True heart and honest mind

On Wednesday of this week I had the great pleasure and honour of announcing that Nottingham High School is to become co-educational in stages from 2015. Since then I have been inundated with emails and tweets the vast majority of which have been very positive about our move.  However, there is a small percentage of people who do not approve of our move and who have been very public in airing their view.  I am buoyed by the responses we have had to our consultation which so far clearly show approval from so many different parts of the School Community.

Those who are opposed to the move have taken a great deal of delight in distributing a blog post which I wrote back in July 2011, a link to which can be found here: http://web.archive.org/web/20111015053029/http:/head.nottinghamhighblogs.net/2011/07/16/benefits-of-single-sex-education/

I removed this post some time ago as my thinking had moved on but this too has been portrayed by a few as something I should be ashamed of.  I am afraid that I do not feel any shame in this as I believe that it shows courage to change one’s mind and I want to explore in this post the reasons why I have changed my mind.  I hope that all those who have taken delight in passing on my original post will as freely distribute this response.  I removed the post not as a cynical attempt to bury the past but because I see my blog as a reflection of my beliefs, my philosophy and when I no longer felt the same way I felt it right to take it down.  This was before any decisions had been made, before the final proposals were written and before the School’s Governors reached their own conclusions.

When I wrote the post in July 2011 I did so in response to stories that boys’ schools were in crisis and were close to extinction.  As I pointed out Nottingham High School was in a strong position and that remains the case today.  So why have my views changed so fundamentally?

As the School approached its 500th anniversary it seemed like a very opportune time to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses and look to what the next stage of our development would be. I wanted to develop a fresh vision.  In conjunction with our governors, I decided to take an in-depth look at possible developments for the future.  I started this process with an open mind, as someone has said recently, more like a meerkat than an ostrich!  Amongst the many different scenarios I considered was co-education.  As I embarked on this thought I started from a position of neutrality but this was to change the more I considered it.

My starting place was this report by Professor Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of Buckingham University: http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/hmcsscd.pdf

Why did I start with this? It was because as a member of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference which is the organisation for the Heads of the leading 250 schools in the country it made sense to turn to a piece of research commissioned by them. They are a very well-respected organisation and when I had met Alan Smithers I had been impressed. I knew that this would be a balanced piece because within HMC there are both co-educational and single-sex schools and thus it was likely that this report would provide an accurate summary of the educational thinking on this topic.  When I read it I was struck by its conclusions that good schools are good schools irrespective of whether they were co-educational or single-sex and that there was no evidence at all that a single-sex environment was better.  I have been a school inspector for some time now and reflecting back on the schools I visited and the many inspection reports I have read I understood that what makes for excellent teaching is not the sex of the pupils in front of the teacher but the way in which the teachers differentiate the work for each individual pupil.  This ties in with my own experience – not all boys learn in the same way, not all girls learn in the same way.  Ask any student and you will soon realise that what they enjoy in lessons is a variety of approaches and that there is no one right way of teaching.

In my July 2011 blog post I went on to discuss the reasons why many boys’ schools had converted to co-education and I suggested that this was due to economic pressures.  All independent schools have to be financially viable if they are to survive.  Thus, as part of our thinking to develop our vision for the School beyond its 500th anniversary we looked at a wide range of financial scenarios over the next ten years.  Our School is in a very stable financial position at present so there is absolutely not a need for us to make this move financially.  However, when we were reviewing the future finances of the School, it soon became clear that if we were able to increase the number of pupils in the School beyond our current numbers then so much more would become possible.  For some time we have wanted to expand our Junior School and our Science facilities. We have wanted to develop an astroturf. We also need to look after our school buildings which are approaching 150 years old.  We looked at ways that we could deliver these things in an affordable way.  We looked at what the impact on fees would be.

