Graham Snelling has seen more children pass through Prince William School than any other member of staff in its 50 year history. He joined the school in 1975 at the age of 21, and retired in 2016 after 41 years at the chalkface. Or whiteboard, as it became after decades of change.
He was hired to teach PE, but over the years he worked in the design department, headed the careers department, developed partnerships, led overseas music, sports and cultural exchange tours (including trips to Finland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic), and finished as the assistant headteacher.
“Prince William School was a school of opportunities, not just for pupils, but for staff. There was so much vitality. A great place to work,” he said.
When he started, the roll was just 200 pupils. It grew to 1300, even before the 11 year olds were introduced in 2015. “For the first 20 to 25 years, the school was in a growth mode. Any initiatives that came along, we tried to get hold of. The headteacher, Chris Lowe, was a visionary, and let you try things out.”
Looking back on his career working with teenagers, he seems most proud of the work he did with pupils outside the curriculum doing activity based learning. For many years he took pupils on week long camps to give them the chance to do something different. “There were the odd few who were difficult. Why are they challenging? Because they think they are going to fail. The aim was to give them the experiences that they could succeed at. Kids learn just as much out of the classroom as in it.”
He said the most difficult time for many pupils was in year 11 when they have to make the decision about what pathways to follow after their GCSEs; whether to go into work, go to college to train, or stay on for A levels. One programme he developed gave pupils opportunities to gain different experiences working in the community, from primary schools to entrepreneurial initiatives. “For instance, we formed a little business making picnic benches for a few years and suddenly they could see the importance of accurate measuring. They then saw the relevance of what they were learning in the classroom.”
Partnerships with other schools were another important way to expand pupils’ opportunities. PWS established partnerships with five other schools in Northamptonshire and exchanged specialist subject teaching. “We specialised in engineering, and our pupils went to their schools to do things like catering, hair and beauty.”
He places great value on sports in and out of school. Mr Snelling was the driving force for the founding of the Oundle Rugby Club on Occupation Road, where staff and pupils played. “Coaching is a completely different ballgame when you are working with youngsters, because they want to be there, and they want to succeed. When teaching PE, there is always some sport or activity that every child can do. And I includes darts in that!”
Despite working with teenagers over 41 years of social and technological change, Mr Snelling said he could not track any great changes in the character of his pupils. “Kids are kids, they are more or less the same 40 years on – even though they don’t think they are.”
While any teenager can be challenging at times, he always found pupils at PWS to be thoughtful. “That’s what always impressed me. The majority were very caring, and cared for each other.”
He pointed to a very strong pastoral system in the school, then overseen by Val Hepple. “She dealt with all the naughty boys, shall we say. We’ll call it pastoral care, but that is what it was at the time. They used to dread going to see her, but they would never forget her for the support she gave them.”
Over 41 years there were a lot of changes to adapt to, including the educational curriculum handed down from above, and the school’s management within. He said he just had to take them in his stride. “There were a lot of changes, including a time when the school went through an unsettled period. Unfortunately, for such a successful school, we lost parents and pupils. Now it’s back on its feet where it should be.”
Mr Snelling has always lived in Oundle while working at PWS. He said that in his last years he was teaching the third generation of Oundle families. “One of these little kids said to me, ‘you know you taught my grandma’.”
He still sees a lot of his former pupils around town. “Some of them still call me Mr Snelling, they can’t call me by my first name.” The eldest former pupil is probably now 62. To keep busy in retirement, he currently works part-time at a local engineering company, where his boss, now 59, is a former pupil.
He said a good school has the children at the heart of the school, led by dynamic staff, and that is what he felt most strongly about at PWS. “There have been real good characters. That’s what you remember about your school days, the people.”