Newton’s lore

Independent Education Today editor Dave Higgitt meets Taunton School’s charismatic headmaster Dr John Newton

If you’re looking for someone to provide an insight into the current state of play in independent education, Dr John Newton ticks all the boxes. Aside from brief flirtations with accountancy and the Church of England in his 20s, the Manchester Grammar School and Merton College educated Newton has immersed himself in the public school system for the last two decades. He became headmaster of Taunton School in January 2005. Prior to that he was director of studies and housemaster at Eastbourne College, having previously been head of modern languages at Bradfield College in Berkshire where he first became “interested in the logistics and the strategic approach to independent education”. His four children are all students or alumni of Taunton and he’s also managed to squeeze in a PhD on the ‘Organisational Culture of Independent Schools’. He’s partial to singing and an assortment of sports, and is a pretty serious Manchester City supporter (“It’s nice to come from the blue three quarters of Manchester”).
Greeting me with a firm handshake and unwavering eye contact, he settles me into his casually furnished study, and spends the next hour firing off anecdotes, opinions and soundbites with a self-confidence and eloquence which suggests that in another life he could have been a very successful politician (“You’re not the first person to have said that,” he acknowledges at one point). 

Independent Education Today: What made you decide to do a PhD on private education?
John Newton: I started it when I was thirty-one. I realised I had a young family, and I wasn’t going to do very much for a few years, so I might as well stay at home and work and study, and get holidays too. And I was studying independent schools – I was in situ, I knew the schools, I knew the contacts I could go and interview and gather the data from. I wanted to do something different from French and Russian – I’d done that through Oxbridge, and I wanted to come from a completely different academic point of view, and that’s why I enjoyed it so much. I’ve always worked for good heads, heads that I’ve respected, heads that have taught me things. It certainly expanded my experience,

IET: Why Taunton School?
JN: They liked the fact that I was fresh thinking. This is a very 21st-century place – they don’t want to be traditional and be held back by old-fashioned principles. This school wants to be a modern, thrusting place, so there was a real meeting of minds with me and the governors, and nine years on, here we are.

IET: Is Taunton a ‘typical’ independent school? What’s different about it?
JN: First of all it has a strong international arm on site – Taunton School International [TSI], and the Taunton School International Middle School [TSIMS] are two feeder schools for the school, but the pupils are not in our lessons, they’re not part of our curricula. They are part of our sports programme, and all the extra-curricular academic things we do, and we try and make sure we integrate as much as we can when it comes to that. Their learning has particular needs and a particular focus and TSI is very successful in taking a pupil at age 15 who’s got a little bit of English but needs to bring that on, and needs a set of GCSEs for entry to sixth form – TSI is superb at this. The junior version of that does the same thing but it feeds into Year 8, Year 9, Year 10. So that’s a modern idea. There are about six other schools with the equivalent of Taunton International, but nobody else has the middle school. So that’s the first little difference about it.I’m very proud of what it’s achieved.

IET: What is the spread of nationalities?
JN: We try to vary it – one really important thing that we do is to travel the world to find different nationalities and different nationality mixes. There’s always going be one main language group, and that’s Russian at the moment, but if you think about the fact that mainland China used to overwhelm schools like this – I’ve got more pupils from Nigeria than I do from mainland China now. But we really work hard to have 35 nationalities in the school.
When you think about the fact that we’re in Somerset – not a part of the world which is known for its global-mindedness – we really push the message that these students are here for the necessary education of our young people. The world is changing so fast, and we in the West are being challenged by the Far East, by Africa, by other parts of the world to be stronger and more competitive.
My pupils in this part of Somerset and Devon need to understand the global challenge. I am doing them no favours if I send them out into the world thinking that Britannia rules the waves. It doesn’t. And a global-mindedness will help my own people thrive, because the great jobs, the great careers, the real money, the real experience, the real influence, and the real impact is on a global basis now.
We have people from South Korea, from Singapore, from China, from Africa – middle-class people who come from cultures they’re proud of. We don’t do well, the British, in these sorts of contexts, because we still think that we are the best, that we have all the answers. My kids have got to have a pride in who they are, of course, but also a humility before different and more powerful cultures.
And that’s the difference about Taunton School: we say it’s an academic imperative that they develop this roundedness. We are unique in saying this is vital for our kids’ education. Some schools – many schools – thrive in this environment too, but we make a virtue of it. We see it as absolutely key to the success of our pupils in the future.

