25 Jun 2014
Eton Not in a Mess
The appointment of a new head for Eton has occasioned many flutterings and, no doubt, some weeping in dusty corners among confiscated mobiles, cracked cricket bats and academic gowns. For many in the profession, it is ‘the’ top job and the fact that it has gone to a 38-year-old makes the position, in all likelihood, out of reach for anyone now over 30.
The appointment has occasioned much discussion and we were invited to opine in The Daily Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/10911798/What-does-it-take-to-be-a-superhead.html which we did on Friday 20th June. Here are a few select extracts from our wit and wisdom:
Henderson’s appointment is thought-provoking. He hardly looks 38 and is positively boyish in energies and demeanour. Is this what parents at any school – let alone one with a unique tradition – expect – or want – in their head, notwithstanding his academic or sporting prowess?… They were – so legend, at least, has it – admired for their oratory, their sobriety, their humanity, their vision. It may be that these qualities are now completely out of date. It may also be that parents today want the heads of their children’s schools to be something else entirely…
Good Schools Guide writers talk daily to parents… We hear criticism especially of heads’ presentational skills and ability to make a good speech, as if that will be the determining factor in the parental choice of school. It is comparable to the new phenomenon of choosing which political party to vote for based on the TV debating style of the party leaders…
Parents today want ‘visible’ heads, heads who meet them at the door, who know that Oscar has just won a maths Olympiad or that Sophie is going on the skiing trip. Heads who know their first names. Which makes it tricky if you are a really good head, admired by your peers, co-opted onto committees and elected to high office. Or, possibly, if you are a respected academic and write books – a desirable accomplishment in a head of a strongly academic school, you might think? Or maybe not. How can a school run well if the head is always at conferences or meeting his publisher?
No head of an independent school today can avoid the commercial aspects of running a school… Think of a classic English public school – its acres of well-rolled pitches, its spires, crenellations and leaded lights, its dorms and chapel – and the head will be thinking of the refurbishment and maintenance budget.
So – how important is a good head to a school? The truth is ‘very’ but not ‘vital’. A poor school can, in a remarkably short time, be transformed under vigorous, intelligent and humane leadership into a thriving, happy one. A fundamentally sound school will survive a poor head – and many do. A weak, demoralised school will collapse and die under bad management. A harder question is, ‘what makes a good head?’ And it is a question to which every parent has a different answer.
30 Apr 2014
At this time of year, Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants begin, very slightly, to wind down. The howling, gnashing of teeth and sense among some parents of 11 year olds that they have utterly failed and ruined their children’s lives forever begins to subside and a grim, but bitter, realism prevails. “Yes, ” they admit sadly, “St Sparkly’s is a good school but it isn’t, no it definitely isn’t, Ivory Towers.” We are sympathetic – but our sympathy is tempered by a sense that parents are endlessly, needlessly, beating themselves up. “Magenta was a perfect fit for Ivory Towers,” continues our desolate parent. “She would have done so well there, contributed so much.” But, the head was adamant, the registrar unmoved – even by offers of celebrity family members to open fetes and generous donations to the appeal fund. Magenta is no 19 on the waiting list and, at this stage, they should accept St Sparkly’s if offered – a very fine school – and be glad. It is, after all, much higher up the league tables than, say, Welcome Hall.
So – a bit of plain speaking from us aimed, really at the parents of next and future years’ applicants.
Ivory Towers – and similar high profile, league-table-topping schools – are very fine schools indeed and their results are eye-watering. But why are their results so good? The results are good because these schools cream off the very best performers in tests at 11+. These children are then taught for 7 years by high calibre academic teachers. Of course, they do well. The school could probably stick them in a library for seven years and leave them to it and they would probably fare little worse. It is not difficult to get top results out of exceptionally bright and motivated children.
So – is it so important that Magenta goes to Ivory Towers?
St Sparkly’s takes bright children and the teaching is good. The brightest, happiest and most motivated children will achieve just as highly as they would at Ivory Towers. They will have the pleasure of not jockeying every day to be seen as an achiever in a school where everyone achieves everything, seemingly without much effort. And they won’t be under daily pressure to justify their place or live up to unrealistic expectations.
And what if Magenta does not get into either Ivory Towers or St Sparkly’s? What if the only school she can get into is Welcome Hall?
Welcome Hall is not academically selective. The results are surprisingly good. Welcome Hall does not teach everyone to the same high level but sees every pupil as an individual. The teachers there seek to maximise everyone’s strengths, minimise everyone’s weaknesses and teach everyone to their own potential. Pupils at Welcome Hall make enormous progress – far greater, proportionately, that at Ivory Towers or St Sparkly’s. They learn confidence and the pleasure of seeing their results get better and better. They feel cared about and their achievements are celebrated – not seen as only to be expected. The brightest and most-motivated Welcome Hall pupils will achieve just as highly, go to equally good universities as those from Ivory Towers and St Sparkly’s.
So – which is the best school?
And – far more importantly – which is the best school for Magenta?
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