08 July 2024

Katy Ricks: Valete

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I remember very clearly the Saturday morning 18 years ago when, as Chair of Governors, I announced to the Common Room the appointment of Katy Ricks as Head. There was a collective gasp of surprise (which seems inconceivable today) that a woman had been appointed – and then another gasp, as it was realised that, although very qualified for the role, Katy had no acting experience of headship.

This proved no impediment whatsoever. From the first days of her arrival at Sevenoaks, Katy took to her new role with energy and sensitivity. She took her time, but not too much time, in getting to know the school. Although Sevenoaks had prospered over the previous decade, there was by 2002 a sense that its recent spate of initiatives needed consolidation. Katy immediately focused on the few areas that had begun to cause concern, and fixed them. For example, she introduced the fortnightly timetable that took unnecessary pressure off pupils and staff; and she managed sure-footedly the full implementation of the International Baccalaureate programme – a decision that had been taken before her appointment, and against some opposition from staff and parents. It was obvious, by the end of her first year, that Katy was an exceptional leader.

At the same time, however, she was developing a strategic vision for Sevenoaks, in consultation with the school community. By the end of her second year, the Governing Body agreed the first development plan that the school had produced in decades; and the first of its major capital projects was under construction. Almost two decades, and several iterations later, this development plan still guides the school’s direction.

It is this combination of a broad strategic vision with an attention to detail (whether it’s the colour of the chairs in a meeting room, or which shoes to wear on Founder’s Day) that is one of Katy’s great strengths, along with her instinct for choosing the right staff and then encouraging them to work towards a clear, and agreed, objective. Her management – and personal – style is modern, and that has been very refreshing in a school as old as Sevenoaks. It is also characterised by a very personal touch, and a genuine concern for others, the reassuring chat, the handwritten note, the congratulatory gift.

When Katy Ricks arrived at Sevenoaks, the school was pretty good. She has made it an outstanding one. Twenty years ago, people often spoke of the school’s success with a sense of surprise, a feeling that it ‘punched above its weight’. Katy has given Sevenoaks a real sense of self-belief. The school has not lost touch with its local roots (it sponsors a local academy, for example), but it has also extended its global reach and impact: it is now perhaps even better known internationally than it is in the UK.

As you walk around parts of the campus today, it is hard to recreate what it looked and felt like before Katy arrived. There was no sports centre or indoor swimming pool, no performing arts centre, no Science and Technology Centre. The heart of the school was a car park, known as the Flat, where a portacabin ironically nicknamed Primrose Cottage, the school’s technological hub, had pride of place. The whole ensemble of buildings now around the Flat is designed and built to the highest standards, reflecting Katy’s passion for the built environment (her father is an architect); and it has already begun to feel a well established part of this heritage landscape.

Over the past seven years, I have chaired the Sevenoaks School Foundation, which is responsible for the physical assets of the school, and for fundraising. During this period, as well as during my time on the Governing Body, I have watched with admiration how Katy has successfully enthused donors with the school’s vision – to the tune of £15 million raised in the recent Campaign for Sevenoaks School. But the reason she has been so effective at raising the profile of the school is because she believes so passionately in its mission.

At the heart of her vision is a belief in education, and in encouraging intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm. During her headship, the academic achievements of the school have been raised to new heights, but so have the all the other activities that constitute a good education. You only have to attend a concert in The Space, or spend an afternoon watching cricket on the Solefields pitch, or welcome a child back fizzing with a sense of achievement from a DofE expedition, to be aware of that.

Consistent with this vision for the school is Katy’s own example. She has continued to teach English throughout her time as Head of Sevenoaks; and when she took a sabbatical term a few years ago, she chose not to put her feet up after ten years of hard work, but to complete the DPhil thesis she had abandoned 30 years before for a career in teaching. She places a huge value on learning for its own sake, on the life of the mind and spirit. I can think of very few people who, in their personal life, are better placed than Katy and her husband, David, to inspire, celebrate and communicate those interests.

Robert Sackville-West

First published in Sennockian 2018-2019

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