The Conversation: Liberal education

For Mark Garbett, leading his school makes him custodian of a liberal tradition. He explains why to Trevor Averre Beeson

For Mark Garbett, leading his school makes him custodian of a liberal tradition. He explains why to Trevor Averre Beeson

Q: Latymer is a high-achieving grammar school with a 400-year history and an excellent reputation. How did you become headteacher of such a prestigious institution?

A: Before I came to Latymer in 2005, I had been head of Stretford Grammar in Manchester for five years. After graduating from Cambridge, I worked as a maths teacher, then was head of maths and information technology, and was a boarding housemaster for a while, before becoming a deputy head in Skegness.

Teaching, for me, is a vocation. I felt called to it following my Christian conversion while at university in the late 1970s. I wanted to serve young people. One day, as I was considering which profession to enter, I read Proverbs 4, 13: "Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life", and I took that to mean teaching. Since then, each stage of my career, through seven schools, has seemed a natural progression to the next.

Q: What do you feel is your mission at Latymer?

A: This is my second headship, so I feel more at ease and able to be myself than I did in my first. I don't feel the need to be as serious and authoritarian. Latymer hardly needs any changing. Every school has a different ethos. While I have influenced developments at Latymer, I feel it has changed me too.

When Peter Lewis, our director of children and school services, asked a Year 9 pupil what difference I had made to the school, the boy replied that a school with such long-established traditions would be hard for a new head to change.

Q: That is unusual. Schools are so often stamped with the personality of the head.

A: Latymer's mission has been set out for a long time: "to provide a first-class, liberal education where pupils achieve their full potential and show consideration for others".

After a year of looking and listening, I gathered staff, governors, parents and pupils to unpick the idea of "liberal education", to articulate and draw out what it meant. We want teachers who feel comfortable being intellectually tested by pupils, who don't mind debating the premise for their argument or the basis for their statements on the topic in hand.

When Ofsted visited in 2005, two sixth formers were found sitting in the corridor. The inspector was curious - indeed, suspicious - about what they were discussing, but they were following up a debate in class about what Shakespeare had really meant in one scene of a play.

That is one fruit of a liberal education: pupils are so engaged in class they are disappointed when the lesson ends, and carry on the discussion afterwards.

Q: That must be hard for teachers?

A: We only employ teachers who are in sympathy with the Latymer ethos. If we believe they can't - or won't - work in this liberal tradition, we don't appoint them.

Q: So pupil voice is important here?

A: This is one of the most important aspects of a liberal education. I meet senior pupils every week and we often have a topic for debate. It will start with the school, but will sometimes range as far as national policy.

On open days, it is the pupils who show parents around, make some of the speeches and answer visitors' questions. From the word go, people experience our ethos of pupil independence and thought. A student panel is part of the selection process to appoint senior staff, and we invite pupils to assess possible future learning materials.

Q: You have a great reputation and get many students into Oxbridge.

A: Yes, but we don't push it. We are considerate to pupils and don't over-press them. They are competitive enough. We provide information, invite them to consider where they are in the "market", set out what they need to do, and let them self-assess whether they meet the criteria to get in. Many do - around 40 some years - and we are pleased for them. But we are also pleased for each one who gets on the course of their choice or, indeed, starts on any other chosen career path.

Q: How would you describe your job?

A: It's the best job in education. I feel privileged to lead Latymer. But I am not complacent. I want pupils to gain superb qualifications, but I also want them to learn how to serve, to use their talents, to give back to society. They are bright and able and have a lot to give.

We encourage citizenship - local and global - in our project work, with links with local schools and with a school in Tanzania.

I also want to ensure our school is fit for the 21st century and builds on its traditions with state-of-the-art facilities. Pupils need to make ICT work intelligently for them, not the other way round.

I also want to develop our facilities to include a gallery space, so that our young artistic talent can contribute to the community and understand its value too.

Q: How would you sum up your time at Latymer and in teaching?

A: I have pursued my vocation and encouraged children to challenge themselves and to serve. I am a custodian of Latymer's liberal tradition as long as I have the honour of being its head, and articulating and extending that by a little pressure on the tiller has so far enabled this great school to remain on course.

- Trevor Averre Beeson is executive head of Salisbury School in Edmonton


Name: Mark Garbett

Age: 51

Job: Head of Latymer School in Edmonton, north London, since 2005. The school, a co-educational grammar, was judged outstanding by Ofsted in every category in January 2008

Education: Mathematics degree from Selwyn College, Cambridge. MEd from the Open University

Career: Served in three independent schools, then at Royal Belfast Academical Institution; as deputy head at Skegness Grammar; and as head at Stretford Grammar in Manchester

Years in teaching: 29

Interests: Church activities, running, sailing a small yacht.

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