It became increasingly clear to me that the current economic stability of the School provided us with a superb opportunity to increase numbers to enable us to develop our facilities in the future.  Thus, to an extent, there is an economic reason behind our decision but not as I wrote in 2011 to “protect our financial position in time of hardship” but rather more to use our current strength to be able to invest in the future.  As I said in 2011 a knee-jerk reaction to an economic downturn makes no sense but all of the best-run companies in the world must surely invest in the future when in a strong position and this is exactly what we are doing.  I am a huge Arsene Wenger fan as many of you know and he too showed vision when deciding to invest in the future by building a new stadium at a time when the club were very successful. Some will point at the lack of trophies since as a sign of failure but the reality is that he has laid strong foundations for sustainable success over a long period and at the same time has balanced the books. There is not much wrong with those aims.

Another strand of my 2011 article was about the way that our co-curricular activities help to develop boys.  This, of course, remains the case.  However, my thinking moved on in this respect as well.  I started to realise the social benefits that would result if we could widen these activities to include girls as well.  We aim to provide an education for life and it is important that the School reflects the society that we live in. The modern workplace sees men and women working alongside each other on equal terms. All universities are co-educational. It is increasingly anachronistic to educate boys and girls separately and so we seek to mirror the changed norms in society through this move. Most students will graduate into a world where men and women are expected to work and socialise together, and education should prepare students for that environment. As I started to write the final version of my proposal for the Governors late last year, I was struck by a Times Educational Supplement editorial of 29th November 2013 which stated: “How can boys and girls learn to work with each other if it is made clear throughout their education that working together is detrimental? Is it not a handicap – not to mention sad – that a child could come out of school never having talked to someone their own age who is a member of the opposite sex?”  This was another important staging post in changing my mind from my 2011 position. During the 500th anniversary year I spoke to many, many old boys and I was struck by some of the conversations I had where they were talking about their own life experiences and how that they felt that they were at a disadvantage socially when they left the School because they had not been used to working alongside girls and that they had found it hard to mix.  This will not apply to all boys but clearly there are many boys who are much more introverted and for whom interaction on the buses or at joint events is more difficult.  I read Susan Cain’s inspirational book entitled Quiet which looks at the deal that introverts get in life and in education and this too informed by thinking.  I felt that we needed to make this interaction much easier, much more natural. I am sure that our move will help the ‘Quiet’ and given how many of the population are introverted this has to be a good thing.

Another staging post in my thinking came with the 2012 Olympics. Like everyone else I was swept along by the British success.  The Olympic dream of ‘Being the Best’ struck a note.  This is when I started to think about how we should define our success as a school.  I came to the conclusion that quite simply I wanted the School I have the privilege of leading to become the best school in the region.  A simple aim but not easily achieved.  What did this mean in practical terms? We have always been an academic school so in one respect this is easy we aim to be the best achieving schools in exam terms.  However, our school has always been about much more than results.  We have a strong tradition of producing well-rounded students and our co-curricular programme is central to this.  How though could we improve these activities?  Again I increasingly felt that a move to co-education would do this.  Our Young Enterprise companies are artificial in their all male management teams, our music and drama will be further enriched at all levels by the introduction of girls into the school, we can play our part in providing top quality sport for both boys and girls and in every activity boys and girls will learn leadership activities together – they will learn from each others’ strengths and weaknesses.  It is not a case of putting boys or girls first.  We want the best balanced programme to enable boys and girls to learn skills from each other.  I have learnt so, so much from the women I have worked with in my career and indeed from the women in my family.  A true education has to embrace all possibilities, it has to have the courage to challenge perceptions, to broaden horizons and thus this too led me to believe in co-education.  My vision is that we will develop students who break out of gender stereotypes because they have been given the opportunity to learn, to make mistakes and to be themselves. This is the holistic education we aspire to deliver.

