Swot of the Antarctic

The Sunday Times, 19/10/14, HMC member Julian Thomas, Headmaster of Caterham School and incoming Head of Wellington College believes in building character. So, inspired by Captain Scott, he’s walking to the South Pole

Next month the headmaster of a public school will strike out from the coast of Antarctica for the South Pole.

Julian Thomas, 47, will haul his own sledge, eat a Christmas dinner of turkey mush and try not to succumb to cold so intense that it freezes a man’s sweat even inside a snow suit. He hopes to reach the pole — a 600-mile journey undertaken successfully by only 300 people— by mid-January.

In preparation he has been reading excerpts from his childhood copy of a Ladybird book on the explorer Robert Scott to some of the 11 and 12-year-olds at Caterham School in Surrey, where he is head.

“When I was a young boy I was fascinated by Captain Scott. I had that book by my bed as I was growing up,” says Thomas.

His school has given him a sabbatical to undertake the trip and he hopes it will inspire the children at Caterham, including his sons, George, 12, and Christian, 11. His children, he says, “are excited and proud, constantly asking me questions and trying on my kit.

“Pupils are going to follow my progress on a map. I expect to learn about leadership, responsibility and togetherness. There’s a red-and-white pole at the South Pole, so we’ll probably touch it and take photos. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Next autumn Thomas, the son of a printer from the East End of London, will take overthe helm of Wellington College, one of Britain’s great public schools, founded more than 150 years ago for the sons of army officers as a memorial to the Iron Duke. Alumni include Rory Bremner, Will Young, George Orwell and Sebastian Faulks, and fees are more than £30,000 a year.

Like Sir Anthony Seldon, Wellington’s outgoing head, Thomas is a passionate believer in a rounded education — in the importance of developing all a child’s talents and abilities and in building their character and resilience.

Trips such as his expedition to the South Pole, or — on a smaller scale — the Duke of Edinburgh’s awards that most privately educated schoolchildren take part in, all help build character, he says.

“Children learn a lot outside the classroom,” he says. “You learn a lot about yourself when you don’t get into the warm minibus trailing you but struggle on through the rain carrying a backpack.”

He even urges staff to teach lessons out of doors. “If you are in an English lesson and you are studying a poem about autumn, you can go outside to feel the stuff you are writing about. We have a First World War practice trench. What an inspirational way to teach the First World War — to be in the woods experiencing the sights and sounds these people had at the time,” he says.

One of his greatest fears is that a pupil “will go off to university and be all at sea because they do not know how to do things for themselves”.

It is a disastrous trend that he has seen often and it stems, he believes, from cramming children solely to excel at exams. He has seen too many with straight A and A* grades at GCSE and A-level arrive at university and then drop out.

“The pressure applied to achieving outstanding exam results has the consequence of training children for the exam rather than for life and that has to be avoided at all costs,” he says.

For Thomas, the mark of a good school is that it teaches children to love learning and to have the confidence to study by themselves.

“If you prepare children to think and learn independently, the exam results will also be good,” he says.

It is a lesson learnt from his childhood. His parents scrimped and saved to send him to private school, which he loved, spending every minute busy before leaving to study for a computer science degree.

His early career was spent working in IT for BP. It was “well paid” but not fulfilling. On a packed escalator at London’s Liverpool Street station one morning he had an epiphany.

“I remember thinking I was not inspired by what I was doing. I was in my mid-twenties. I was absolutely sure I wanted to do something that was going to inspire me, something I was going to look forward to every day.

“That day I contacted universities about teacher training. Within a few months I was on the path to becoming a teacher. It was decades before I was on the same salary again.”

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