Almost half a term in, our latest Heads of Departments are in full swing at RGS and share some insights on where they have joined us from. Carole Saville, Head of English joined by way of postgraduate study at Oxford and teaching roles on the south coast, whilst Head of Rugby, Joel Conlon, joins following positions at Brighton College, Exeter Chiefs and Saracens.
Joel Conlon – Head of Rugby
After a first week that he describes with a big smile as chaotic, fun and rewarding, we welcome Joel Conlon, taking up post as RGS Head of Rugby from September 2023. Joel joins us from Brighton College where he was Deputy Housemaster to a Sixth Form Boarding House, Head of Athletics and Head of Lower School Games. As a professional rugby player for Exeter Chiefs and playing for Saracens for over three years, Joel brings expertise and diverse experience from different institutions. His own education shaped his journey in many ways, with several teachers who gave their time generously to run clubs and encourage participation in a range of sports. The experience of travelling all over the area with friends to fixtures started that deep and enduring love for sport and its gregarious spirit. As Joel moved through secondary school, his PE teacher encouraged him to work hard; the same teacher motivated others to wider involvement, creating teams and suggesting sixth forms which might fit well with Joel’s interests and push him that little bit more to achieve his emerging goals. The committed mentoring of passionate individuals has, Joel suggests, made a lasting impact on his own trajectory, along with his parents - everyday heroes - giving constant guidance and clear values.
‘It’s all about developing young individuals into great people using the core values of rugby...’
The desire to teach started as a slow-burning idea at the age of about 13, when most people need a standard reply to questions about a seemingly distant future. Joel’s stock response: PE teacher, largely because of the role models he was taught by and admired. At 16 or 17, rugby took over, with the desire to play solidifying into the determination to be a professional player. When that professional career finished and some space and time helped to clarify thinking, Joel knew he still wanted to be involved in the game through the coaching route; different contacts led to school and after two or three weeks, Joel was certain this was for him, and veered in the direction of developmental coaching. So, this was a gradual journey – from the inkling of an adolescent idea to a fully-fledged commitment to school sport, helping to inspire young people as he was inspired himself, with the accompanying expectation of values and behaviour. Joel explains that at the foundation level of rugby, directed teaching is important in terms of basic skills such as throwing, passing and tackling; as students grow and develop in skills, teaching moves more into coaching and the facilitation of that skill.
Joel is clear about the significance of being Head of Rugby: firstly, to oversee the whole programme – from Y3 to Sixth Form. Obviously, the sport is paramount, but developing students through rugby’s core values is a broader drive with longevity. RGS rugby is a priority ‘but because of the school’s name and the respect it engenders in the region, there’s a big responsibility to join up with other local schools and clubs to promote rugby in the area’. Boys and girls playing at the RGS will hopefully leave loving the sport and continue to play beyond the school gates but there’s a real desire to try and transfer that over to staff as well. Being outside and with a bit more freedom, staff can enhance their classroom experiences with the social connection and different perspectives that involvement can bring. When students see teachers of other subjects watching or being involved with a game, it makes them feel very supported in all aspects of their school life. Joel is particularly interested in how a work-place culture is fostered and how teams, successful organisations and whole schools create a really strong sense of identity and purpose: he’s fascinated by how that culture is built and how it continues to grow. The desire to ‘buy in’ is a powerful force to harness and Joel suggests that if students decide that a sport is for them, tapping into that motivational force could be a true game-changer.
From Brighton’s south coast to the increasingly autumnal north, Joel speaks of the region with warmth, from training camps and fixtures at Kingston Park to the endless possibilities of the city: small enough to have a sense of community but teeming with opportunities. He’s also mindful that he might need a few more base layers here!
Carole Saville – Head of English
Carole may have worked for some time in the south of England by way of Roedean School and Hurstpierpoint College but she is drawn back to the true north by family, great schools and perhaps the magnetic pull of Newcastle United Women. Educated along the road at Whitley Bay High School and Marden High School, she credits their influence with imbuing a love of literature and learning in general. With her family at Marden before her, Carole described the feeling of belonging and community that accompanied this. An avid reader from an early age, it hadn’t occurred to her that literature could be part of a whole life journey, although time devoted to other subjects left her feeling a little put-out. Trying to navigate the various career paths which seemed obvious took a while and some discarded choices (‘I thought I might have to be a vet or something!’) but it became increasingly clear that a literary life was the only choice. ‘I thought for a long time about being a lecturer but the reason I wanted to go into academia is because I like talking about books – and I like talking to people generally – so becoming a teacher was a natural choice’. Studying for a master’s in eighteenth century literature at Oxford paved the way for possible PhD work but Carole decided that another four years of essay writing wasn’t for her. A friend suggested teaching pathways in the independent sector which involved living on site and working in boarding whilst undertaking a PGCE. Immersive and challenging, Carole really loved the training and experience more because of the unusual pathway she took.
‘We need to celebrate language in all its forms...So much of our identity is in accent and dialect and you might end up defending how you speak but you rely on it for who you are.’
She considers one of the most significant aspect of Head of English to be championing literature and its importance in society; with the increasing shift and attention towards STEM and AI, some students perhaps don’t see the utility of the subject: ‘there are the obvious benefits of essay writing and non-fiction, construction of an argument – but actually, this is a subject where you talk about what it is to be human and the lived experience that we all have. The department does this amazingly and it’s also my job to push that to the students and have them see that literature is so important as an art form, with a clear function in their lives. Parents need to see that and people outside the RGS – I think that’s really what I want to keep pushing’. Language in all its forms is also celebrated, with the balance between the formal and informal, standard and colloquial part of that exploration of diverse human experience. ‘So much of our identity is in accent and dialect; you might end up defending how you speak but you rely on it for who you are.’ With favourite words ‘mellifluous’ and ‘ostensibly’ (a classroom favourite), three further words to describe the first week are ‘welcoming, all-encompassing and exciting’. Coming from a boarding school environment, the start of term must have seemed a little different but with its strong community feel ‘the RGS does a really good job of organising everything into a school day...you need to get to know the students well in lessons first as you don’t have the luxury of getting to know them in boarding houses, so that’s made me make the most of the time’.
Carole brings richness to the school through her varied interests: ‘I'm really into women’s football – not just after the world cup but way before it – and I've got a season ticket for Newcastle United Women. I love it and I think it needs to be recognised even more; we need to be thinking about it on a weekly basis for young women regionally. I love the writing of American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote loads and loads of letters and not that many poems – a very precise and private writer. I think the themes she encompasses, the way she writes and the issues she then tackles in her letter writing are beautiful and she’s not as celebrated as she ought to be. Kate Atkinson’s character Ursula Todd in Life After Life is definitely a literary heroine along with Jane Eyre; I like Jane as a character, although it annoys me that she marries Rochester because I think she’s better than that! And then John Keats– I read his letters and poetry and I absolutely love them; I always go back to him as that vulnerable, quite sad hero’.
Heroes and heroines literary and sporting stand in line behind Carole’s north-eastern upbringing: ‘my mum encouraged me in everything I do – she's a massive part of everything and my dad is, I think, the cleverest person I know; he taught me everything language-wise'. A warm welcome back goes to Carole and a wish that the RGS might feel like home very soon.