The real value of the head

A good headmaster can elevate a school’s performance and wellbeing, says Ian Hunt

Sir Anthony Seldon, outgoing Master of Wellington College recently addressed his final Speech Day audience and there is no doubt that he is happy – at least if his recent foray onto YouTube is anything to go by.


It is very likely that the governors of the college, his employers, are also very happy. Seldon has, in his tenure as Master, taken the College to new levels of performance (both financially and academically) and has generated universal awareness. In just six years, Wellington has jumped 193 places in the school league tables. 

Wellington is now synonymous with the concept of mindfulness and well-being in schools. It has happiness classes on the curriculum, and Seldon is constantly referred to in all things related to these subjects. He has also introduced Confucius classrooms for the teaching of Mandarin, opened two schools in China and an academy in England. And of course Wellington is the home of the annual Festival of Education, which grows ever-larger year on year. He has certainly been a busy man. In a GQ magazine feature last year, he was ranked as being better connected than David Cameron. 

In financial terms, his time in office can also be deemed to have been a great success. Wellington has, in this period (2006-14) significantly more than doubled its income from all activities to over £48m. 

Wellington College hosts the annual Sunday Times Festival of Education

Seldon is certainly a very big act to follow and Julian Thomas, the incoming Head will have interesting challenges to make his own mark on the college. Wisely, the Governors have appointed a very different man to Seldon. Thomas has just returned from a trek to the South Pole, whereas Seldon, by his own admission would probably struggle to trek to the local shops. The decision all governing bodies have when appointing the new CEO of the school is a huge one. Seldon was already a successful academic and educational leader in his own right before he came to Wellington, having turned around Brighton College. 

One might argue that Wellington is the Manchester United of the educational world. It was bound to attract top quality applicants. But what about those schools who are aspirational but do not yet have the historical success to attract proven leaders? Research has shown that a new head of an independent school can have as much as a £3m ‘bounce’ effect on the school in the first two years. This is a huge benefit…if they get it right. The parents will buy into a new direction and confidence grows as new, fresh ideas and impetus is created. The situation can be slightly different when a school is looking for stability and a boost in confidence. A new head H&E will need to steady the ship, and be very visible to staff, students and parents. This requires a specific type of head, and here lies so often, the problem. The governors sometimes do not really know what they are actually looking for in terms of skill sets and personal qualities.

Just like in the world of football, a poor appointment can have disastrous consequences. Such mismatched appointments that do not fit are more common than one might think and the outcome can be terminal if the cash flow of the school is precarious. Governing bodies often will indicate that that they are looking for a head that has completed a term of office in another school, and they focus on this rather than the qualities that the candidates can bring to the job. Most heads that apply for the top position will be capable of fulfilling the role. However, it is not the case that they will all succeed in the role to which they are appointed. 

A school’s culture is driven by its head, and the parents, alumni and indeed often the local community buy into this, or not. A mismatch of head and school can see pupil withdrawals and very quickly a relatively financially secure school can be on the verge of closure. Governing bodies, often with great and honourable intentions, but little experience of running schools will make a decision on a new head based on attracting someone with the qualities that the previous incumbent lacked, often forgetting those excellent traits that they did possess. Thus a ‘yo-yo’ mentality springs up as schools are led by alternate philosophies. ‘The last one was a sportsman, we now need an academic’ and vice versa. 

What rarely happens is the long term strategic planning that should accompany all appointments. This will ensure that the new incumbent is more likely to be the right person to deliver the results that the governors, parents and most importantly, the pupils deserve and expect for their school. There is then no need for the inevitable ‘managerial sackings’ that take place due to poor outcomes and poor self-awareness on the part of the appointing governing body. 

As Sir Anthony happily dances off to the University of Buckingham, Julian Thomas will have some big shoes to fill, but he will certainly be navigating his own pathway as he takes Wellington into its new era. Same same, but different? 

Ian Hunt is Managing Director of Gabbitas Education,    

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?

Would you like to share this report with your friends and colleagues?

You may enter up to three email addresses below to share this report