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In search of time and space

Spring 2021, Prep School magazine

In James Joyce’s great short story ‘The Dead’, Gabriel Conroy, dilettante schoolmaster, bemoans the passing of a more spacious age. Those of us whose careers in teaching started before say 1997, to which time I date the death of the deferential parent, may well reflect that we entered the profession in a relatively spacious era.

My teaching career began when I covered for a friend in the Summer Term of 1987, telling my first Head Master that I was to be at Eton “for one term only” and had no interest in working in schools. He nodded sagely and wished me well of my doctoral research and life as an academic. Thankfully, he did not hold me to my statement. Within weeks at Eton, I had found my vocation. What was and is the appeal?

Independent schools make the most of their teachers’ talents and deploy them to the benefit of all of their pupils. That can be in terms of sports coaching or with support for pupils in the performing arts, debating, charitable work, adventurous activities or student journalism. The all-round-schoolmaster (a woman or a man) finds the greatest job satisfaction in being able to tease out every pupil’s aptitudes and enthusiasms and, indeed, can find new enthusiasms for herself or himself along the way.

Arriving at Eton, I encountered a Provost, Lord Charteris, who could unabashedly proclaim, when asked about his role: “The Provost does nothing and the Vice Provost helps him”. In fact, what he offered Eton was a lifetime of experience as a courtier, and he ensured he had the space in which to think about the counsel he would offer to the Fellows of the College and its Head Master. That he seemed to have all the time in the world helped everyone else keep everything in perspective.

The cult of being seen to be working hard can take hold in a school and has a deleterious effect on any common room. Blessed are those who sustain a work-life balance. One of my ablest heads of subject came to see me early in my first headship and told me that he needed my permission to come in to school just on time and to go home when the school day ended. He assured me that I would not find his work wanting and warned me not to listen to those who convince themselves of how hard they are working, but for whom efficiency is an undervalued virtue. The self-proclaimed teacher-martyrs often cost others as well as themselves dearly.

What I want for every colleague is that she or he finds a mentor. I also want every teacher I appoint to be someone who can be a mentor to pupils, not just a subject teacher or coach.

That Eton Head Master who ushered me into teaching, the late Sir Eric Anderson, was my mentor. I didn't go back to him to ask for advice on particular issues, but certain things he said in passing lodged firmly with me and have proved to be true. The first was the advice to surround yourself with people who bring you answers rather than problems. The second was that as soon as anyone suggests that she or he wants to resign you should let her or him do so. And the third precept was to never worry about making a decision late. Time and time again, I have found the value of waiting, taking soundings and time rather than following the noise created by the loudest voices around the need for immediate decisions on matters that are important, but not urgent.

Eric Anderson also appointed me to one of the best jobs in teaching. It was as Master in College, the housemaster of the King's Scholars at Eton, that I first encountered the world of Prep School Boys. One of the joys of the work was to interview, annually, 100 prospective Kings Scholars from the country’s great Prep Schools. The interview I best enjoyed was with a bright but unaffected 13 year old (now a successful theatre director) who told me that the reason Eton puts all its scholars into one house was to create “a library of minds”. Less successful, but equally memorable, was the interview that saw me enjoying the company of a sparkling 12 year old (now a poet) who at the end of the first evening of four days of exams and interviews reflected: “Put it this way, sir; if it was golf, I'd be on the leader-board”.

The search for space in education - the finding of time, talent and resource to encourage pupils to look beyond the curriculum - is the defining feature of my educational philosophy.  I arrived as Head at Oakham School very happy to inherit and promote Project 20:20, Tony Little's innovative scheme to recognise and nurture leadership, teamwork and  communication among students with an aptitude for enterprise and to encourage in those students the entrepreneurial gift of being able to think outside the box.

At Dulwich College I was heartened when my Deputy Master Academic picked up on my idea of ‘free learning’. I thought the phrase would disappear into the great wash of forgotten sound bites about which teachers sneer; instead, we oversaw its embedding into  the story of what makes a Dulwich education – in London and through our international partner schools. Free learning is the celebration of all the students undertake free of the constraints of the syllabus and it is freely engaged in by pupils and their teachers. Our Liberal Studies and A Level Plus modules, our symposia and free learning weeks, encourage pupils to enjoy learning for its own sake rather than for grades and certificates. As Michael in the Remove (Year 12) said of Dulwich Political week: “I really enjoyed hearing contrasting and passionate opinions on matters concerning our future as young adults. That’s an education”.

In 2020 there has been much to celebrate in how quickly independent schools have been able to adapt to virtual and hybrid learning. I hope that in 2021 we can play our part in overcoming the nation’s digital deficit. I hope too that another effect of the year of COVID will be that the examined curriculum will become progressively less all-consuming and that we might be able to leave space to ensure that our courses cannot be spoon-fed.

If we can do this, we might recover something of that spaciousness for which Gabriel Conroy yearned:

We are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hyper-educated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day. [We are] living in a less spacious age.     

Dr Joe Spence
Master of Dulwich College

Spring 2021, Prep School magazine - In search of time and space

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