In 2012, when you arrived at York House, the majority of the school’s 47 acres were rented to a local farmer. You quickly took the land back, and now have a farm, mountain bike track, assault course, and so on. What was the impetus?
The starting point was coming from a headship in London where there wasn’t a blade of grass on site. Having fought so hard getting fleets of minibuses to take kids to grass fields, or going on residential trips outside of London to see remarkable things like cows, coming here and seeing that space being wasted felt pretty lazy.
What do you think this outdoor infrastructure adds to pupils’ education?
Meaningful activity allows good conversations to happen. If you say, ‘Sit down in a room and just have a chat,’ some children, particularly boys, will struggle to see the purpose. But it’s like when they want to play pool – what they’re actually going to do is talk, with the pool facilitating that communication and engagement.
We’ve got carp fishing on site, and a trout lake is on the way. Having fly fishing on site is very exciting. It’s such a mindful, engaging activity – you’re not stood there thinking about work. It fights back against slightly frazzled modern life. Another factor is that children learn a lot from engagement with animals. They find that if they are calm and settled and happy, then the animal approaches them and also feels calm, settled and happy. Children recognise that the same thing applies to how they approach their peers; the different reactions they’ll get from being hyper or calm.
What does a day of relaxation look like for you?
With four children aged between three and 12, family activities are very much based around them. Every Sunday we feed all the animals on site, for instance. I’ve never learned to drive, and very rarely leave the campus; Ocado comes to us. It’s a funny life, in a way, but it is an amazing place to live. Being outdoors is like that line from John Muir, the great 19th-century environmentalist and ‘Father of the National Parks’ in America: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Being outdoors is like that line from John Muir: ‘I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out til sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in’
How much of an adjustment was it coming from London?
London is now a very exciting place to visit – I belong to one of those big leather armchair clubs on Pall Mall – but I wouldn’t want to live that life anymore, that sense that there isn’t enough oxygen. We’re just inside the M25, but it feels very rural. We prep school heads talk about Kensington and Chelsea being the acme of insanity – every hour you radiate out from there, people get calmer. But, if you radiate very far, the chances of being able to fill an independent school diminish. There is a sweet spot between those two things.
Since you started at York House, a year after it became coed, pupil numbers have risen 70%. What has been the biggest challenge of assimilating the girls?
Partly, it is facilities; partly the curriculum. There are dull things like changing-room capacity, but also more interesting things. When I got here, art and design technology meant carpentry, so we had to make a more coeducational offering that wasn’t so stereotypically boy-focused. Similarly, sports pitches that reflect a variety of activities, not just football and rugby pitches.
Interestingly, the way the world has moved, where gender is not as straightforward an issue as it would have been 10 years ago, there’s a wider canvas for both boys and girls to work on. That’s really good for both. There are definitely families who are glad it’s a more inclusive community and setting, because their child isn’t a cardboard cutout rugby-playing boy, or equivalent.
What would you say to the argument that girls flourish more easily in the ‘safe spaces’ of single-sex education?
It’s interesting, because things like A-level data suggest that is the case. But it’s a question of whether you look narrowly at the academic outcome of the time, or at how people flourish when they’ve left school. If you sit in a cosy club of PLUs – people like us – there’s the danger that, when you walk out into a more diverse and dynamic environment, you’re not prepared for it. I went to an all-boys’ school and loved it, but it didn’t leave me terribly liberated in my world view. I think it’s probably similar for girls who think, ‘We don’t want those noisy, smelly boys, do we?’ Well, you’re going to meet them when you leave school – at the very latest – and you’re slightly better prepared when you’ve got to know who they are.
The return of the first ‘normal’ exams since 2019 is upon us. Are you feeling prepared?
