Is this the end for tailcoats at Eton College?

The Telegraph, 10.10.15, Eton’s new (and youngest-ever) headmaster wants more bursaries, 'real world’ values – and might even bin the tailcoats. HMC member Simon Henderson headmaster of leading independent Eton College features.

Simon Henderson greets me with an apology. Eton’s new headmasterat 39 the youngest ever – says he can’t welcome me into his office because he hasn’t got one yet.

It is not, however, a sign that he’s struggling to find his feet at Britain’s most famous public school, alma mater to 19 prime ministers, including the incumbent, and many others now at the pinnacle of public life.

Quite the opposite. Henderson is relocating the head’s study from its traditional spot in a quiet corner of an ancient quad to a central new location where the 1,300 pupils mill about between lessons. “I want to be in the middle of the passing traffic of boys,” he tells me.

That Henderson intends to shake things up a little is clear: updating traditions – possibly even the uniform, with its distinctive tailcoats and “spongebag” trousers – and making more places available to pupils for whom the yearly fees of £35,000 a year are out of reach, are a priority.

He is committed to maintaining excellence but says a '“string of A*s” is not a guarantee of future happiness and wants his charges to understand that. Ultimately, his mission is to use the school’s resources and status to make a wider “forward-looking” contribution to British education policy.

But how will this contribution be greeted? The over-representation of Old Etonians in the Cabinet and the House of Commons of late has made the school something of a political football.

Stories of alleged unsavoury high jinks on the part of OEs in various exclusive Oxford university clubs such as the Bullingdon and the Piers Gaveston have created an impression that it exists in a parallel universe with rules of its own.

“I’m not going to make any political comments,” Henderson replies diplomatically. “We live in a democracy and everyone can have their opinion, but I do understand that people will have their perceptions of Eton.” In challenging them he intends to do more listening than lecturing.

“In building further on the partnerships with state schools that Eton already has we will have as much to learn, if not more, than we have to give. But I’m struck by what a forward‑thinking place Eton is trying to be.”

By appointing Henderson, the school governors couldn’t have given a clearer signal that they recognised the need for change.

He is, he says, “a normal sort of guy”, with an accent that is hard to place. Three of his children – aged seven, five and three – attend local schools. His wife, Ali, a civil servant and former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, today is looking after their youngest, aged 2, in the headmaster’s lodgings on site.

In a school where the boys still wear Victorian tailcoats and white dickey bows to lessons, their head is instead sporting what he calls “teacher casual” – a linen jacket and chino-like trousers. He dons a tie for the photographs but discards it immediately after.

Will he be extending that privilege to the 1,300 pupils? “Tradition is important here,” he replies cautiously, “and the uniform is a physical connection with that tradition. However, Eton hasn’t survived since 1440 by relying on tradition alone. It has constantly reinvented itself.” So is he hinting that something a little more 21st century might be on the cards?

“I’m not getting rid of the uniform this week,” he replies with an expression that suggests “watch this space”. He has perfected the knack of embodying the spirit of change, without actually promising anything concrete.

And what about co-ed? “My previous school” – he was head of Bradfield College in Berkshire for four years – “was co-educational. What makes a good school isn’t about whether it is all-boys or co-educational.” That, at least, sounds like a resolute “no”.

"It was an unexpected challenge when it came but one that I felt ultimately I couldn’t turn down."

Henderson was “encouraged to apply” for the vacancy at Eton, having previously spent eight years here as head of history, before decamping to Sherborne en route to Bradfield.

“It was an unexpected challenge when it came but one that I felt ultimately I couldn’t turn down,” he says.

And though his own schooling was solidly in the private sector – his South African-raised lawyer father and doctor mother sent him first to a local prep school near the family home in Kent, and then to Winchester – Henderson has a greater first-hand knowledge of other types of school than most of his illustrious predecessors.

A career in teaching was already in his sights when reading history at Brasenose College, Oxford. In his gap year he went to South Africa and taught in a school on the outskirts of Johannesburg. “I’d already thought I might want to teach, but it was my time there that inspired me.”

