New Eton head to put emphasis on pupils’ emotional intelligence

The Guardian, 21.10.15, school’s youngest headmaster signals change in tone and will take holistic approach to focus on happiness and mental health rather than elitism. HMC member Simon Henderson, headmaster of leading independent Eton College features.

The new headmaster of Eton College wants to develop emotional intelligence in his pupils and provide them with a “holistic, rounded” education.

Simon Henderson, who took over the headship of the top public school at the beginning of this term, is attempting to signal a change of tone at Eton – a byword for privilege, power and considerable wealth.

“The whole point of school is to prepare young people for happiness and success in their personal lives and working lives,” Henderson told the Guardian.

“There’s more awareness of emotional intelligence and of mental health, of young people building confidence and resilience to manage themselves in a fast-changing, challenging environment,” he said.

The move is the latest attempt by private schools to reduce some of the stresses pupils can find themselves in in highly competitive environments. Cheltenham Ladies’ College announced in the summer that it was bringing in meditation and curbing homework demands.

Henderson said that while excellent academic standards were important, he wanted Eton College – which has educated 19 British prime ministers, including the present incumbent, as well as countless members of the establishment over generations – to be innovative, forward thinking, outward looking and open.

“Any self-respecting institution should be reflecting from time to time on things it does,” he said. “The best traditions should stand up to modern scrutiny. This is about incremental change.”

Henderson, who went to Winchester and studied history at Brasenose College, Oxford, wants more bursaries for boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, so that anyone with the necessary talent can be financially supported at the £35,000-a-year school.

Currently, Eton spends £6.5m on means-tested bursaries; 73 of the 1,300 pupils have their entire fees paid by Eton, while a further 270 receive significant financial support, and have on average two-thirds of their fees paid for them.

Among those who have recently benefited from a full scholarship, Henderson said, is Andrew Isama, a former pupil at Wayne Rooney’s old school in Croxteth, Liverpool, who is now on his gap year after sixth-form studies at Eton. “We want talented boys to be able to come to Eton whatever their financial circumstances,” Henderson insists.

At 39, Henderson is the youngest Eton headmaster. Formerly head of Bradfield co-educational college in Berkshire, he was encouraged to apply for the job, vacated by Tony Little, after a period at Eton as head of history from 2001-2009.

For his interview with the Guardian, Henderson is trying his best to defy expectations. Rather than the formal black gown usually worn by Eton beaks, he wore a smart but casual felted blue suit with striped shirt and red tie. He was speaking in the brand new Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research, which, with its sleek white walls and designer chairs, would not look out of place in a smart inner-city academy.

Traditions remain, however, and at the end of the interview boys emerge from their lessons dressed in their traditional tailcoats, waistcoats and formal striped trousers. Despite reports, there are no current plans to scrap the distinctive uniform.

Henderson, a father of four small children aged seven, five, three and two, clearly wishes to be seen as a modernising headmaster. That was his pitch for the job, which he finally secured after four interviews.

He talks energetically about technology transforming teaching, about the importance of the creative arts in developing life skills, about partnerships beyond the school, opening up facilities, service and being socially responsible. He said he wants better access to sports for all boys at Eton – not just those at the top of their game.

His references are not grand or literary – he mentions former England rugby coach Clive Woodward’s 2004 autobiography Winning! and his theory of “critical non-essentials”. And at an assembly at Holyport College – the boarding free school Eton sponsors down the road – about success, determination and team work. Incy Wincy Spider and Bob the Builder are used to make his points.

Henderson acknowledges that the vast majority of pupils will leave Eton with outstanding results and go on to universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, and further afield in the US. What’s more important to him, he says, are the values they leave with.

He wants them to be “confident without being arrogant”, to have integrity, moral courage, resilience and perseverance to overcome obstacles so as to make “a really positive contribution” to wider society.

It’s a long way from the perceptions held by many of Eton, not helped by recent accounts of hedonistic behaviour by wealthy Old Etonians who party at Oxford in clubs such as the Bullingdon and the Piers Gaveston then go on to dominate British political life.

Henderson accepts that the school is a political football, “particularly at the moment as the prime minister is from Eton”.

“I understand that people will have particular perceptions of Eton,” he says. “They are entitled to their opinion. There’s no point us being defensive about it. The responsibility sits with me and Eton as an institution to try and show people what I regard as the real Eton.

“Utimately it’s a school,” says Henderson. “It’s a school full of teenage boys and teenage boys are teenage boys.”

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