HILARY Vipond knew she had struck gold from the moment she walked into Colchester’s St Mary’s School.

As a teacher and mum of two young boys, she faced a challenge to juggle the demands of her home and professional life.

However, the geographer was instantly struck by the school’s “warm, friendly and welcoming” community atmosphere.

And so swiftly did she settle that she has ended up staying put ever since.

That was in January 1996 and now, 25 years later, Mrs Vipond is celebrating a quarter of a century at the independent girls’ school.

Initially joining as head of personal, social, health and education, she went on to become vice-principal before going on to secure the role of principal in September 2006.

“It’s gone remarkably quickly - in a flash - and I had no idea I’d stay this long when I started all those years ago,” said Mrs Vipond.

“Back then, when I first took the job, I had a three-year-old and four-month-old son.

“I was heavily pregnant when I came for my interview and one of things I’ve always appreciated is the fact I could have my family and combine it with work and taking on positions of responsibility.

Gazette: Mrs Hilary Vipond at Sports Day, 2019

“I wanted to be the best I could be professionally but I also wanted to try and be the best wife, mum and citizen too.

“St Mary’s has allowed me to do that and, right from the start, I was struck by the warm, friendly atmosphere.

“It was remarkable and the same applies to the town, as well as the school. It’s such a nice place to live and I’ve always been happy here, both working at St Mary’s and living in Colchester.

Gazette: Mrs Hilary Vipond opening the new Kindergarten and Prep play area, September 2019

“It’s very different from my previous comprehensive school, in Barnet.

“That’s not to say I wasn’t happy there, too.

“It taught me a lot about focusing on individuals.

“Every child is different - all have things that make them tick - and that’s something I’ve taken into my work here.”

Mrs Vipond, only the seventh principal in St Mary’s 113-year history, has overseen both change and great success in her 25 years.

Gazette: Mrs Hilary Vipond with 2017 Scholars

GCSE results have been consistently high and, in November last year, the Lower School was ranked 12th highest performing prep school in England by the Sunday Times Parent Power listing.

Mrs Vipond has spearheaded many nationally-recognised accolades for St Mary’s, such as becoming an Eco School, International School and receiving National Wellbeing and Healthy Schools status.

The school has become a global member of Round Square, an international network of schools where the key ideals of learning include internationalism, democracy, environmentalism, adventure and leadership.

Mrs Vipond, 60, believes that ethos mirrors everything she believes is important about education.

In addition to academia, she has always strived to open students’ eyes to the world around them, teaching them inclusivity, humility and a feeling that the sky is the limit.

She said: “The emotional wellbeing and happiness of the girls is always of paramount importance.

“It’s about opening the girls’ eyes to the world around them and not just being in the classroom, but instead helping them become better, more caring people.

“It’s always been our mantra that happy students become high achievers.

“It’s also crucially important to have happy staff, because they’re the most important resource at any school.

“My predecessor made me feel valued and it’s something I’ve always strived for, too.

Gazette: Mrs Hilary Vipond with students and Flossy the dog!

“You can have all the technology and textbooks in the world but if your staff aren’t happy and looked after, you won’t be successful.

“It’s no surprise some of the staff here exceed my 25 years. Some have been here 30 years.

“It’s lovely to have that continuity but we’re certainly not complacent and there’s no chance of becoming stale.

“Staff are always learning, developing and training to be the best they can be and that’s certainly been true during the pandemic.

“It seems a bit gloomy at the moment but there are plenty of lovely, positive things going on and none more so than here at St Mary’s.

“It’s been a challenging time but, thanks to the hard work of our staff and girls, things have gone well.

“Everyone has worked hard to adapt and make the best of the situation.

“The same goes for our wonderfully-supportive parents. Many are former students and they come from all different walks of life.

“Sending your children here isn’t just about being wealthy. They work hard because they believe it gives their girls the best possible start.”

While Mrs Vipond has been an ever-present for a quarter of a century, it’s going to be the end of an era when she retires at the end of the summer term. She is looking forward to doing more of the things she loves - playing sport, walking, cycling, skiing and generally keeping fit.

She said: “I’m looking forward to taking different opportunities and embracing new challenges - just as we tell our girls to do.”