To prefect or not to prefect?

Posted on 31st May 2024 in Prep Schools Guide

Headmaster of Moor Park, Mr Brendan Brady, gives his views on the future of pupil leadership and why we need ethical leadership in education more than ever.

Student leadership in prep schools is a thorny issue. How should it be implemented? What structure best suits 12- or 13-year-old children who aren’t yet sure of who they are but may be offered a badge and associated “authority”.

Who decides on the appointment of prefects, or monitors, or captains, or committee chairs or council members?

Should the title/badge/appointment be “conferred” by the common room after discussion on the merits of each contender? Should they be democratically elected positions with staff votes counting the same as that of the students. Or twice as much? After all, can you trust a 10-year-old to make a sensible choice? Should those aspiring to leadership apply for the positions, present a manifesto and be appraised on achieving those goals?

At a previous school I inherited a system passed down through generations where the entire “top school” (Years 4 to 7) was lined up in academic rank order at the end of each term. Boys were moved up or down the “rank” according to the head’s assessment of their behaviour that term. The first eight Y7 boys in the line at the end of the second term were “appointed” by the head to manage the school for the final term. It was a system hated by the boys, but tolerated by staff, remembered fondly by the alumni – and anticipated with all types of delight in those eight who were appointed.

Suffice to say in 26 years of headship in prep schools I have seen a few variations on leadership. None of which, in my view, have been successful. It is time we gave serious thought to changing the model.

We are living in a time of social, political, and environmental change. Social media has exposed the charlatans in politics and allowed corruption, voter manipulation, self-interest, and extremism to intersect. Crises of leadership plague governance, and law and order. In the financial world, more than 50% of new appointments are in the field of ethics – an attempt, perhaps, to control the abuse in financial systems – none clearer than the recent Post Office scandal.

How should we prepare children for leadership in this complex world that offers few ethical markers and even less principled leadership?

Few schools, by their very nature, create an environment where everybody has a fair chance to shine. Most proclaim to – just read the marketing material and website bumf! Honest self-reflection and an acknowledgment of the adult-centric nature of the hierarchy in schools defy these claims.

Many children are not proficient in the traditional measurements of success at school. This is in no way an indication that they are incapable of leadership. Leaders do not need to be the most popular, or the loudest, or the fastest, or the cleverest. How do we recognise the child who seeks out the lonely children at break or stands up to the bullies? Where do we celebrate the child who puts their needs behind those of others and understands self-sacrifice. A lesson most political leaders (and many adults) would do well to heed.

Schools require discipline structures, just as in wider society. We should not, however, ask badge-endowed children to enforce these structures. Or to carry out the menial tasks that adults just can’t be bothered with (lock-up, attendance, playground duty, managing tables at meals) and define such duties as “leadership”. Prefectship is an outdated model of bestowed power. It entrenches hierarchy.

It is less about leadership than discipline and routine.

Prefect (from the Latin praefectus, substantive adjectival form of praeficere: "put in front", meaning in charge) is a magisterial title of varying definition, but essentially refers to the leader of an administrative area. Napoleon further developed the prefect system in early 19th century France affording the appointed prefectorial corps great influence and power. The prefect system was never conceived as a leadership system. It simply delegates power to ensure compliance.

Modern versions of prep school leadership systems are perhaps equally flawed, despite the good intent behind them. The election (not appointment) of monitors or captains or council members (AKA prefects) happens via application and democratic vote. Perhaps with presentations to the school and interviews by staff as additional checks. Such elections though, by their very nature, tend to see the popular installed. This does not always correlate to leadership potential. Renaming and re-jigging a system without attending to the structural flaws does not make it better.

Prep schools, first and foremost, have the responsibility to create opportunities for children to learn to believe in themselves. All children. High achievers in the very limited curriculum we have at schools are repeatedly recognised for their achievements. So too those elected, appointed, or bestowed with “rank” leaving the rest to lurk in the shadows. It is an overt and very public way of identifying who counts, and who doesn’t. Who manages the continual disappointment of those left wondering?

Leadership selection, and its inevitable disappointment, however, is a process which can be avoided entirely. No school must have a prefect body. Indeed, the true leaders are sometimes considered too alternative (dangerous?) to be considered as prefects.

The development of leadership, and in particular ethical leadership, should be explicit in the school curriculum at every level. We should be inspiring ethical leadership first and foremost by role modelling it as staff. It should be part of every classroom, every activity, and we should seek to be encouraging and sustaining leaders at every level, rather than waiting until the final year.

The old-fashioned hierarchies bestowed by the adults who live by and value them need to change. Ethical leadership should be entrenched in the fabric of the social discourse at schools if we are to change the inequalities in society. Let’s have these debates. Make time for the conversations and challenge the established ‘ways we’ve always done it’. Thorns there may be, but big change rarely comes without a few scratches.

This article appears in the 2024 edition of John Catt's Preparatory Schools, which you can view here: