The last day of term marked the end of an era for one Borders primary school, who bid farewell to their much-loved headteacher after 15 years at the helm. Celebrations for Jacqueline Wilson’s retirement were curbed by lockdown restrictions, but Peebles’ Kingsland Primary School made sure their headteacher didn’t slip quietly out the back door (former pupil Hilary Scott writes)…
It might have been April Fools’ Day last Thursday, but the announcement weeks earlier of Mrs Wilson’s intention to retire on this day was no joke.
In the school’s most recent HMI report, Mrs Wilson was credited as a person who provides strong leadership across her school. A headteacher “well-respected in the local community” who gained the trust and respect of children, parents, staff and partners.
This was evident through the outpouring of appreciation and good wishes sent to the headteacher via a virtual assembly to bid her farewell.
But how did the young lassie from Hawick end up being the headteacher of one of the biggest schools in the Borders?
Her journey in education began in 1981 at Burnfoot in Hawick before moving to Priorsford Primary for a year in 1983.
She said: “In those days if the roll dropped and you were the last teacher into the school then you were the first to be moved out! So I first moved to Kingsland in August 1984 as a class teacher, mainly working with P5-P7 classes until 1990.”
Following the arrival of her two children, Esther and Dechlan, Mrs Wilson took a few months off, but swiftly returned to Priorsford as a part-time learning support teacher, before being appointed as a full-time infant teacher.
By 1998, Mrs Wilson had taken a step up the leadership ladder as deputy head of Kingsland. However, for her first headteacher role, she would return to where her education began – at her own primary school at Trinity in Hawick.
But Peebles came calling once again, and in 2006 she returned as the headteacher of Kingsland Primary School.
In February 2010, it was the dawning of a new era for the headteacher, staff and pupils, as they made their way to a brand new school located on the outskirts of Peebles overlooking the River Tweed and Hay Lodge Park.
Recalling fond memories, Mrs Wilson said she loved when former pupils returned to share their successes and achievements with the school. “There are many who have achieved excellence in their field and because I have been there so long, many of them remember me, not as headteacher, but as a class teacher or deputy, and we had a bit of banter and the children love that,” she said.
“Most times they weren’t in the ‘top’ groups and all the children wanted to know was what house were they in – David, James or Alexander.”
Past and present pupils have been known to remark that “Mrs Wilson likes a trophy”, and that could be true, given the large number of them proudly displayed in the glass cabinets as you enter the school.
“We have achieved many awards at local authority level and national level and each one makes you proud.”
However, Mrs Wilson brings real meaning to the phrase ‘it’s the taking part that counts’, and she always made sure her boys and girls showed up to events, win or lose.
She explained: “We have also had many trophies at all levels and we always enter many of the same competitions whether we think we have a winning team or not. It’s the process and involvement of the children that is important.”
There have been many notable moments throughout Mrs Wilson’s career at Kingsland, including brushing shoulders with royalty. It wasn’t quite the Queen’s Garden Party at Holyrood House wearing her finest, but along with her school pupils wearing their welly boots, Mrs Wilson met HRH Prince Charles down at the Peebles allotments.
Going on holiday with your pupils would probably be most teachers’ worst nightmare – but not for Mrs Wilson.
“I have always enjoyed the P7 residential, to be away with your P7s in early September sets their year off to a great start,” she says.
“My favourite time of the week has always been assemblies. I love having the school together and spending time as a whole school team. They have changed significantly from the time I was a deputy to the high tech affair they are now! That is one of my big regrets this last year in that we have not been able to meet as a whole school.”
It is clear from the well-wishes via the virtual assembly how well Mrs Wilson is thought of by representatives of community organisations in the town.
She is passionate about strong links between the school and the community, and when asked why this was so important to her, she replied: “I was born and brought up in Hawick. I am a real Border lass at heart.
“I believe our Border towns will lose their identity if we do not involve the children of our community in their traditions and organisations.
“Schools should be at the heart of the community. It is important for us to have regular community involvement and for the children to get to know what makes our community special and different.”
Having dedicated a huge part of her life to the Peebles school, Mrs Wilson paid tribute to her family who have supported her through her 40-year teaching career.
