Barrister to Judge to… Prep School Head. How did that happen?

I was very fortunate to attend a brilliant Prep Boarding School as a child and I am sure that it was the making of me in many ways.

I still remember all of my inspirational teachers’ names, faces and characters, although they were so much more than teachers. They really cared about us and our futures. They knew us as individuals and steered and encouraged us accordingly. To have people you respect whole-heartedly believe in you from such a young age makes all the difference in my view.

I not only received an excellent education at my Prep School but I feel like it was also where most of my core character traits were nurtured to the fore. I definitely gained a strong sense of determination and resilience at Prep School. I became confident in taking risks, making sure that I reduced the chances of failure with preparation and commitment. I also learned the importance of standing up for others who may not be as strong as you and standing up against those who attempt to bully or control, whatever the personal cost. I formed some wonderful friendships and together we had so much fun whilst excelling in so many different areas.

I owe my Prep School a great deal.

At the age of 11, my English teacher, Mr Mingham, encouraged me to try debating and being a youngster who always was inclined to rise to a challenge, I agreed and signed up to propose the debating society’s next motion, ‘This House Believes in the Existence of Ghosts’. I absolutely loved it. I signed up for every debate after that and I remember Mr Mingham telling me that I was, ‘born to argue’. I took it as a compliment at the time! It was during Year 7, despite not knowing of any lawyers in my family, that I announced to my teachers and school friends that I was going to be a Barrister.

10 years later, I had a string of excellent A-Levels, a degree in Law from Cambridge and I was heading up to London as a Middle Temple Queen Mother’s Scholar to qualify as a Barrister. My Prep School mentality – work hard, play hard – stayed with me along the way. My love for sport, music, theatre, international cuisine and great company, all introduced to me at Prep School, continued to provide balance to a busy and fulfilling career at the Bar. I loved being on my feet in Court, arguing my clients’ cases to the best of my ability. I developed quite a reputation on circuit for getting to the heart of the matter and not pulling my punches in cross-examination. I think perhaps the Yorkshire accent made me appear even more feisty!

Always hungry for fresh challenges, at the age of 32 I was appointed a Deputy District Judge alongside my practice in Chambers. Four years later and by then a mum to two wonderful daughters, I left the Bar and took up a full time post on the Bench. I was appointed to Milton Keynes’ County Court and for the first time in my career, I began working in Family Law, predominantly child protection cases and private family law matters involving high levels of conflict and complexity; often the two overlapped. The team of Family Judges I worked alongside at Milton Keynes were quite remarkable and also tremendously supportive. They were what made the four years I spent sitting in Family Law far more bearable than it otherwise would have proved. The cases were heart-breaking and relentless in number. The sense I quickly developed of how many children were suffering significant neglect or abuse in what is supposed to be a developed country was overwhelming. My strong sense of professional duty came to the fore. So too did my innate passion for helping children, who by the very nature of their age and dependency are all vulnerable.

I read report after report of children who had so much potential and promise but who sadly were unlikely ever to fulfil the dreams they once dared to dream because their lives had been destroyed by the very people whose duty it was to love, support and protect them. As a Judge, I was too often searching to find the least worst option for their future care, knowing that whatever I decided, their future was not looking bright and I would probably never hear about them again. (Best for me not to get started on the grossly under-resourced and wholly inadequate children’s services departments in this country, save to say that I have the upmost regard for dedicated social workers who, despite wanting to do all they can to help the families they work with, are all too often not given the opportunity to do their jobs to an acceptable standard).

I decided I wanted to do far more for children than being a Family Court Judge could ever allow me to do. I wanted to be one of those hands-on, key figures in my Prep School who changed lives, cared for, guided, inspired and believed in children and launched them in to bright and exciting futures armed with knowledge, life skills, courage and determination, and with the hope and aspiration that they would in time become leaders and visionaries and forces for good in the world. I resigned as a Judge in 2018 and went back to the world I loved and appreciated most in my childhood; a life changing, independent Prep Boarding School. I am extremely lucky that the Governors at Swanbourne House saw something special in me and gave me the opportunity to move into Headship via what is still seen as an unorthodox route.

I am now in my second year as Head, with an outstanding ISI report for the School to be rightly proud of, and I am certain I have found my calling. It is an honour and a privilege every day to work with some of the brightest, most engaging, capable, ambitious, quick-witted and caring children you could ever wish to meet. I am also exceptionally lucky to lead a team of dedicated and inspiring teachers and support staff who give their chosen vocation their all. We are so excited to see where every promising young Swanbournian goes on to in later life after all that we contribute to their early education and all-round, early life experiences; and they move on knowing we will always be here for them if they need us.

Jane Thorpe

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