Private-school ‘superheads’ are a publicity-seeking waste of time

Super-rich parents love the prestige they bring. The teachers who work for them are much less enthusiastic

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

The term ‘superhead’ was first used during the Blair government in 1998: an eye-catching word for a new breed of Superman-style headmasters or headmistresses, fast-tracked star teachers who would be parachuted into failing inner-city state schools and paid six-figure salaries to ‘turn them around’. It reaped rewards and can generally be considered a Good Thing. Sir Michael Wilshaw, for example, now chief inspector of schools, became known as ‘the hero of Hackney’ for transforming the academic record of Mossbourne Community Academy, built on the site of the totally-failed Hackney Downs School.

Sometimes power went to the superheads’ heads and they were caught siphoning off funds to pay for their holidays. There was a string of minor scandals and resignations.

Since then, the expression ‘superhead’ has seeped in to the independent sector. Not that independent schools generally need ‘turning around’ in the way that failing inner-city schools do, but what they do need is to keep their client numbers up, and to this end they like to keep themselves in the public eye with headline–grabbing initiatives. Today’s photogenic independent-school superheads are experts at dreaming up and delivering these initiatives. A typical one came a week or so ago from Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College: he announced that from now on, both boys and girls at the school will be allowed to choose to wear either ‘the trouser uniform’ or ‘the skirt uniform’: this is to accommodate ‘gender dysphoria’ — boys identifying as girls and vice versa.

Clever! In one stroke, Richard Cairns gets himself and his school’s blue nameboard photographed in the papers with an initiative that (1) puts him and his school at the forefront of the transgender movement, (2) makes him popular with his students, (3) makes any dissenting parents feel like old fuddy–duddies, (4) makes other schools feel they are behind the times and should catch up, and (5) drums into the public psyche the school’s brand identity as an ‘open-minded community’. (‘What about the lavatories?’ Cairns was asked on the BBC World Service. ‘Do transgender students use the ladies or the gents?’ To which Cairns had the answer ready: ‘They use the disabled ones: we’re a school well-equipped with disabled toilets, and those are unisex.’) His school is of course in Kemp Town, Brighton, also known as ‘Camp Town’: it’s in the heart of Britain’s gayest community, and one of its other recent initiatives was to appoint the first openly gay head boy. Somehow you don’t feel his ideas would have gone down so well at, say, Gordonstoun.

‘Attention-seeking again!’ some whispered on Twitter and Facebook, reading about all this. In his Christmas letter to alumni, Cairns wrote: ‘Like John Lewis, we never knowingly undersell ourselves.’ That is all too true. The school takes up half a column of the Times Court Page at the start of term to trumpet its results. Cairns grabbed the headlines in 2006 when he introduced compulsory Mandarin lessons for all pupils from the age of four upwards, in an initiative to keep up with the world’s fastest–growing economy. In 2010 he started a Brighton College in Abu Dhabi. What next? An announcement that he’s offering bursaries (‘An exciting opportunity!’) to two Syrian refugees?

Note this difference: the first thing those state-school superheads tend to do, on being parachuted in, is to enforce strict uniform discipline. Dr Rory Fox at the Ryde Academy on the Isle of Wight, for example, famously sent 250 girls out of lessons in a ‘massive uniform crackdown’. It’s striking that independent-school superheads do the exact opposite: rather than clamping down, their initiatives are libertarian. Anthony Seldon at Wellington introduced ‘mindfulness’, yoga and happiness classes. He was another superhead: always in the papers with well-timed initiatives that reinforced the brand: Wellington is now synonymous in the public psyche with ‘happiness’ and ‘mindfulness’. Wellington came up with ‘The Eight Aptitudes’: ‘Moral, Spiritual, Logical, Linguistic, Physical, Cultural, Social and Personal’, underpinned by ‘the Five Core Values’ — kindness, courage, integrity, respect and responsibility. You can read all about these abstractions on their website.

The awful thing is that today’s new breed of super-rich parents, for whom the school their child is at is a kind of accessory to show off, along with their designer handbag, lap up this kind of thing. They love feelgood stuff. Paying £34,000 a year per child, they want the improving results and the cachet of the school being famous, and the high-profile happiness. A generation ago, what parents looked for in a headmaster or headmistress was a kind, tweedy figure with a labrador; someone who knew the students and taught history or scripture to the sixth-formers. Today they prefer a cult figure. If you ask today’s independent-school students what they think of their headmaster or headmistress, the answer is all too often, ‘We hardly ever see him.’

Even some of the staff are not sure exactly what their heads do all day: they’re away at conferences the whole time, and are always flying off to Russia or the Far East to drum up business. (Asians get A*s in maths and the sciences and can be relied on to boost the results statistics.) When the headmistress of St Catherine’s, Bramley, was asked how she managed to be headmistress when she needed to be away for three days a week as president of the Girls’ Schools Association, she said, ‘I have an excellent senior management team.’ This is business talk: schools are being run more and more as businesses.

The leader of a school does matter. Tom Bennett, the government’s new ‘school behaviour guru’, recently made the apposite remark that however good an individual teacher is, if there is no strong leader at the helm and the school is therefore chaotic, the teacher is merely ‘a warlord in a failed state’.

