Catherine Lough

10 questions with… HMC’s Sally-Anne Huang

The high master of St Paul’s School and chair of HMC tells Tes about her favourite teacher, why she pursued a career in education and why she values staff who question and challenge

Sally-Anne Huang, St Paul's

Sally-Anne Huang is high master of St Paul’s School, London, and current chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), the professional association for independent school headteachers. Having attended the University of Oxford, she held positions at several independent schools, including Sevenoaks School and Roedean, before taking on her current roles.

A keen saxophonist-in-training, she is a vocal supporter of the arts and of young adult fiction. But what else did we learn about her in this week’s Tes 10 questions?

1. Who was your most memorable teacher and why?

I was lucky enough to go to Bolton School Girls’ Division in the 1980s. Margaret Spurr, the headmistress at the time, seemed entirely unflappable. She wrote to me when I was appointed to St Paul’s, and the fact that this means so much to me, so long after I left school, speaks volumes about her.

But the most influential teacher I had was Christine Todd, in the English department. She’s the one who lit the flame of my lifelong passion for literature and I will be forever grateful for that. She was “no nonsense” in the way she managed us, but also in the way she asserted the value of the texts she taught. When I was marvelling at Macbeth, she just agreed and asked what I had expected – wasn’t this the pinnacle of English literature, after all?

2. What were the best and worst things about your time at school?

I was given lots of opportunities to develop as a young person. People often say “we don’t remember the lessons at school”, but I do remember many, very vividly. Not just Mrs Todd’s Macbeth but first meeting Virgil, or hearing the Carnival of the Animals or being told about the Defenestrations of Prague.

I really enjoyed the co-curricular programme at my school. I think one of the challenges back then – and I don’t think this was to do with my school, it was maybe to do with my generation – is that we were a bit compartmentalised in a way young people aren’t now. So I was good at reading books and talking about books; I wasn’t very interested in sport, for example.

Now, you have pupils who are really happy to play for the D team at rugby or to be in the second orchestra, and they still love that, and they still see that as part of their identity.

3. Why do you work in education?

Like many teachers, when I was at school or university, I would have been horrified by the idea of anyone saying I should be a teacher and, in fact, I had wanted to be a journalist. So it was quite late in the day when I decided.

Very early on in my career at Sevenoaks, I was fortunate to have opportunities to get involved with pastoral care. I became an assistant housemistress, then housemistress, and that was when I started working with the holistic side of education with pupils and their families. I really was motivated by that – trying to make a difference to the whole person, not just how well they were doing at English. So that’s what’s kept me in the career. I’ve been in teaching since 1993 and I have not, at any point, thought of leaving.

4. What are you proudest of in your career and what’s your biggest regret?

The proudest moments, for me, are those times when chaos hits, and you and your team remain calm and sort things out.

When I was head of Kent College Pembury, we had a serious electrical fire on site just days before we were going to stage Carmen. It’s one of those things that, when you’re training to have responsibility for a community and you’re filling in your risk assessments, or deciding what you might do in a crisis, that’s what you’ve been preparing for.

The pupils could see smoke coming out of the building and everybody evacuated absolutely beautifully. But the firemen who were in charge were rushing into this building on fire and they hadn’t put on their oxygen gear. They said to me: “Is the building empty?”

Now, in my system, I knew it was empty because we had accounted for everybody, but, just for a second, it went through my head that, if I’m wrong – if I had said there was somebody in there – they would have rushed straight in and put themselves at risk. But if there had been somebody in there, they would have been losing time.

Just in that split second, I thought that defined the responsibility that we sometimes have as heads; that we have to put the systems in so we can know we’ve got the right answer.

In terms of regrets, I think my biggest is that I didn’t get to spend more time as a classroom teacher without other responsibilities. I would love to be in the classroom more if I could. This has been my first academic year where I have not taught. I’m going to be teaching in the junior school here next year – Classical civilisation with the Year 5 boys – which I’m really looking forward to.

5. Who would be your colleagues in your perfect staffroom?

I think that’s a trick question for a head. It would be so easy to filter out the critics, the detractors and those who challenge “management”. I’ve been at this long enough to know how essential those people are to the ecosystem of a successful community. Like Socrates and his gadfly, you need people who will question and challenge.

6. What are the best aspects of our school system today?

One of the obvious improvements has been the greater focus on mental health and pastoral care. I came across this very early as a boarding housemistress because that’s a big part of your day-to-day job, but it perhaps wasn’t as central to planning and to resources as it is now.

I’d also say the growth of partnerships between state and private schools in the past decade has been extremely positive. The pandemic has demonstrated that all schools have more that unites them than divides them.

7. Your own teachers aside, who in education has influenced you most?

I’ve looked into the foundation of every school that I’ve worked at. If I go back to literature, it’s like the plays or the novels that stand the test of time over 200 years, as opposed to the ones that are on the Sunday Times bestseller list this weekend. Those core principles just never go away, and they always have a kind of weight and purpose.

I’ve always been struck by how modern those ideas are. St Paul’s is 512 years old now, so it would be very easy to think that what [founder] John Colet wanted to do was of no relevance at all. But his whole mantra was about bringing children in from “all nacions” no matter where they came from, and he wanted to educate a good number of them without charging them. We want to increase our bursary scheme, so it really strikes me that what he was doing was very radical and is entirely relevant to the 21st century.

8. If you became education secretary tomorrow, what’s the first thing you’d do?

I would buy a musical instrument for every school-age child in the country – and provide the means for them to learn to play. I’ve bought a saxophone, I’m paying somebody to teach me – so many children in this country just don’t have access to those resources.

I would also look more widely at character education in the face of what we are increasingly learning about relationships between young people.

9. What will schools look like in 30 years?

When I was at primary school in the 1970s, I was asked to write an essay about life in the year 2000. First of all, I remember thinking I would be ancient by then (I was 29) and then I cheerfully predicted that teachers would be replaced by robots and drew a picture of a modern teacher whose aesthetic was greatly influenced by the Smash mashed potato adverts.

More than 40 years on, I feel that my prediction has been laid to rest. If the pandemic has taught us anything in education it’s that, in spite of the huge success of online learning, nothing will ever replace in-person teaching.

10. What one person do you think has made the most difference to our schools in the past 12 months?

I suspect many heads would agree with me in feeling that this was a year in which the biggest impact upon schools came in the form of our becoming collateral damage for policies that had nothing to do with education. We have been test centres, track-and-trace headquarters and childcare for essential workers. To that end, I’m going to avoid a direct answer, since I feel that the influence of educators has been diminished during the pandemic.

In many ways, our profile has never been higher but I don’t know that we’ve really been able to have much influence.

Sally-Anne Huang was speaking to Tes reporter Catherine Lough

This article originally appeared in the 30 July 2021 issue

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