Education Matters: Why my link with Eton College will improve me as a state headteacher

Eton College Quadrangle

Eton College Quadrangle - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Back in 1897, after a newspaper had accidentally published his obituary, the writer Mark Twain issued a correction. ‘The report of my death,’ he wrote, ‘was an exaggeration’.

It’s been a bit like that here. I’ve never had so many notes of congratulation, personal emails, and the experience of complete strangers coming to shake my hand as in the past two weeks.

Why? It followed a local newspaper report about me. It announced that I had a new role with Eton College – one of the world’s most prestigious schools. This is true. The trouble was that people assumed from the story that I was quitting my current job as headteacher at King Edward’s.

Those comments, those emails, those hearty handshakes, hinted at departure. People thought I was off. In truth, some were sad; others were delighted.

Now I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, but the reality is less dramatic. It’s true that I have been invited to join Eton College’s new Research & Development Committee. Working alongside top academics and well-established educationalists, I’ll learn more about what makes a difference in the classroom and beyond.

I’ll get an insight into a top-performing school that is clearly hungry to keep developing itself. I’ll glimpse beyond the stereotypes into a public school we have all heard so much about.

I feel flattered by this and, in truth, somewhat bemused.

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I am after all an inveterate advocate of state rather than private schooling. In a way which now looks madly old-fashioned, I subscribe to the view that most parents would like nothing more than a great local school which their children could walk or get the bus to.

And I think they would prefer to do this without paying fees or subjecting their child to a battery of tests.

If I was in government, that would be my educational agenda – just as it is in so many other parts of the world: to create a nation of great state schools. I wouldn’t put my energies into creating academies or trusts or chains, or any of the other terms that now mark the reformulated educational landscape of England.

I’d focus on schools and teaching. How backward-looking is that?

So the invitation to be a member of the Eton board is as exciting as it is unexpected. And I wonder whether what it might do is reaffirm my commitment to comprehensive schools, showing me what we ought to be doing more of across schools in Suffolk and beyond.

I suspect I will see from Eton that it’s the whole child that matters – that success in the examination hall goes hand-in-hand with success on the rugby pitch, that a love of scholarship in, say, science, is enriched if you also study music, act in a play, visit other countries or debate.

I suspect I’ll see a school that believes in broadening rather than narrowing the curriculum, that rejects the mechanistic values of the current government and instead believes that building character in the young is more important than ever.

It’s something we’ve always felt is central to the ethos at King Edward’s, and I’m looking forward to spending time at a school with an extraordinary track-record in developing generation after generation of national leaders.

It’s what already goes on – without much fanfare – in so many of our comprehensive schools. In the best of them, teachers and governors are already determined that character, scholarship, and providing a rich experience of extra-curricular experiences – that all of these can and should be fundamental to our work.

My hunch, in other words, is that whilst I’ll learn a great deal from my new role with Eton College, it will make me more proudly determined to show just what we in the state sector can achieve for all students rather than those from particular backgrounds.

That at least is what I’m expecting. We shall see. My first visit is this week, so watch this space. I’ll be back.

By Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School