In terms of the finer details of serious exams, our year 5s and 6s haven’t sat in an exam hall in the way that they would have normally. We’ve had to ease them into it a little bit. I don’t think independent schools have found that much of the curriculum has been missed because of the success of our online learning, but don’t ever let somebody tell you that Zoom is now the best way to teach children. It isn’t. It was the best available option to occupy children so their parents could work, and the independent sector could justify charging its fees. But it’s 1% of the experience of being in the human dynamic of a classroom.
It’s 30 years since you started your teaching studies – how has the profession changed?
Teaching and learning has become much stronger, more purposeful. It used to be a more relaxing profession, whereas now there’s much more engagement, and most – if not all – of that is good. The most positive cultural change in schools has been around safeguarding. Schools are now much better at spotting the person who wants more from a relationship with a child than they should be asking for, or is trying to take a step towards that.
Independents could learn from the research-engaged, purposeful, dynamic teaching and learning in the state sector
You are a governor at a state primary school. What have you learned from that?
Little Green Junior School has a super head who is very research-engaged, very purposeful. I like him very much. He and I will both laugh at the fact that our jobs only cross over by about 10%. His processes and success criteria are very different. Heads of schools in the state sector have to spend so much time fulfilling processes for a system that doesn’t trust them.
When our pastoral lead started doing interventions with children requiring learning support, he came out of the first one and said, “Mr Gray, I didn’t get given a form to fill in.” I started laughing and asked, “Did you go into the room with the child that we nominated?” “Yes.” “Did you do some purposeful activity?” “Yes.” “Do you think they gained academic benefit?” “Yes.” “So, who’s the form for?” “[Long silence]” We’re in the private sector, we get plenty of feedback from children and families. I know if somebody isn’t doing their job properly because I engage with all these different people; I don’t need a whole load of forms to say, ‘Oh, no, he has done this, so you’re not allowed to take a view on it.’ That doesn’t achieve any good.
The amount of time people in the state sector have to spend filling in forms is a dreadful shame. Where the state sector is very process-driven, we can be far more outcomes-driven. Our approach is much more child-centred.
Is there anything that the independent sector can learn from state schools?
Absolutely. Governors and ex-pupils often have a view that the school was perfect because they’ve turned out perfectly, so it should look just like it did in their day. And, of course, the world of work – and everything else that’s meaningful – doesn’t look anything like it did 20–30 years ago. Lots of it needs to be different. Technology is part of that, but only part. The independent sector could learn from the research-engaged, purposeful, dynamic teaching and learning in the state sector. Typically, the independent sector catches up with where state schools are a few years later. On the positive side, that does give us the chance to weigh up whether something really does work better than how we currently do it.
… mobile phones in school
I bang on to anyone that will listen that we wouldn’t give our young children a glass of claret or a chainsaw. Like those things, which can both be quite useful at times, a phone isn’t designed for children either. It connects them to the most nefarious nonsense, and can leave them with criminal records because they do something they think is funny and don’t know they’ve broken the law.
I encourage families to hold off on letting kids have their own devices for as long as they can. I know I won’t always win, but I feel all right about the fact that I’m trying.
… the serendipic timing of York House’s outdoor education offering
It has coincided very well with big names like Bear Grylls and Ray Mears doing amazing work trying to get kids to be in the outdoors. Our understanding of children’s mental health and wellbeing is much better than it was 10 years ago. We recognise the importance of mindfulness, of doing an activity where you are living in the moment, rather than chasing dopamine with ‘likes’ on social media, or just being stuck indoors and slightly frazzled. We’ve been fortunate that our offering has chimed with themes in the wider world, but we’ve played that game skilfully.
… the consequences of living onsite
The fact that we look at the site as a home does have a bearing on how we feel about it – it’s not just a place of work. It means that it’s very easy for us to be engaged with all the elements of life here. For example, we’ve got a partnership with a local animal rescue centre, which has released six fallow deer on our site. I can tell the children in assembly on Monday that there were four fallow deer out by the cabin, or that we caught a two-and-a-half pound carp from the pond early on Sunday morning – you don’t get that if it’s just a place you arrive at for work.