.

Clare with her students

One of our greatest achievements as a team was a ten year plan centred on learning habits, on the psychology of learning and on emotional development. I think that was the thing that really brought us together as a school, and made me feel it was my home. That is why I eventually came out here, to Dubai, to bring all of those wonderful things we created there to the UAE.

How do you go about bringing the culture of a long-established school like the RGS, to the UAE?

Just as in the UK, our parents will always front and centre in conversations about their school, no question. It’s one of the reasons why we have placed the parent café right in the centre of the Dubai school’s design. It is there by choice, not by mistake, because our school is all about working in partnership. Of course, using it will depend on Covid restrictions for a while, but we are very hopeful!

The other thing I want to be sure of is that, just as in the UK school, everyone’s voice gets to be heard. So that means pupil voice at the heart, but of course also teachers and parents too. That really matters.

Was there a moment or event that changed your career?

I did a post graduate study looking at language acquisition, where we particularly focussed on early gender bias in young children. For the research element, I visited only outstanding nurseries and I was blown away by the opportunities that these amazing Early Years practitioners create, and by the children themselves!

The thing was, I saw all this amazing practice going on, specifically for the girls. The girls were being challenged all the time to break stereotypes and to go and do and try everything. I didn’t feel the same was happening for the boys. It really struck me that from the age of about 3, the boys were saying things like ‘I play outside because boys are noisy’ or ‘boys do running around’ or ‘I don’t do reading, girls do reading’. To me, equality is equality and I have fought for our young men since then. We want our boys to be emotionally intelligent and you know what…if they want to be quiet, let them be quiet! If they want to read, let them read!

I want every child to create their own loves, their own passions…irrespective of their gender. I think that it is beholden on us as educators, to really look at every child as an individual and push them to the best person they can be.

Do you feel like the next generation of educators have specific challenges? What advice would you have for them?

Something I often do is give my new staff a ‘wow book’ and say, write down all of your amazing moments in teaching. And nowadays, it will be probably be an online version…of course! My first head said to me ‘write down all the good things’ and that stuck with me. If ever I had a stressful day, or some real challenges, she would tell me to go for a walk and read the book. I’d always come away thinking ‘I can do this’. I have now got 18 wow books of my own!

What are your goals for the future?

I came here simply because it is RGS, and because I think it is a once-in-a-career opportunity to build a school from scratch. To do that in a school with the values and learning habits that I believe in so much was a no brainer!

Of course, the added advantage for me, is that I get to live in Dubai and I am loving it so far. There is such as buzz in education here, so much interest in being the best, that makes this a very exciting environment. So, yes I came here with the goal of creating a new RGS school, but the fact that I get to stay connected with the people who I really have been blessed to work with for so long makes it the best of both worlds.

Clare, our last question! Who supports you and how?

I am very lucky that I have lots of good people around me, but also that best friend is also my husband. We met at university, and we have grown together in our careers. He is my rock; he is my sounding board and I am his sous chef! Of course, I have my family, (even at a distance now) and my friends, because friends are so important aren’t they? They remind not to take yourself quite so seriously, to laugh and to cry!

I love working with Dr Cox [Headmaster of RGS Guildford] and now I also have the benefit of working with Cognita, just an amazing global company to work with, full of passionate educators. There is so much strength there. All in all, my support network is a combination of my husband, my family, really good friends (who take the mickey out of me when it is needed!), Cognita and the RGS Family. I am very blessed.

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