Networking in Newport

Life lessons, local produce and Lady Gaga were on offer when Simon Fry spent a day at the recent Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference

The big beasts of British politics followed world leaders to Celtic Manor when the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference was staged there recently.

The four-day event, from Monday September 29 to Thursday October 2, gave heads the chance to hear from inspirational speakers, question former cabinet members, discover the latest products and services on offer to independent schools, network and relax among surroundings described as “palatial” by one delegate.

The first day’s morning was taken up with a golf tournament, followed by pre-meetings before the chairman’s address. Uppingham School headmaster Richard Harman told heads to “celebrate” the work their schools do, in a speech reported minutes later on the BBC News website.

Baroness Morgan, a former teacher and outgoing Ofsted chair, urged schools to share advice on how to develop their whole-school ethos and the professional development of their staff.

After breakfast on the second day, I walk-and-talk with the chairman as we head to a warm-up staged by orchestral and choral conductor Dominic Peckham. Dominic encourages heads to move from the third to the front row to loosen up and relax, with photographic evidence appearing on his Twitter feed. Vocal exercises lead surreptitiously to all assembled bursting into the Lady Gaga and Beyonce song ‘Telephone’.

Normality is restored when Sir Howard Stringer, former Sony Corporation president, speaks on ‘Technology and you: from adolescence to obsolescence’. His astonishing life includes fighting in the Vietnam War, and all are rapt as he tells of avoiding an ambush in which others died through “being flexible when obeying orders” and taking his troops for a beer.

He states the importance of correcting mistakes immediately (via a David Frost anecdote) and of the need to make changes when necessary, but to know what not to change. Quite poignantly, he regrets one he made – losing his Welsh accent, stating: “To move forward with confidence you need to remember where you came from.”

The change that campaigner Dame Julia Cleverdon wishes to make is for 50 per cent of UK 10-20-year-olds to be actively involved in the service of others by 2020. That figure currently stands at 28 per cent, but she has high hopes children like those at Burnley’s Sir John Thursby Community College, being taught by an inspirational former Wellington School pupil, will come to see such service as second nature. She talks of learning much about schools through attending 60 prize-giving days over 30 years.

The assembled heads are asked to ponder what their answers would be if, when on their deathbed, they are asked, “What drives you on? Who are you dancing for?”

To mix metaphors, former home secretary David Blunkett and former health secretary Stephen Dorrell very much sing from the same hymn sheet in the next session. Away from parliament’s Punch and Judy show, Blunkett is happy to acknowledge the work done by Kenneth Baker as education secretary.

Sir Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College facilitates as questions from the floor are taken. Much common ground is found, not least when discussing the current examination system. Dorrell describes it as a “train crash” while Blunkett is asked to put the question to his guide dog, Cosby, replying: “Cosby thinks the examination system is a dog’s dinner!”

Plenty of food for thought follows when Father Christopher Jamison talks on ‘Headship and vocation: what kind of voice would you really like to have?’ His speech resembles a contemplative sermon on the themes of work, love and vocation, and refers to his time at Worth Abbey and its connection to Worth School. He calls for restraint when disciplining, suggesting that it is never right to show anger and that “strong disapproval” demonstrated by tone of voice is preferable, warning: “Vanity lurks around headships more than we are ready to acknowledge.”

I enjoy discussing such topics with Charles Dormer, headmaster of Immanuel College, north London. We joke that there are no league tables for “a calling motivated by love” and agree that the conference provides the literal and metaphorical space for consideration of more abstract subjects.

There is nothing abstract about the bara brith and Caerphilly cheese being handed out by Chartwells in the exhibitors’ hall during the lunch break, where I also spot Schoolblazer and Stevensons, with Red Kite having a rather impressive van parked outside.

On the coach to Cardiff I enjoy the company of Malvern College headmaster Anthony Clark, discussing alumni like C.S. Lewis and Jeremy Paxman.

Delegates spend free time in the Welsh capital before an engrossing five-person university panel invites higher education questions from the floor at Cardiff University. A lively discussion takes in the value for money and transparency of tuition fees and the pros and cons of weekend open days at universities and schools. Afterwards, Cardiff’s Metropolitan Cathedral stages the conference’s annual service (wherein the Uppingham School Chamber Choir sing expertly).

Back at Celtic Manor, drinks are handed out as delegates enjoy exhibitors’ offerings: alas, my ball ends up in the drink – not the green – when I play the virtual 13th hole of the hotel’s golf course at the School Website stand.

My day ends discovering sport does not always have to be played on green turf! Over dinner, Simon Clare, Notts Sport’s multi-sport project development manager, tells me about the school which sought a blue hockey pitch, as used in the 2012 Olympics, but was refused planning permission.

Day three’s highlights include former MI6 chief Sir John Scarlett talking on ’Secrecy, privacy and living in the public space’, a speech receiving more BBC News website coverage, and Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti talking on human rights. Professor of cognitive neuroscience Sarah-Jayne Blakemore explains how MRI scans indicate brain development into a person’s thirties, something not known 20 years ago.

The conference’s AGM is followed by a mini eisteddfod, featuring the Heads’ Voice choir before a black-tie dinner.

Heads return to their schools after breakfast on the fourth and final day, invigorated and inspired, some taking to Twitter to thank the conference’s organisers. Leo Winkley of St Peter’s School York was grateful for the chance to discuss A-level reform, sentiments echoed by Alistair Macnaughton of the King’s School Gloucester.

All agree that the bringing together of the members of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference has been a great success and look forward to gathering again next year.

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