She added: “It has been an absolute privilege to be the headteacher, to be able to nurture young lives and support them in their development not just academically but also in social and emotional aspects of their young lives, to have fun with them and share in their successes and challenges.”
A self-confessed “mother hen”, Mrs Wilson could often be heard referring to her Kingsland pupils as “her girls and her boys”, and it’s evident they mean a great deal to her.
To this, she says: “Well, they are entrusted to me and I have to look after them for the time I have them. For us to consider ourselves as part of the whole school team it is very important that every child feels they belong and have a part to play.”
Come rain, hail, snow, or that odd appearance from the bright ball in the sky, Mrs Wilson would stand at the top of the hill to her school to greet her pupils in the morning and wave goodbye to them at the end of the school day.
She tells me it was one of her favourite things about Kingsland. “I will really miss being able to do that every day, and the rain never bothered me anyway!
“I did it to be visible to the whole school community. Everyone should know the headteacher and have the opportunity to speak daily if they need or want to.
“I was there if parents had a query and could deal with it quickly and easily. I was there to see and speak to the children, to say good morning and welcome.
“Children come to school with a range of emotions and it is good just to touch base with them and for them to know I was there.”
Her contribution to her school and the community was recognised in 2014 when she was installed as Warden of Neidpath in the town’s annual Beltane Festival.
“That was an honour for the school and we celebrated together. The Warden’s party was held in school in the afternoon with the whole school present and a few other invited guests. It was a great party,” recalls Mrs Wilson.
It’s been a challenging year with the pressures brought on by the pandemic, and it prompted Mrs Wilson to ponder her future.
“It’s funny but many retired colleagues said I would know when it was the right time. I thought that would not be me, I would have to have some kind of exit strategy.
“However, the last year has put a different responsibility in the lap of headteachers and it made me think differently about what was important.
“I became a grandparent for the first time in December and for a second time in February and my world has changed.
“Then I realised I had done this for 40 years and maybe it was time to think differently. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Despite the restrictions, Mrs Wilson said her last day at Kingsland was simply the best.
“The day started with a former pupil, Gregor Runciman, wishing me well on Radio Borders.
“I was able to visit all classes at their doors in the morning. I had lunch with the house captains and in the afternoon, ice cream had been organised for everyone out at the front of the school which enabled me to speak to everyone in the school on my last day. That was important to me and could not have been better.”
The surprise virtual assembly was a masterpiece put together by the school’s management, teachers, staff and pupils, who all managed to keep ‘operation Mrs Wilson’s retiral celebrations’ top secret.
There were messages from former staff and pupils, church leaders, the Callants Club, and songs and stories written by the children.
And a few members of Scotland’s rugby squad took the time to send their fan, Mrs Wilson, a farewell message!
The school has grown considerably under Mrs Wilson’s headship, with an additional 100 pupils, and the nursery has more than doubled in size.
“The school has a strong ethos and a positive standing within the community. Everyone is important and Kingsland has its own mini community which is supportive and inclusive. You have to work hard to keep the ethos of everyone feeling valued and important.
“Children are at the heart of the school and it is them who must take the school forward. I cannot take the credit for Kingsland being the great school that it is, I have had hard-working, committed staff who have jumped through the hoops and worked with me to do the best that they can for the children.
“I have had committed and supportive families who want the school to do well. And, best of all, amazing children who want to learn and are proud of what they achieve.”
Mrs Wilson says she “loved her job” but the time is right to say goodbye. “It does not feel like 40 years since I welcomed my first Primary 3 class but I have enjoyed every minute and feel very honoured to be part of so many children’s lives, some may remember me fondly and others will perhaps not!
“I have seen education changes which at times made my toes curl and my hair stand on end but at the heart of it all is what motivates and encourages children to learn and do their very best, and that is what I have tried to do.”
Last week, Mrs Wilson walked out of the doors of Kingsland Primary School as the headteacher for the very last time.
She had her two deputies either side of her, Susan Ward and Christine Hope, and she says: “I couldn’t have been happier. I am delighted that Susan Ward is the new headteacher, the school is in safe hands.”
Jacqueline Wilson devoted her life to Kingsland and her pupils, and she leaves a lasting legacy as an inspirational headteacher who truly loved her school.