Inspirational headteacher Paddy Beels looks back on 25 years in education

County Durham headteacher transformed the village where she worked

Paddy Beels who is retiring from Wingate Nursery School after 24 years service
Paddy Beels who is retiring from Wingate Nursery School after 24 years service

She fought for funding for a new nursery, was the brains behind bringing a family centre to the village where she worked and was awarded OBE for her services to education. Former pupil and Journal reporter Katie Davies chats to Wingate Nursery headteacher Paddy Beels following her retirement.

In a corner of Wingate Community Nursery School little butterflies flutter around their home waiting to be released into the wild.

Like the children who start the school, they are nurtured before they move onto pastures new. Headteacher Paddy Beels tells all her children that they have wings too and no matter where they live, they can go on to.

That is important for the nursery in a deprived area of the country where behaviour is sometimes challenging.

Government figures show that 40% of pupils at the school are officially classed as “disadvantaged”, a relatively high number.

Paddy’s appointment in 1989 came at a time when the village was reeling from the pit closures and when the people were pessimistic about their futures.

During her first few days in the post she tells me she sensed a feeling of loss when she took herself for a walk around the village.

The original nursery building was built in 1942 for mothers during the war as place for them to take their children. By the 1980s, it was run-down and tired.

However, Paddy set herself a task to find funding for a new school and give the people of Wingate what they wanted. Within the first year of her being there, she’d cracked it.

“It was an old building and it wasn’t good enough for the children and their families,” she said. “Wingate was already run down and deprived because of the closure of the pits.

“I wanted to create a bit of optimism and I wanted the people to feel good about themselves when they came into the nursery.

“The Government agreed to build a new school and two years later when the old school was 50 years old we moved into the new building.”

Before funding for the new building was secured Paddy adopted a make-do-and-mend attitude.

“I spent my first week decorating my office,” she said. “I hired a skip and threw a lot of stuff out. I just did what I could to make the nursery look nice.

“I also spent hours walking around the village to get a feel for the place and the people. I just felt like I wanted to pick the place up and give it some TLC. Everything about Wingate was deprived and sad.

“I wanted to lift the place up and the parents were ready for it. I was theirs and I was there for their children. I wanted to give them some optimism. I wanted them to believe in themselves and in their children.”

The new centre, which was built in the garden of the old nursery, was officially opened in 1992 in an event that involved the whole community.

Paddy, who is now 69, said: “I wanted that to be a big celebration and I wanted it to involve all of the community. It was called the Golden New.

“I always wanted the nursery to be a part of the community and the wider environment. It was really important to me that the children and the community felt they knew and understood what was going on in there.

“There is an old African proverb that says, ‘it takes a whole village to educate a child’ and it does.”

Not content with what she had achieved with the new school, Paddy still thought the village lacked a place for parents and their children to go.

So she got to work with her next project - a new family centre for the community.

“Myself, parents at the time and the health visitor spoke about how we wanted to create somewhere for parents and families to be,” said Paddy.

“We had to raise enough money for the capital and for the first three years’ running costs. The aim of the family centre was to help parents enjoy their time with their young children.

“We wanted to support parents and help them enjoy raising their children. That opened in 1998 and we set it up as a charity with lottery money and funding from One NorthEast.

“The family centre was a great example of people working together. It was about identifying what we needed and going out and getting it.”

The nursery was made a beacon school in 1998, an award that was given by the Government to outstanding schools in England and Wales from 1998 to August 2005. This meant it shared its practice with other schools across the country. But when the Beacon funding came to an end, the requests for support from Paddy and her staff continued and that’s where an idea for the Training and Research Base was born.

Alongside this also came the build for a Children’s Centre, which would look after children from the age of three months.

The Training and Research Base was opened in September 2006 after the nursery secured funding and has delivered training to hundreds of people, some of which have travelled from as far as New Zealand and Australia.

In 1999, Paddy won a National Teaching Award and in 2000, she was awarded the OBE for services to education.

British sculpture Antony Gormley once referred to the school as a “laboratory of possibilities”, before Paddy made it one of her values.

Today after 24 years service to the nursery she retired as headteacher and handed the school over to deputy head Becky Wood in a moving ceremony which was attended by pupils past and present.

“I am very happy that I’m leaving it in good hands” said Paddy. “Becky is my co-pilot and I’m moving over to let her take it into the future.”

“I don’t feel I’m leaving. I just feel like I’m taking a step back. I’m still going to be involved in the training base.

“It’s a strange feeling. I can’t envisage it. I’m not precious about it and it can change. I’m just glad that there’s something good here for Wingate.

“I feel that I have given myself to my job and to the community but equally the community has taken me in.”

“I feel privileged to be a part of the community and the lives of so many families. I feel that they are all my extended family.

“When people come here they’re not just coming here, they are sharing our lives and taking away something special that we offer.”

It was 21 years ago since I was a pupil at Wingate Nursery. I too was once one of Paddy’s “little butterflies” before I was released into the wild.

My sepia tainted memories of the place were happy ones and one thing Paddy taught me was that people can go on to do great things - no matter where we are from.

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