Executive head of Holmes Chapel Comprehensive Nigel Bielby has been in the post since 2020.
The past two years have been a roller-coaster for Nigel and the school, so I sat down with him to hear his experiences and to get to know him better.
I started by asking him about growing up in East Hull. He tells me he was an only child and was very close to his parents and family. His dad ran a butcher’s shop on a post-war council estate and his mum was a model and secretary. He had a good childhood; however, things changed when he was 11. After dropping him off at school, his mum disappeared and was never seen again. All these years on and her disappearance remains a mystery; he hopes she is somewhere living a happy life, although he accepts that this is probably not the case.
In 2013, nearly 35 years after she went missing, Humberside Police reopened the investigation into her disappearance. In 2019, the coroner concluded that she most likely and ultimately came to harm, with a key fact being that she was a devoted mother and would have contacted her son if she could.
This period was extremely difficult for his dad, who was dealing with his own loss while looking after Nigel. Every month for instance they would both visit the local library, choose books together and spend their evenings reading and talking. They enjoyed Monty Python and Spike Milligan. This time together helped them both cope and led to Nigel developing a passion for books and reading. Something he still does and is still an important part of relaxing and stepping back a little from the welcome challenges of being a headteacher.
Nigel had a lot to deal with at school and says things weren’t easy. He had to work hard at most things; however, he found he loved rugby, geography, and the great outdoors. He loved going to the beach on the east coast, fishing in pools and exploring the cliffs. His geography teacher encouraged him and his peers to let their young minds explore, taking the class to the seaside to look at the waves, tides, sand, and mud flats.
After finishing his A levels, he felt lost and struggled to find himself. Although this whole period was hard, it made him who he is today. Nigel recognises when the children he works with are having a tough time, his life experiences enable him to understand them a little better. He may not know exactly what they are going through, but he remembers what it was like for him growing up.
Nigel got a job in advertising, print and marketing and worked into his early 20s. When he was made redundant, a friend told him to sort his life out, so he moved to Staffordshire and started a Geography and Geology degree at Keele University. During his studies, he realised how far behind he was in learning, so he had to put everything he could into it. He took a specialist course in glaciology, and for his thesis he travelled with a friend to the very northern part of Scandinavia to study a subarctic glacier. To get there, they took the train north from Stockholm to beyond the Arctic circle, then walked 40 miles and camped on the glacier for a month, very nearly running out of food!
He'd had no plan to teach up to that point; however, in his third year of university he undertook work experience in a school teaching geography and loved every minute. From that moment on, all he wanted to do in life was teach.
Nigel talks about his job with genuine passion. He loves working with children, teaching, talking, listening to them, seeing them thrive, supporting them through challenges and seeing them go on to be successful. His own childhood shaped his aspiration to do the very best for the children in his care. He tells me that shortly after his mum left, his head teacher said to his dad that he finds in every child something they are good at. Nigel believes the same and feels it is his job and the schools to help bring this out of every pupil.
Nigel's first job was at Alsager High, and he later became head of geography at Knutsford Academy. From there Nigel spent some time working for the Department for Education doing school improvement work with schools across Cheshire, from Crewe to Chester and in communities with varying socio-economic conditions. The role got him into many different schools, and he interacted with professionals at different levels, from governance and senior leadership to teaching assistants and teachers of special needs. This allowed him to fully understand the workings of a school and learn how the business of running a school really operates.
In 2009, Nigel joined Holmes Chapel Comprehensive as deputy head, and in 2020 he became acting head teacher, then head and now executive head.
Since he became head, the school community has been touched by tragedies, more than most.
During these times, the families affected were his number one priority, and any action the school took was always in discussion with them as they are the ones who have lost the most. The outcome of these experiences is that other schools now turn to Holmes Chapel Comprehensive for advice on procedure when dealing with tragedies, and they have worked with Cheshire East Council’s critical incident team on best practices. While Nigel feels these are very unfortunate lessons for any school to have to learn, he is glad to be able to help in any way he can.
Looking to the future, Nigel wants the school to be more embedded in the community and for Holmes Chapel Comprehensive to continue to deliver the very best education for all and be the school and college of choice for every child in the community.
The school is part of a community group, alongside the Partnership, The Villages Mag, the Parish Council, and other organisations who meet regularly to discuss how we can all work together in a meaningful and valuable way. Plans are being made to get local people to come and talk to classes about their lives and careers, to bring the community into the school with regular festivals, going out to village events and having a parent forum to enable people to come in and talk.
My chat with Nigel took place in his office, which sits in what feels like the heart of the school, his window looking out onto a small quad with a sheltered area. At break times and between classes it becomes a hive of activity, with the sound of pupils moving about and the hum of talking and laughing. It is an atmosphere of reassuring joy and, as Nigel explained, when Covid closed their doors, losing this sound made the school a very lonely place. Spending time with him and learning about his past, I understand where he gets his motivation from to work with children and be a positive influence; his life experience means he is well placed to lead a school and support his pupils to be the best they can be.
Towards the end of our meeting, I asked Nigel what he is most proud of, and he said the fact that he still loves working with children and that he still teaches regularly. This keeps him going and is the reason why he is sitting in his office in the heart of the school, listening to the buzz of the pupils going from class to class.