After a brief and unhappy flirtation with the City, he opted for a PGCE, the postgraduate teaching training qualification that is not as widespread in the private as in the state sector. His first job was teaching history at a comprehensive, Windsor Boys, between 1999 and 2001. A conscious choice of a state school? “At that stage, it was. I thought it was important to be in the state sector and get a wide experience, particularly given my own background.”

His next move was to Eton. Reverting to type? “I want to educate children and I think that my passion is educating young people whatever their background. That has always been my driver, rather than the particular type of school.”

That, surely, is to gloss over the substantial differences between state and private schools in terms of class size, resources and social mix. Educationalists, for example, refer to an “Eton effect” whereby privately educated pupils emerge from their schools with an inbuilt confidence.

“We take the view that young people learn as much, if not more, from each other as from their teachers and as much, if not more, outside the classroom as within it,” he replies. “This all breeds confidence.

However, I think it would be a big generalisation to say that privately educated pupils leave school with much more confidence than their state peers. That ethos of being confident without being arrogant, of having high expectations, being willing to challenge yourself is key at Eton, but is not exclusive to us, or to private schools.”

It is a reasonable defence, but I wonder how easy it is going to be to disarm the school’s detractors when he starts offering his thoughts on improving the nation’s schools.

"Young people learn as much, if not more, from each other as from their teachers and as much, if not more, outside the classroom as within it."

“Clearly at Eton we are fortunate in the resources, and we don’t have some of the challenges that teachers face in other schools. But ultimately schools are about people, and should be judged by the quality of the human relationships within them.”

And anyway, he adds, that picture of competitiveness, even hostility, between private and state sectors is misleading. “I have been a governor of several state schools and have always found that similarities between pupils and between teachers are far greater than their differences.”

High on Henderson’s agenda are more bursaries – “a top priority”. Currently some £6.5  million per year is spent on 73 pupils who pay no fees at all, and 270 who “have significant levels of financial support”. But what will this charismatic head be arguing for beyond the walls of the school?

Like his predecessor, Tony Little, he is not a fan of the exam and league table culture heavily promoted by Michael Gove when in office, and which still exerts such a steely grip on school timetables.

“While league tables show one important feature of a school – the examination results – they do not demonstrate the quality of the all-round education. And they tend not to take into account the academic profile of the intake and so do not usually demonstrate the progress made by pupils,” he explains.

Eton opts out of the league tables that are published immediately after the release of results in August – on the grounds that results change following re-marks. It is one policy that Henderson has no intention of reforming.

“Of course, exam results are the currency that the world uses, rightly or wrongly. If, as a school, you have a strong exam profile, that opens doors to the future for your pupils.”

But there is, he acknowledges, a cost. “How happy and successful your pupils are in their personal and professional life when they walk out of those doors depends on a much broader range of things than exam results. We must promote creativity. This country needs young people who have ideas for themselves and that must be encouraged in the curriculum.”

He quotes the benefits of drama, art and music – all marginalised in recent years by policymakers as non-“core” subjects and, according to teaching unions, starved of resources – as key. Pushing youngsters to strive solely for strings of A*s is a mistake, he argues.

"Exams don’t reflect work in the real world. You work with other people. You collaborate. You discuss."

“When I am going about my daily work at no point am I going to be asked to sit in silence in a room for two hours and write everything I know about a topic without consulting other people, or without the use of notes.

"Exams don’t reflect work in the real world. You work with other people. You collaborate. You discuss. The types of real-world skills required are not necessarily what is tested in exams.”

He is also determined to promote teachers and teaching as a career, believing that the profession deserves to be held in greater esteem. Even today, precious few Oxbridge graduates choose, as he did in 1998, to opt for teacher-training.

With some 20 or even 30 years ahead of him as Eton headmaster, Simon Henderson will have plenty of time to make a distinctive contribution to education debates. Does he worry as the new broom about getting people’s backs up? “Maybe I’m not everyone’s perception of what the Eton headmaster would be,” he concedes, “but I am the one they have got.”

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