Head Teacher of Ysgol Cwm Rhondda in Porth, Rhian Ellis, talks about employing 24 former pupils at her school
The school where 27 former pupils are now on the staff
Twenty-seven former pupils of a Welsh secondary school loved it there so much, they couldn’t bear to leave – so they didn’t, or at least not for long.
Instead, they are now part of the 70-strong team at Ysgol Cwm Rhondda in Porth, in a variety of roles, including deputy head, assistant head, teacher, learning support assistant and administration.
Describing the Welsh medium school in the heart of a strong Valleys community as “a family” some said their days at Ysgol Cwm Rhondda inspired them to go into teaching with the specific aim of returning.
A number said returning as staff was “like coming home”.
As they gathered to share memories in the school tucked behind terraced streets with views across the valley, they said it was their life rather than a job.
Music teacher Amy Morgan, 29, said her old head teacher “welcomed me with open arms” and that being a former pupil helped her relate to those she now taught.
“As a pupil I had a positive experience at school. I enjoyed lessons and the school supported me in every way. Music was my favourite lesson and the lessons inspired me to become a music teacher.”
She and other former pupils were employed by current head teacher Rhian Morgan Ellis, who was their former head and/or Welsh teacher at the school.
For Rhian, 57, who has been at the school 30 years and head for 10, it’s a “win win situation”.
She said recruiting and retaining the best staff was hard but she knew her former pupils and their talents well. She did not intentionally take on former pupils, she said, but found them the best candidates for the jobs she gave them.
This year the 750-pupil Welsh medium school was ranked green – the highest category – in the Welsh Government’s latest colour categorisation.
“It is the kind of place that once you’re here it grabs you, that’s because there are such positive relationships,” added Rhian.
“My staff go above and beyond. At times we are open seven days a week. There are revision clubs and holiday clubs.”
Having staff who knew each other and pupils well was essential for academic achievement, wellbeing and staff retention, she believed.
Former classmates, or not, all the staff knew each other well, she added.
Deputy head, Craig Spanswick, taught six of the 27 former pupils who are now staff. His deputy, assistant head Osian Wyn Griffith, is also a former pupil, who left the school in 1995.
Craig said staff knowing one another so well made for good working relationships between those who were former pupils and those who were not too.
“You can describe the school as a family. All the opportunities I was provided as a pupil I wanted to give back.”
Arriving as a newly qualified teacher in 2004, Craig said: “It never felt strange because no-one made it feel strange, it’s such an inclusive school.”
Among those he taught Welsh to is the school’s new Welsh teacher Rhian Seren Hâf MacMillan.
“While I was a pupil here, I knew I could count on numerous members of staff to support me through difficult times,” said the 23 year-old.
“As a new teacher, I always have questions and I never feel nervous or anxious to ask anyone – everyone is very welcoming and supportive.”
Learning support assistant Amelia Davies, 19, only left Ysgol Cwm Rhondda two years ago.
“It’s a lovely place to work, it’s like we’re a big family,” she said, “Going from pupil to staff wasn’t hard. As a headteacher, Rhian was always approachable and easy to talk to, and as a member of staff this is still very true.”
Head of music performance, Owain Harris, 39, said his old headteacher and now boss, was the reason he came back.
“Rhian is so supportive. The ethos in the school is positive where everyone is encouraged to be the best they can be; be it pupils or staff.”
Among his happiest memories as a pupil are playing rugby for the school and taking part in school productions, but he admitted to feeling a bit old remembering how the school was: “I remember blackboards and chalk in every class.”
Ailey Bessant, 30, left Ysgol Cwm Rhondda in 2007 with the express aim of training to be a teacher and returning. She now teaches humanities and skills in the school that has been such a big part of her life.
As she puts it: “When I came to school the staff seemed to love their jobs. That inspired me to become a teacher. The school is a happy place.”
Attendance officer Elisabeth Ryder, 38, summed up the views of many, saying returning was “like coming home”.
“Everyone is so friendly, that it almost feels like I never left.”
She said there were new faces since she was a pupil, “but the atmosphere and friendliness is still very much the same and Ysgol Cwm Rhondda has a very homely feel.”
It’s this sense of belonging which brought back Helen Griffith, 46, progress leader, safeguarding officer and Welsh teacher.
“Returning to the school was very much like coming home,” said Helen.
“Rhian pushed me constantly as a pupil and then as a work colleague.
“She is the reason I decided to become a teacher and why my children are now brought up through the medium of Welsh. I wanted to have that impact on the pupils I teach.”
Elisabeth Ryder, 38, who left the school in 1999 returned last Christmas as attendance officer. Elisabeth, whose sister Elen Perry is finance officer, said: “It’s lovely to come back. It’s like coming home. It feels as if I’ve never been away. They take you in and look after you.”
It was the same for science teacher and head of year eight Rhian Roberts, 31.
She said: “I honestly felt like I was coming home when I came back here to work, even though I’d left 10 years before.”
She added that standards were “far higher now” than when she was a pupil and she remembered enjoying the annual Eisteddfod.
Elen Perry, 34, said she enjoyed working with former classmates and teachers.
“The school has a couple of extra buildings (since I left), but the feel of the school hasn’t changed, it’s still the friendly and nurturing school it always has been.”
Rhian was this week named headteacher of the year in a secondary school at the Pearson National Teaching Awards which is considered the “Oscars” of the teaching profession.