IET: Are you an advocate of co-education?
JN: Yes, of course. I’m proud to say that we’re a proper co-ed school. We’ve been fully co-ed for over 40 years now – we were one of the first.In our attitudes, our routines, the decision making that we take – it’s no longer an issue whether it’s girls or boys. Sexism is not something you encounter in this school. I have two daughters and I have two sons – we’re a co-ed family – and I want my daughters to be as free to express themselves in the future and be who they want to be and not feel they’re second-class citizens to an overly male culture.
Why are we so admiring of that girl from Afghanistan – Malala Yousafzai – who stood up for her education? Why do I admire her so much? Because we know that it’s the women working with the men properly – fully empowered to work with men – that will generate the sort of civilized change that the world needs.
For me, the world is co-ed. I was single-sex educated. My education was incomplete when I was 18 years of age. The amount of emotional intelligence you need in the world these days is massive. My wife was single-sex educated. We would not dream of putting our children into a single-sex education environment. It’s just not right for them. My daughters would leave home if I told them they’re going to a single-sex school, because they know that they have to learn from boys and that boys have to learn from girls. And possibly, that’s my problem about the economic meltdown, possibly too many single-sex educated people – boys – who think they have the answers to all the questions and need to learn how to cut it with the female, in partnership with the female. And girls need that confidence to take on boys and work with them too – they need to feel the competitive edge. Boys need to have a bit more common sense. I think there are complementary things going on there. But I’ve got no time for single-sex education.

IE: Do you see your role as headteacher or managing director?
JN: I’m neither of those two. I’m a CEO or a headmaster. I’m a CEO, but the headmaster part of that is absolutely crucial for me, because I’m still a personal contact with the people in the organisation. I don’t just think in terms of strategy – I’m not in an ivory tower. I am a master, I’m a schoolmaster, who happens to be privileged with doing the job of overseeing the resource of the school educationally. I have to have an understanding of compliance and strategy and finance, of the commercial aspect of school life – of course I need to do that, because my governors expect it. They expect myself, and my team, to produce the answers to the challenges – to cost them, to understand them, to seek their approval for our actions taken forward. I don’t expect my governors to manage. We manage.
We manage a 20-odd million pound organisation here and that means the resources of the organisation must be geared towards its clear objective – an education for these young people to thrive in the 21st century. It’s a very pure and wonderful objective, but the structures that go behind achieving it, they are the things that I have to understand too.
I have to understand the gang mower in order to make sure that the cricket pitch is all right – because sport is important to us, because sport teaches pupils competition.
We’re an IIP organisation, Investors in People. Now that’s a Kitemark for industry, to say that you have a proper approach to the way you manage and appraise your staff against the objectives of the school – how well you marshal your personnel to achieve the things your organisation seeks to achieve. Only the top five percent of organisations in the country get gold from IIP, and we’ve achieved that. We’re proud of the fact that all our systems of inset training, of appraisal, of communications, of management structures – all those things are in line to work towards the success of the school. So therefore, whether you’re a bus driver or a teacher, you get a proper feeling about the part you play in the organisation.
We’re the biggest private employer in Taunton. The school has an iconic status, it has a powerful status. It’s a big building, you can’t miss it, it’s got prestige. It means that we should be influencing local politics, local decision-making and making sure that we ensure that Taunton itself is a happy and successful town that will benefit the school. It will also benefit the local people who live here. So that CEO label is a big one – it takes the job to a completely new level.
There is a body that’s been set up from the private sector to add ideas and dynamism to the decision-making that’s going on in Taunton. It’s called TauntonForward and it is chaired by me – so I have that degree of responsibility. I also represent HMC [The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference] boarding schools on a national level and I’m the deputy chair of the academic policy of HMC, so I have a lot of responsibilities beyond the school.

IET: Explain the importance of Taunton School’s charitable status
JN: I’m not running a business because it’s a business – I’m running a charity in a business-like way for educational objectives. That’s how I put it.
All independent schools that you know are charities more or less. We are charitable in our structures – but also in our attitudes, because obviously we’re supporting young people day by day, and also through bursary funding and other initiatives, links with the locality and use of the facilities for events that take place here. We want to be charitable and giving – that’s one of the image problems independent schools have, potentially – they’re looked at as elite and impenetrable, when actually we’re charitable – this school is charitable and open-hearted.
Back in 1847, we were founded not as an Anglican school, or a Methodist school, but as a non-conformist institution. That survives today strongly in the way we think. No airs, no graces, no pretence – this school is open for anybody. Co-education logically came from that, as well as our support for the International Baccalaureate, and our openness to the way other cultures work – it’s all part of that founding tradition.
We were dissenters – we sit apart, we think differently, we’re prepared to question and debate. We have a very, very strong debating tradition, locally, regionally, internationally. That’s all part of our tradition, and that’s why some of the decisions we’ve taken strategically have been consistent with what happened in 1847.

