Reflections on 18 years as headteacher at Horsham’s Millais School
Leon Nettley has been in post for about 18 years, but this month the headteacher announced to parents he would be retiring in July.
In his 40-year career, Millais is only the third school where he has taught. He trained at Exeter University and his first job was at a school in Jersey, where he had done one of his placements.
After that he taught at Oakmeeds Community College in Burgess Hill and then in 1990 came to teach maths at Millais. He became headteacher in 1997.
The all-girls’ school, which has 200 staff and about 1,500 pupils, is one of the best in West Sussex and has continued to be so throughout his leadership. Estate agents even sell homes stating they are in the Millais catchment.
He said: “Everyone expects to do well. It is a lot to live up to, but what it also does is that the staff, pupils and parents buy into this philosophy.
“They come into the school expecting to achieve. We give them the confidence to grow. They are confident about being successful and work at being successful.
“They know they come here to work hard, but if you work hard, you enjoy your education. We have extra curricular activities - magistrates competitions, Young Enterprise competitions. If we have auditions there are 250 pupils turn up.”
Passions and beliefs
In the letter to parents he told them he had had ‘many opportunities to share my passion, beliefs and core values across a broad education spectrum’.
The father of two daughters explained what that meant. He said: “It’s the high aspiration for every child that’s been the key to making sure every single member of staff and every single child really has ambition - that’s a great passion of mine.
“Education is about making sure there is opportunity for enrichment, exchange visits. Everything we have done gives a level of aspiration that you would not get normally.
“For me you have got to be really outward looking and have to make sure every opportunity you can offer our staff and pupils is the highest possible level.”
His daughters also went to Millais. “It’s been nice to watch them grow. I’ve always loved living in Horsham and in the heart of the community,” he said.
In his time as leader, he has not only strived to make the school’s education the best, but also to make its buildings fit for purpose.
He said: “When I first joined it was about 1,000 pupils. County wanted us to expand and so we had 13 temporary huts on site.
“They were starting to look tired and not fit for modern teaching.
“I said ‘you can’t expect us to deliver this performance in this accommodation’. It’s about replacing the old accommodation; it’s not growth.”
A three-storey teaching block has now been built and other work continues on-site on new classrooms and a new reception area. It is expected to be complete in the autumn ready for when the new headteacher takes over.
Under his leadership there have been exceptional challenges, notably the arson incident at the school last year and a high profile court case involving two members of staff 12 years ago.
He said: “If you look back, I have had a few challenges to face that other heads have not had.
“You see that sense of community that the school has, pulling together in times of challenge. The students, the staff, everyone has been brilliant - the staff, students, parents and community.
“That’s really important whenever there’s been a challenge, we have always felt you are not on your own. You have a swathe of support around you.
“You only have to look at last year - at the situation with the fire - we were fully operational within two days.
“Local shops, who knew we had lost art material, were offering us paints. Everyone wanted to help.”
In his 24 years at Millais, the first seven as a maths teacher, there have been three serving national governments each with their own ideas about how to improve education.
Academies, specialist schools and continuing changes to the National Curriculum are just some of the initiatives introduced.
Mr Nettley said the secret was to adapt around it. “In a whole career in teaching, there have been many changes and then many things come back.
“What I have always thought is whatever the new initiative, will that affect what you believe in as good education. You will run with and push ahead with it if it does. If it doesn’t you will, as a head, set it aside.”
One of the successful initiatives taken forward at Millais was becoming a centre for teacher training. He added: “There’s always been something new. Millais has developed in 18 years and I have been able to develop in those 18 years.”
After 40 years in teaching, he admitted he won’t quite be leaving the profession altogether. He said: “I’m doing support work for other schools and advisory and consultancy work.”
He will also be supporting teacher training work.
He will retire at the end of August and a new head is expected to start in the autumn term.