​How the biggest influence on your decision comes from the top

Posted on 7th Nov 2016 in Which School?, School News

Choosing a school determines a legacy that can last a lifetime, says Jonathan Leigh, Master of Marlborough College...

‘Which school should I choose for my son or daughter?’ has always been a conundrum for parents. Year in, year out, they ponder this thorny issue. Making such an investment is a potential life changer either for good or ill though mostly it should be about how well the school does with bringing up those pupils content to sit in the middle. This involves challenging the top because all ships rise on such a tide. The influence of individuals in the most formative time of development is vital – emotionally, psychologically and intellectually. There are more questions than answers when searching and it may well be the case that what suits one child will not be the right fit for the next.

The influence of the Housemaster or Housemistress, the Yeargroup Head or Academic Deputy, the engagement of management, the cheerfulness of the pupil body as a whole, can all contribute to that vital awareness that the school of your choice really is the best you can do for your child. Their empathy with what is going on is fundamental to all of this. They can detect those good or bad nuances which are the ultimate ‘gut’ detector, leading to a sound selection.

Entering my 25th year as a Head, the influence at the top never ceases to amaze me. Whilst it is essential to wear the position lightly, it is nonetheless, a responsibility of great weight. Respect is required throughout each school community. It is driven from the top. Sometimes, the Head is a pied-piper like figure forcing the pace. At other times, they nudge calmly and patiently from behind so that, in the words of Lao Tzu, “the people say we did it ourselves”. There is no single correct recipe for such an all-encompassing role. It can take all styles and, on occasion, schools cannot stomach the influence charged to ‘educate’, to draw out as much of the amorphous ‘best’ from the community tenuously placed in the care of each Head. So, after three Headships and 40 years of full-on engagement with boarding schools on either side of the Atlantic, not to mention the set up of a new Marlborough in Malaysia, what are the qualities most necessary in the differing panoply of Heads? The style of the Head will suffuse the community through their influence.

It is amusing which qualities Heads may have. Since time is of limited supply, they will need to prioritise. Few Heads can cover more than half the attributes from which a Governing Body may search. Underpinning everything, the Head sets the tone and values of his or her community. Beyond that, at the risk of over simplifying, in varying degrees, the Head may be an advocate, or not, of the following 8 attributes.

There will be varying sensitivities and capabilities. Perhaps the Head is driven first and foremost by the curriculum or maybe that is delegated to the Deputy (Academic). Then is this Head good at hiring or firing - recruiting the best whilst moving people in a way that is firm or gracious. Next, there is a rare beast for current times, the schoolmaster Head whose primary purpose is to ‘know’ the pupils. Then there is the corporate fundraiser Head who is capable of driving a key campaign. Beyond that, there are the parents / alumni stakeholder Heads, the press controller marketeers, unafraid of journalists who can represent the school well in all public circumstances. Finally, there is the strategic planning Head or the controller of Governors and especially Governance.

It is not entirely accurate to reduce things quite so much but the flavour of each institution is reflected by the different ‘genus’ type. Many prefer the characteristics which indicate just what Governors may have required when they select their Head.

In no particular order, the Head may be an enabler, an encouraging optimistic type or a blustering, demanding, challenging zapper of energy – a radiator or a drain. Physical resilience and mental agility as well as diplomacy are all key qualities for a Head. A sense of humour and the realisation that keeping things in proportion and balance is vital. Then, some Heads are particularly financially astute, academically sound even brilliant, progressive and not over-reactive. With such attributes they are invariably a step ahead of the pack. Lastly, communication, both verbally and in writing is key, as is the capability to determine immediate priority amongst the myriad of things that come up at random.

Choosing the right school determines a legacy which can last a lifetime. This is most especially the case when the choice is a good one. It really matters as much as where one might live. Such selection is not an exact science but you can absorb a lot through calm observation. Atmosphere is tangible. Lastly, lest there be any concern and there are bound to be doubts, then opt for the community, which is kind and compassionate, a place, which worries about the importance of being decent. The longer it has been my privilege to be a Headmaster, the more certain I am that encouragement is the key arrow in the quiver of any teaching environment, creating self assurance which is a life-enhancing virtue.

For more information on Marlborough College, 
see the school's profile on School Search.