IE: Aside from fees, what are your other main sources of income?
JN: There is commercial income – how we use the site for commercial purposes that are linked to education in some cases, like language schools and the summer holidays, that sort of thing – and there is foundation funding, provision by our former pupils for the school.
We had only one source of income up to about 1997. We developed a strong commercial arm – we are one of the top performers in the country for how we generate income commercially, and our foundation set itself the target of hitting £10million donated or pledged in ten years. We’ve just crossed it now – it actually took us 12 years. All the same, that’s not a bad number to hit.Often we don’t know what people have donated in their wills because we don’t ask them for specific sums so it could be a lot more than that. We give a nominal sum in our figures, but it could be ten times as much. So we could actually have far more coming our way in the future.
Probably the most important of our commercial operations are our language schools in the summer. And these things can be a benefit for the school educationally. For example, if we run a business breakfast here, it’s amazing what our pupils can learn from listening to great businessmen talking. And we run a medical conference here that our medics can attend. My pupils can actually go along and see how things work in the workplace. So pupils directly gain from it and we get a commercial income.
We always look for that crossover – our new astro is used by local hockey clubs as well as for the school; our fitness suite is great for the kids, but you can also rent and manage it to local people.

IET: Explain the school’s management structure
JN: Because we are a senior school, a prep school, a pre-prep, Taunton School International, Taunton International Middle School – we’re potentially five schools on site here, so at my top board, which meets every week, I’m in the chair, because I’m the head of the whole school. I’m also head of the senior school, so my deputy from the senior school represents the senior school in that scenario. Then there is the head of the prep school, head of the pre-prep, and head of the international arm. So we’ve got four heads around the table, plus the bursar, the finance director, the commercial director and the foundation director. It’s important that he’s there – if you’re going to be raising funds, you need to know what major decision-making is happening so that you know what you’re talking to your donors about.

IET: What is the role of the governors?
JN: It used to be a something of a privilege, something of a sinecure, a nice thing to do for your old school. Governing has changed immensely, and professional and well-focused governing bodies will make an enormous difference to a school. Nowadays, they are responsible for compliance – child protection and health and safety being two particularly important areas. They are liable for the school – they are not personally exposed, but they are where the buck ultimately stops – and therefore they need to trust the management team to be dealing with things in the school day by day – education being the top priority of course, but also the financial management and all other compliance and the strategic issues that are dealt with. They must be highly professional, highly skilled and able to ask the right questions, able to consume vast amounts of information – there is a lot of work to do for governing. The training for governing these days is pretty elaborate and detailed.
They give up their time voluntarily to support what the school does. Any good governing body will have a collection of financial minds, legal minds, education minds, experts on buildings and development, local politics, PR, IT and so on. There has to be a skill set in the room in order for the school to first of all save vast amounts of money on free consultancy, but also to work together to guide the school to the right place strategically, and has all the safeguards in place.

IET: What key changes can we expect from Taunton School in the near future?
JN: Our engineering needs in this country are enormous. We’re not producing enough engineers. Most of our university undergraduates doing engineering come from overseas. It’s cutting edge, it’s innovative, it’s serving the world with problem-solving, not just with medics and vets, but with people who actually sort out the logistics within continents and countries. That’s the sort of level I want my pupils to be working at.
So engineering should be a focus – not teaching it, because it’s not a great A-level, but in terms of experiences outside of the classroom. We do an engineering project here – we build a racing car every year, and we compete locally, regionally and nationally. We want that to inspire kids who will build airport hubs or railway systems. We’d have far fewer health issues if we had good people designing cities properly. We’d have far fewer deaths in the Philippines because of hurricanes if we built buildings and sea walls and sea defences properly. I think our engineers are the real secret of our future. At Taunton, we’re thinking ahead, not back.

