Interview: John Attwater, principal of King’s Ely

John Attwater might have started school mastering as something to do while he figured out his next step, but it was the challenge and inspiration he found that made him stay. Now principal of King’s Ely, he tells Jo Golding how independent schools can address the sector’s biggest current challenge

Q. Can you sum up your career history?

Lucky! I started out at Wells Cathedral School as assistant housemaster and teaching a bit of religious studies and history, and after a year or two became head of religious studies and housemaster of one of the senior boys’ boarding houses, as well as taking pastoral responsibility for the boy choristers at Wells Cathedral. After almost 10 years there, we moved to Sevenoaks where I was deputy head in charge of the co-curriculum, and then moved to King Edward’s Witley as headmaster at the beginning of 2010. In August 2019, we came to King’s Ely where I am now principal.

Q. What inspired you to go into education?

I don’t think I was particularly inspired; like many, I was literally dragged screaming into education at around the age of four and never really left!

To start with, school mastering in a boarding school was something to do and somewhere to live while I worked out what to do with my life, but I have found myself constantly inspired, challenged and provoked by what happens in school to the point I have never really considered doing anything else (which is why I call myself lucky) – and now it’s probably too late! 

Q. What are the best things about being a principal, and the biggest challenges?

The best things so far have been the opportunity to get to know a complex environment and begin to explore how an overall vision for holistic education can be expressed coherently at each age and stage of a child’s educational experience, in different parts of the school and through our outreach and public face.

These are exciting times to be looking at strategy as the educational and political landscape shifts, but also in the context of economic expansion in the region, especially the outskirts of Cambridge. In particular, it has been wonderful to have inherited such a fantastic team of leaders, teachers and support staff, and working with them is a great pleasure and privilege.

As principal, I have also had the opportunity to work with our partners in the Cambridgeshire Education Partnership, which now numbers 12 primary and secondary schools and the County Music Service, which has been a brilliant experience of genuine collaboration for the sake of the children we all serve.

The biggest challenges of the role are how to keep in touch with the experience of children in school, and working out how to use what skills and experience I can bring to bear while allowing others to lead their own parts of the school community.

King's Ely is a coeducational independent day and boarding school in the cathedral city of Ely, Cambridgeshire
King’s Ely is a coeducational independent day and boarding school in the cathedral city of Ely, Cambridgeshire

Q. What issue in education are you most passionate about?

I hate the idea that only what is easily measurable is valuable, which leads to a world of constant assessment, league tables, lack of trust in teachers to inspire, boring educational experiences and minimum standards narrowly defined and rarely exceeded.

If we are to make education accessible to all, it has to be relevant to each individual, which means allowing and empowering teachers to return to relationship-building as the basis for inspiring curiosity, creativity, challenge and personal responsibility for progress.

Q. What was your favourite subject at school?

I didn’t have one. I was fortunate to be easily enthused so ended up rather a Jack of all trades, except for PE and modern languages, both of which I was always hopeless at. I love philosophy and theology and was introduced to that by a brilliantly controversial teacher at school, Paul A T Smith.

Q. What is your favourite book?

That’s too hard a question; possibly Three Men in a Boat.

Q. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Choral singing and researching things out of idle curiosity.

Q. What direction will you be taking King’s Ely?

Onwards and upwards! I want to harness all the strengths of King’s Ely: its intellectual, creative and spiritual heritage, diversity of talent, nationality and outlook, and its outstanding resources for pastoral care and individual personal development, to provide a genuinely distinctive academic, creative, sporting and co-curricular education.

I believe that we are well placed now people are beginning to recognise that a proper preparation for life in the mid-21st century means being excited about innovation and challenge, able to balance learning, leisure and work, and skilled at meeting and relating to people from different backgrounds, disciplines and cultures.

King’s Ely can do that almost uniquely well in our two to 18 day and boarding community which encompasses 42 nationalities, safe and phenomenally beautiful surroundings, proximity to Cambridge and rootedness in our local community. I just have to get the message out there!

Q. What is the biggest challenge facing independent schools and how can we overcome it?

The independent sector’s biggest challenge is how to regain the social capital it has lost through largely pricing itself out of its natural market, failing to differentiate the educational values it espouses from the mainstream, and feeding into a narrow understanding of success which too often does not remember the duty of privilege to serve others less fortunate.

Unless our schools are seen to be relevant and a useful contributor to the educational landscape as a whole and the local communities in which we operate, we can’t expect to be understood or welcomed.

So that’s the answer too: we must engage with our local communities and make them proud to have us in their midst, and make absolutely sure that everyone of any background is likely to know someone who has been to one of our schools, and is proud to know that person because of their humility and commitment to making the world a better place.

Q. If you weren’t in education, what would you do instead?

Probably watch far too much Netflix.

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