In my 2011 post I also spoke of boys having the freedom to be themselves in an all-male environment.  To an extent this is true.  However, upon further reflection, it became clear to me that one can retain this environment.  I believe very strongly that great schools nurture each pupil as an individual; our role as educators is to find and develop the talents of individuals. We need to find inspirational teachers to develop these talents.  Thus, we have a large choir and singing is an incredibly popular activity.  This though is not because we are allowing boys to be themselves as I suggested in 2011, it is because we have an inspirational Director of Music. This is what matters, great teachers inspire and I have huge faith in my staff to develop the talents of boys and girls alike.

Another reason for us making this move is that so many people seem to like what we offer as a school.  We are down to earth, we have fantastic pastoral care, a superb range of trips, strong sport, fantastic music and drama, a good track record of getting students into top universities.  Parental satisfaction is high and there have been so many occasions when I have been approached by the parents of our boys to ask whether there was any chance of opening up our school to girls as well.  If you believe in education you have to believe in opportunity and the more I was asked this the more I felt that it was right to broaden this opportunity to girls.  At the same time we carry out surveys of the parents on a regular basis – I looked back over these as part of developing my thinking.  Parents love so much about our school but in all of these surveys I could not find more than a very few who chose us because we were single-sex; it was all the other strengths that drew them to our school. Our success as a school is not defined by the sex of the pupils we educate but by so much else besides.  We also survey the non-joiners, those who enquire but do not go on to apply.  In this group there were many who did not want to send their sons to us because we were single-sex. They understood our strengths but felt that this was a barrier to the opportunity. This will now be removed.

My final reflections on my 2011 post are much more personal.  Throughout my time as Headmaster I have tried to reflect on my own performance.  In recent years, as outlined in my previous blog post, I have worked with a mentor who has encouraged me to reflect very deeply on my leadership.  I have come to realise that at the heart of who I am is a desire to ensure that the School I lead is the best it possibly can be.  It would have been easy after the 500th anniversary to sit back. Our academic results in recent years have been the best in the School’s history, we had a superb celebration, success is achieved in so many areas and parental satisfaction is high.  Yet, this is not enough for leaders that stand still soon start to oversee a decline.  One has to challenge oneself and those that one works with to always look for improvement, to strive for more and this move fits with that aim.  Humility as a leader is always important, this role is never about me, it is about all those that I have the privilege to educate and work with. I had to reflect on what was in their best interest.

Changing one’s mind is a difficult process.  It would be easy to be stubborn and just take the quiet life.  It would have been easy to move on to a new school, content with the work I had done in the period up to our celebrations in 2013.  Yet I love what I do, I love the people I work with, I love my School and so started the work on this new, exciting chapter for the School.  Those that have sent my 2011 email around seem to want to show this change of mind as a sign of weakness or as something I should be ashamed of.  I would like to think that the majority will take a different view.  True leadership comes from the ability to take stock, to be brave and steer a different course, to admit when one has been wrong but then do something about it.  That takes inner strength, it takes courage but in the end if you are driven by what you believe to be in the best interests of all then these are steps worth taking.  I realise that I will be defined by the success of this move but am buoyed by the reaction it has received thus far and I hope that all those who have circulated the 2011 post in such a public and negative way will show their own courage in also widely distributing this post.

I am truly excited by our project, I will do all that I possibly can to ensure that it is a huge success and I will continue to reflect constantly on my own leadership.  One of my favourite books is ‘Leadership’ by Rudolf Giuliani who was Mayor of New York City at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks.  I will leave the last word to him:

“The development of beliefs can follow a more winding path, an evolution that may not be applicable to everyone but is irrefutable to the person honest enough to acknowledge it.  Sometimes those beliefs are inconvenient, even painful.  This may lead you away from long-held positions and might even cost you friends.  But a real leader, one who leads from a true heart and honest mind, won’t deny an emerging belief simply because it makes him uncomfortable.”

I was wrong in 2011 and the reading, thought, drive for excellence, and passion for my School that has informed my thinking since then has refined my position.  The overwhelmingly positive reaction I have had to our announcement this week has confirmed that I was right to challenge my previous beliefs and I am privileged now to be leading my school to an exciting new chapter in its long history with a ‘true heart and honest mind’.