Our annual Senior School magazine, CODA features an interview with Ms Chamberlain just a few months into her role as Headmistress. Sixth Former Imogen posed the questions and wrote up the answers, reproduced below:

The first time I visited the Headmistress’ office at Walthamstow Hall was prior to joining the school, for my entrance interview.  On that occasion I walked down the corridor wondering what sort of questions I might be asked. Now, in my final year at school, I have been invited to interview our new Headmistress, Ms Chamberlain. I arrive with questions that have been posed by pupils, staff and myself and look forward to learning more about Ms Chamberlain: her own experience at school, her opinions on Wally and her goals for the future.

What were your first impressions of Wally? My first impressions were that it was an absolutely lovely school. When I first came to visit, I just fell in love with the whole place. I had an incredibly positive impression of the staff, their level of professional enthusiasm for their work, and for the pupils. Both the pupils I met formally and the students I met while touring the school were very confident in such a positive way.

How does the school compare to other places you’ve taught in?  I have taught in a big range of schools from big split-site comprehensives to very selective independent. While these schools were very different, there were also many similarities in that all students have the same hopes and concerns. One of the things I have noticed about Wally is that the behaviour of the students is amazing. Pupils’ engagement with their teachers is fantastic. So, it compares very favourably, I would say.

What’s your vision for the school? This is already a super school where everybody can find a place where they can shine. One of the risks, if you change a lot of fundamental things quickly, is that you can lose what’s special. So, I’m not looking to change things that are working well but am looking at how we can make them even better.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing girls leaving school?  I recently went to hear Mary Beard talk and somebody asked her a similar question. She said in her generation they thought that improving things for young women would include practical things such as being able to access all careers. It should be possible for a woman to make confident choices that work best for her. To be able to go about your daily life and feel safe.  As a society in Britain we have made some real progress, but it’s not consistent. There are still challenges.

Is the all-female environment something you want to keep in the upper school now that boys are being introduced lower years?  We have introduced little boys in the nursery. They are at a very different developmental stage from Sixth Formers. Research has been done that showed the advantage that an all-female Sixth Form gives in terms of better outcomes at university and in the early stages of your career. The researchers thought it was because girls got all the opportunities in those environments.

When I think back to my school days at an all-female school, all of the senior pupil role models were female. Wally provides the same environment and that builds confidence in the pupils.

Research [has shown] the advantage that an all-female Sixth Form gives

Are you planning on changing anything in Sixth Form specifically?  I’ve been talking to [Head of Sixth Form] Mrs Brown about the Sixth Form to get a better understanding of what’s working now and then for us to consider if we could make some small improvements. We want to focus on supporting you to have great holistic outcomes. Before the pandemic I hadn’t fully realized how important the social side was for Sixth Formers, it was remarkable how much the lack of it affected people. The first thing is that you should be well taught and we know that our great teachers make a really positive impact on your A Level grades, but I also want to see the students having fun and enjoying Sixth Form.

We’re fortunate that we’re so close to the centre of town and, as we don’t have Saturday school you can have a job at the weekend. If anybody in the Sixth Form has any ideas on improvements, you are welcome to have a chat when my study door is open.

Where are we on the decision to discontinue the summer dresses and why was that taken?  When I first arrived, feedback on uniform from across the school community led me to set up the Uniform Working Group of staff members who are looking at the uniform across school.

Students, parents and staff will have different feelings about different parts of the uniform such as: can you put it in the washing machine? How much does it cost? Is it comfortable? Does it represent the school well?

Thinking about the summer dress, one question was, why do some people wear a jumper over their dress on a very hot day? Is it because it has actually been outgrown and is expensive to replace?  I’m very open to what recommendations the Uniform Working Group bring to me but first, importantly, they are going to be talking to lots of different people before they present their findings.

Why did you get into teaching? I read Microbiology at University and afterwards I weighed up my interest in the brain and neuro-immunology along with my experience of voluntary work at primary schools. I love Biology but I went into teaching with a strong focus on accompanying the healthy formation of young people.

Did you have a favourite teacher who inspired you? I had lots of really good teachers when I was growing up. One of my Headmistresses, Sister Gerard, was a nun with a real sense of warmth; she inspired everybody to behave themselves and do their best. My secondary school was an all-girls’ school with amazing teachers like my GCSE History teacher, Mr Murphy and A level Biology teacher, Mrs Mulkerrin, who had an enthusiasm for bringing subjects to life.

[Education] is about the kind of person you become; whether you are there for other people and want to contribute  to society

Did your experience at school influence your choice of a school with a Christian background now?  Most of the schools I went to were faith schools. They were definitely looking for what was good in you; it was about the whole person and that has definitely influenced how I view education. I see it as not just a transactional process, where you come out with certificates, but also about the kind of person that you become; whether you become someone who is there for other people and want to contribute to society.

Did your own children study sciences like you did?  My son studied Biology with Computer Science at university and followed by a Masters in Advanced Computer Science. Then my daughter read Molecular Cell Biology and is hoping to start a Masters in Bioinformatics next year. As a parent, you inevitably bring your child along to the things you find exciting, but there was definitely no pressure from me for them to go into the sciences.

Do you have a favourite book? I’ve got lots of favourite books! I’m interested in how the brain develops and particularly how the brain can be affected by challenges in early life, so I’ve brought a few books about that with me. Other favourites in my study here are ‘High Challenge, Low Threat” by Mary Myatt, ‘Double Lives’ by Helen McCarthy, which is a history of working motherhood in England, and Professor Sue Black’s book ‘Written in Bone’ about the legacy on your skeleton of your life experiences.


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