You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that after 40-plus-some years in a profession you’d more or less seen it all. What a strange time it is then for Oakfield Prep School to say goodbye, at the end of this term, to one of its most treasured and longest-serving staff, Jill Davey. She has been a teacher here for 42 years, and like Oakfield itself, has truly become part of the fabric of the community and Dulwich life.
Even in the midst of this pandemic-interrupted swansong Jill remains as astute, child-focused and overwhelmingly positive as ever;
“This has been the most unusual year but when the children came back after lockdown, they came in, washed their hands, stood for a while, looked around the classroom, re-engaged with their environment and then just got on with their activities.”
They have clearly learned something from Jill who seems to blend non-stop enthusiasm with an insatiable work ethic:
“This period has helped me to think about the next stage in my life. I’ve been on a crazy rollercoaster of next thing, next thing, next thing but this has enabled me to slow down, reset and prepare me for what comes next.”
And who can blame her for needing time to think about what her life will look like post-Oakfield? After all, her journey with the school began back in 1975 when David Essex and Leo Sayer were riding high in the charts and her son, Justin, took his first tottering steps into school, soon to be followed by his younger brother Spencer.
She reminisces that it was a much smaller school in those days, comprising solely of what is now the Prep side of the road, which at that time was still two separate buildings. Almost immediately she was a parent highly engaged with the goings-on at school, “helping out at trips, plays, concerts”, and leading the fundraising for the bricks that would be used to construct the school hall and bring the Oakfield buildings together for the first time. Now plays, concerts and even lunch(!) could actually be served on the school site. Prior to this the school had made use of Croxted Hall (now a block of flats) on Croxted Road for all these functions.
The Head at the time, Mrs Seager, must have spotted something in this energetic, go-getting parent, because before too long she asked Jill if she would like a job at the school. Despite already having a job working part-time with elderly residents in Lewisham she didn’t think twice about changing careers: “I had no doubts about taking up the challenge. I was following what I enjoyed.”
Jill has worked in Early Years throughout her career and clearly relishes the ongoing responsibility and challenge of nurturing the youngest children here at Oakfield where ‘every day is different’. She started as a TA in Lower Foundation and then led the re-opening of the Nursery (which was where the Bursar’s Office now sits) looking after 12 children by herself, admitting “it would not be legal by today’s standards.”
Then, during one of the most transformative periods at Oakfield, Jill shepherded the Lower School across the road to its present position after what had been the John Wycliffe secondary school became part of Oakfield. Sadly, the open-air swimming pool at the end of what is now the Pre-Prep playground went with it.
These drastic developments serve to illustrate Jill’s response when asked what her advice would be for teachers entering the profession: “You need to be adaptable to change.” School buildings change, headteachers change, even owners change, but Mrs Davey has been a steadfast, reassuring presence throughout.
There can’t be many other teachers who can claim to have taught three generations of the same family, nor who can regularly recognise parents at Open Days and observation days as previous pupils of theirs. Perhaps one of the most tangible examples of Mrs Davey’s influence is former Oakfield pupil and current Early Years teacher Katy Treppass, who can distinctly remember running around Mrs Davey’s ankles and flowing skirts.
Jill reflects that: “I’ve (nearly) seen it all, and you have to let staff find their path; I may see them try something, knowing it’s not going to work, but you have to let them make their own mistakes…and I can see myself in all my staff, their mannerisms and methods, and that’s quite gratifying if it means I haven’t done a half-bad job.”
For Jill it is clearly all about the children:
“you never get two groups that are the same and that’s what makes it so exciting”, and marvels at the flexibility modern teaching allows to capture their attention by following their passions and interests: “if a child brings a snail shell to the classroom we can change-up the lesson plan and do a lesson all about snails.”
Another growing trend in education that Jill has observed is the growth of government statutory legislation, especially in Early Years, but praises this vital safeguarding which had previously enabled disreputable schooling to go unchecked.
Teaching any age at any level comes with challenges, but Jill is adamant that you need to enjoy what you’re doing, adding: “If a school, or teaching isn’t right for you, then you should leave. Teaching is a passion that MUST come from the heart!”.
Leaving is not something Jill has seemingly ever had to really consider, as she has remained settled in the area and “it truly doesn’t feel like that amount of time [42 years] because I enjoy it so much.” Moyra Thompson, who is Jill’s eighth Head at Oakfield, remarks:
“Through her instinctive knowledge of how young children grow and learn and her long experience of the Dulwich context in which we operate, Jill has been instrumental in building Oakfield Nursery’s deservedly excellent reputation – memorably described by one former parent as ‘A little magic kingdom’”.
Having been so giving to others throughout her life, no-one can begrudge Jill spending more time tending to her own magic kingdom. She plans to spend her retirement spending precious time with her husband, seeing much more of her family, chiefly her mum, her two sons, and her grandchildren in Australia. She even has eyes on joining a rock choir and finding her niche someway between the WI calendar girls and coffee shop yummy mummies: “I don’t think I fit in either camp, so a rock choir should hopefully be a nice blend of the two.”
When asked what she will miss most about Oakfield she responds without hesitation: “The children of course, my staff, the teachers, the staff room fun and the parents too.” She is modest to the last, describing Oakfield as “having created our own little niche” that is “so unique and special.” Perhaps we should all take time to reflect on the fact that it is people like Jill who surely make it that way.
On behalf of everyone at Oakfield Prep School, and beyond, we all wish Jill the richest of richly-deserved retirements.