IET: How has the recent recession affected independent schools?
JN: I think the sector has generally been flexible and adapted to its challenges well. However, there will be some minor corrections; some smaller, less innovative, less attractive schools are more vulnerable and have had a bit more of a battle, it’s true, but I would pay tribute to the sector generally. I want to be positive here. The sector has battled very well under difficult circumstances. There have been political challenges – public benefits, for example, being the principal one. I think again we’ve held our integrity. We’ve been superbly supported by the ISC in being able to justify why we are charities and why we do what we do.
It’s also been a good wake-up call for us as a sector, to make sure that we are supporting our local community, to make sure that we are giving out bursary funding, to make sure that we are allowing people to come to our school, or admitting people to our school on large bursaries and scholarships, because I think that’s the right thing for us to do.
We should be an agent of social change, because once you get into a school like this, it sends you into the stratosphere, professionally. That opportunity should be available to as many people as possible. So there’s been a greater ingenuity and greater radical thinking on the part of the sector to make sure there’s access to what we do, and I think that conversation’s got to continue.
Let me give you an example – we’ve got two children in our prep school who came here through social services. Their fees are paid by social services. If social services were taking care of them in residential care, it would cost three times as much. So I’m looking towards more children who have just fallen on hard times. These children aren’t disturbed. They’re not violent. They’ve just had a very difficult time because the parents have passed away or whatever it is, and the only solution we’ve got is to put them in some ghastly residential accommodation. Why are we not admitting them to independent schools for a third of the cost? So overcoming dogma, there’s a real role here for us to play; the state and independent schools could work far better together. As far as education goes, we’re the best sector in the world.

IET: Your views on the national curriculum?
JN: The curriculum’s been massively affected by Mr. Gove’s changes. I think they’re largely positive changes – they’re demanding; they have high standards. I think we don’t realise that we’re not actually competing well enough against schools and countries elsewhere. We have young populations who are better educated, more focused and more ambitious. We’ve got to worry about that. We have to worry big time about that rather than arguing about whether there’s dumbing down here or whether exams are too hard there. I think we need to be educating our pupils for a global competitive marketplace. We need to look at what Singapore does, and Sweden, and Finland, and South Korea, or they’re going to roll over us, because their kids – their adults – will be better educated and better prepared. The number of graduates coming out of Indian universities is just extraordinary. We’ve got to shape up.

IET: Your views on the strategy of sponsoring free schools and academies?
JN: It’s patchy, it’s random and it’s not a strategy. It’s a hit and hope. It’s a punt in the air. We just hope independent schools might sponsor an academy and might have an affect upon it. I don’t think the state sector particularly needs us to be at that level. I think they need us to be working collaboratively. I would tear the whole thing up, and I’d have a voucher system – I’d make sure that independent schools and state schools could charge fees. I’d go the whole hog and I would say that anybody, any school, could probably charge £1,000 a year from its parents. You’d probably get £80 a month out of them, that wouldn’t be impossible. Parents would be more engaged – fathers and mothers would stay together for their kids. They’d work hard for their children. £1,000 per pupil, 1,000 pupils in the school – that’s £1 million a year. That’s not bad to spend on extra coaching, extra music, extra facilities, extra activities, to rent your gymnasiums, your football fields, your music halls – whatever it is. I think we’ve got to completely rethink the silly dogma we have about the state paying for everything, and the state controlling everything, which is just a disaster. We’re not controlled by the state – that’s why we’re successful. 

IET: What’s the best way to motivate teachers?
JN: Pay them properly. Not extravagantly, but make them feel they’re part of a great enterprise. Listen to them. Don’t feel that you have to win every battle with them. They’re intelligent people. They’re people to be respected, so trust them. I would say that to parents in particular – trust teachers. They very rarely get it wrong, in terms their understanding of kids. If they tell you that you’re child’s being naughty, they’re being naughty. They don’t have any axes to grind.
My friends are largely teachers, and they are cultured, they’ve got great values, they’re well principled. They’re talented, they’re funny, they’ve got personality. I think teachers are special people. Without teachers we have no engineers, no medics, no vets, no politicians. They’re where it all starts.

IET: How embarrassed are your children by having a father who’s the headmaster?
JN: They deal with it very well. At school they don’t even look at me. My daughters will tell me that I’ve ruined their love lives, because who wants to take a boyfriend home to the headmaster’s house? But, on the other hand, it’s been a great experience for them. My son’s at university now; he wants to make a million pounds in the city, and then retire to be a teacher at this school.

IET: What’s your future?
JN: Well obviously I’m not going to talk about my own personal future because that’s entirely confidential…Wherever I go, whether it’s here or somewhere else, I want to educate pupils who produce great obituaries. I won’t be here to read them. I won’t be here to see their achievement and successes but I want them to be special people who’ve made a difference – who’ve been net givers, not net takers from the planet.

I want to inspire a school, and a set of teachers and directors and head of resources, towards the people who make a difference to the world because the world needs it. And that, I think, is the profound calling of the independent sector – it is to make a difference to the world globally. The power of our educational provision is such that they can do it. We should be an ambitious sector.



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