But there’s a danger a leader can find leadership so intoxicating that he or she becomes addicted to publicity and fails to do the more humble job of making sure that the staff feel supported. Education, at its heart, consists of a succession of lessons, well or badly taught. Superheads in their thirties and early forties tend to rush in and make gimmicky changes, desperate to leave their mark before moving on to a higher-profile school. There’s nothing they like more than overseeing a £30 million building project during their tenure. Wonderful, loyal teachers in their fifties, meanwhile, who quietly change children’s lives every day on a fraction of the head’s salary, often feel sidelined, unthanked and demoralised in an environment where their leader looks outwards for approval, and is always aiming to do away with the old and bring in the new.

The true test of a good head is that he or she would be happy to go back into the ranks as a teacher. Such humility is a million miles away from today’s superheads.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Teacher

    Every word of this is true and of the state sector as well as I can attest from personal experience.

    The most prescient comment is that “Wonderful, loyal teachers in their fifties, meanwhile, who quietly change children’s lives every day on a fraction of the head’s salary, often feel sidelined, unthanked and demoralised in an environment where their leader looks outwards for approval, and is always aiming to do away with the old and bring in the new.”

    If you want to know who the good teachers really are ask a teacher who they would want teaching their own children and they invariably plump for the fifty something, experienced, teachers who know their subject, know how to teach it, know what the exam boards are looking for, know what children and teenagers are like and how to handle them and bring them on (usually because they’ve had their own) and who turn up regularly day after day and year after year rain or shine.

    These stalwarts left in droves and are still escaping. It was the biggest mistake in both state and private education to drive them out. Lost between the vain, self seeking superheads and the inexperienced newbies who want instant promotion and who leave burnt out after five years when they don’t get it, education is in a sorry mess.

    • RobertRetyred

      It is true in many professions. It is easier to see in teaching because the teachers cannot take 5 min breaks to discuss an issue, like most can in an office, and they are distant from anyone who could help.
      And then there are the union leaders conducting ‘business’ in the Camp de Calais.

  • Adam Carter

    The valuable work in schools is done in the classroom.
    Yet getting out of the classroom, ‘promoted’, is too often seen as the mark of success.
    Until that changes education will not be what it could be.
    Any Head should be able to write a school timetable that has him/her responsible for teaching an average or below-average exam class for a year. How many do that?

    • riosurfer

      I don’t agree that the valuable work in schools is done in the classroom. I learnt more life skills such as perseverance, humility, resilience, determination, teamwork, collaboration and thinking on my feet on the sports field. I think the issue with state education is that the classroom is over emphasised. But you are right that a good teacher should be able to teach successfully a below average class.

  • Otto Norbert Gaffey

    Brilliant piece. 100% accurate. Well done!

  • Steve Williams

    I wonder whether the author or those making comments have met these particular ‘superheads’ or is judging merely by the column inches they gain through good contacts in the media. As a former Brighton College parent I knew both Richard Cairns and Antony Seldon his predecessor. Both had superb individual knowledge of students at the school, and helped them gain excellent academic results. Both had good relationships with the great majority of parents; many of them distinguished in their own field or in the public eye, some like us from an ordinary background. Dr Seldon certainly knew children, parents and even grandparents. One Friday night I watched him on Newsnight discussing Blair or Brown or whoever he was writing about at the time. The next day, a wet Saturday morning I met him watching an Under 14s third team rugby match. “Good Morning Mr Williams” he said, “Your Tim’s playing well” That is a proper headmaster.

    • Tamerlane

      I think the point he’s making, and there’s really no getting around this one, is that Eton or Winchester (for example) get into the papers for being Eton or Winchester whereas Brighton or Wellington get in because of their heads.

  • Toby Maxtone-Smith

    Great article, but I’ll admit some bias.

  • CraigStrachan

    “Somehow you don’t feel his ideas would have gone down so well at, say, Gordonstoun.”

    There the issue can be covered with the kilt.

  • This article is cynical, uninformed bilge that should have been filed in the wastepaper bin and remained unpublished. Many Wellington parents would have chosen the school regardless of who the headmaster was or is, as is the case now that Dr Seldon has moved on. Dr Seldon inspired a generation of teenagers in his time at Wellington and at Brighton before. He found time to teach every student in their first year, interviewed every student in the school, visited them all individually in their Houses and knew most by name. His capacity to work Thatcherite hours was legendary at the College. His enthusiasm and compassion seeped into the institution and manifested itself in students who will go on to do interesting things. His Eight Aptitudes agenda put teenage mental health on the map long before it became mainstream and is key in the effort to educate rather than just teach. Far too many British children suffer from mediocrity in their education. Quality headmasters are thin on the ground and should be celebrated as should excellence, with the intention that good initiatives spread beyond and throughout the schools system. The author of this witless piece would do well to speak to students and former students of the heads mentioned. Given that would challenge the preconceived notions alluded to, and involve some work, it rather makes the point that an absence of intellectual curiosity and rigour is a root problem in many schools.

  • London68

    This has to be one of the least informed and poorly argued articles I have read in years. Had you done any proper research you’d have discovered that Richard Cairns teaches every single 4th former History, marking all their work, leads school assemblies and holds private lunches with 6th formers to discuss matters other than just school work. But then it probably didn’t fit the tone of the article you always intended to write, so even if you had done your homework, such facts would have been inconvenient. A+ for being a moron, D- for effort.