Farewelling a tireless’ school leader

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Queenstown Primary principal John Western quits his post tomorrow after five years. Celia Williams talks to the driven leader about his time at the helm

John Western makes no bones about insisting on excellence during his job as head of Queenstown Primary. 

“I have very high expectations and demand a lot – but I would never ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself,” he says. 

In his meticulous office on the neat and tidy school grounds, the 43-year-old principal confesses to being overtly organised. 

“I’m a bit fastidious for details and I expect things to be done properly.” 

It’s Western’s high standards and leadership of 53 staff and 620 pupils that has brought about a glowing indicative Education Review Office report after the Government-appointed assessors visited the school recently. 

The ERO report won’t be officially released for a few weeks, but reviewers have informed the school it’ll be a good one. 

“It’s a great credit to our school, our staff and to the enormous amount of support from the board. It’s an immense endorsement,” Western says. 

“Professionally it could well be the highlight of my career, to be honest.” 

Western arrived at QPS five years ago as a fresh-faced principal after running a school in Lower Hutt since the age of 33. Taking over from long-time, respected principal Mel Gazzard, Western concedes it was initially difficult to fill the “very big shoes”. 

“I came in as a young principal with different ideas to how the school had been running. I respect that it could have been a challenge for the staff.” 

Western spent time looking at other schools and finding out what the benchmark was. 

“I challenged the staff – you’re already capable people at a capable school – there’s nothing to stop you from reaching excellence. 

“It’s been a lot of hard work from a lot of people, but it’s paid off.”

Like the Queenstown community, QPS has changed dramatically over the past 10 years in its demographics to become more cosmopolitan. QPS now has 32 nationalities on the roll. 

Dealing with the growth hasn’t been without challenges though. 

Since 2006 the school has spent $4 million on infrastructure, including adding seven classrooms. Next year a further $1.2m will be spent on upgrading the older classrooms. 

Western stresses that QPS is well-placed to cater for any demand caused by spill-over from the new burgeoning Remarkables Primary, which is currently at odds with the Ministry of Education over a zone reduction. 

“We have the systems, the people and the knowledge. We just don’t have all the lovely classrooms we’d like but we have great teaching, which is a lot more important than shiny new classrooms.” 

Not having a census this year has hindered Queenstown’s case to the MoE, he adds. 

“It means the Ministry won’t have confidence in what we are saying – that our under-five population is growing fast, and that all schools are going to be under pressure. 

“The Ministry needs to be proactive rather than reactive and secure another site and build another primary school.

“It is very frustrating that there isn’t an acknowledgement that we are growing, and for the foreseeable future Queens­town will continue to grow.” 

Board chairman Noel Saxon says Western is a “tireless” leader who has brought “excellent results” to the school. 

“We have fantastic staff but that has been driven a lot by the good change that John’s implemented,” he says.” 

“We will miss him but we feel the school’s in a great position for the future and well set up for the new principal.” 

Dr Lyn Bird, from Christchurch’s Ilam School, takes charge at the start of term four. 

Western starts his new position as principal of the preparatory school at the private Scots College in Wellington next term. Sons Elliot, 12, Ryan, 14 and wife Linda – a relief teacher who “works hard keeping the family functioning while I work most of the breathing hours” – will stay in Queenstown till the end of the year
Western says the decision to leave QPS is for the professional opportunity and to be closer to relatives but the family intends to eventually return to Queenstown to live. 

“We have all made fantastic, lifelong friends. 

“I’ve got a great life – I’m very, very lucky. I don’t take it for granted, either.”