James Wilding inherited his school from his parents. And he's not afraid to speak his mind. In the fourth of our summer series on maverick heads Elaine Williams meets this fast-talker and mover
James Wilding, 49, has been teaching at Claires Court school in Maidenhead, Kent, for the past 28 years and has been head for two. The non-selective independent school has more than 900 pupils aged two to 18, with a co-educational nursery and sixth form, and a girls' and boys' school on a mixture of sites in the suburbs. Claires Court is a family business that Mr Wilding inherited from his parents. He has expanded the school, and runs it with his brother Hugh, who is bursar.
Personal style Described by those who know him as energy on legs. Fast thinker, talker, mover. He's known to ride a Harley Davidson to save time, especially when troubleshooting as chairman of the Independent Schools Association inspections committee.
In action Passionate about education of the individual, widely read in educational theory and research, provides staff with an "academic toolkit" - a book that includes up-to-date thinking on dyslexia, behaviour management, structuring of lessons, use of ICT. Not afraid to speak his mind. For example, when he was chairman of the Independent Schools Association last year, he criticised members for poaching teachers from the state sector and called for the scrapping of key stage testing. Keen to promote teaching to young people.
Claires Court is a lead PGCE trainer, usually taking on three graduates a year on pound;16,000 salaries, which it pays from its holiday camp programme. Keen to pursue partnerships with the community and local education authority, particularly in coaching sport to the gifted and talented, even though the school does not have charitable status. Coach for Maidenhead Rugby Club under-16s.
Claires Court was set up in 1960 by my parents, David and Josephine Wilding, graduates of King's College, London university. My father had been second master at St Benedict's in Ealing, west London, a Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference school. My mother had been deputy head of a secondary modern. They were part of a diaspora of intelligent couples from London moving out to set up schools on the strength of the new wealth of the 1960s.
I suppose my mum was the most inspirational teacher I've known - and the first person I knew who understood dyslexia. She became a specialist in children's acquisition of language in the 1970s - her idea of a good summer holiday would be to cover her office floor with evidence of how kids write.
She went off for a year to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study under Noam Chomsky (political dissident and renowned professor of linguistics) when I was 17. I have always wanted to be that passionate and that good and that angry when you see nonsense in the system. She would say you don't really know what you have got until a child is seven; they are just emerging.
Now we box, label and put them in league tables. I believe testing at key stages 1, 2 and 3 is unsustainable. They are not about knowing what kind of child you have, they are only measuring surface things. If you learn by rote that you can get a level 5 at age 11 by ending sentences reflectively with a question mark, what kind of education is that? It's formulaic and it's stupid. We should trust teachers to do their own assessment.
Let's have chartered teachers (as suggested by the Secondary Heads Association) who can do this work in schools. I would want 106 in my school. In a way, I've already invested in these kinds of teachers as I've funded some of my staff to doctoral level; they are committed researchers.
The current examination system is asinine. One of my coach drivers is a former head of science who's had enough; he's marking 400 scripts. We're saying to kids: "You've done all this work, which is great, but by the way we're going to pack it all off in a brown paper parcel, lose one in 10 and give it to somebody marking at high speed." That is not a proper measure of attainment.
As a professional teacher, I believe you take a child and wrap your teaching around the way that child sees the world. You teach 15 individuals. If you gave me 30 in a class, I would struggle, but I know from the teaching awards that there are people who can, who are that good, and I hope I employ teachers of that quality. Give me 60 boys in a year group - as we take into the boys' school - and I will give you 60 individuals with great strengths; your rock group, your outstanding actors, your county rugby champions. Kids here have an entitlement to an inclusive education. Pupils are so banded in secondary schools that they are really grammars and secondary moderns all on the one site. I'm not for that. We have a minimum amount of setting here. Some of the best poetry is written by pupils who cannot spell. What's the point of putting such children in a lower set where they don't study poetry?
I still teach. Heads should always teach. If you can hold your own in the classroom that gives you authority.
We're keen to keep abreast of thinking on special needs. For example, the best support I give to students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is to give them water, not Ritalin. They drink as much as they want and pee as much as they want, and they get loads of exercise. I think there is an adolescent form of ADHD, when the testosterone is raging, when a three-month course of Ritalin to reattach children to the things they should be reattached to might be helpful. But after that, it's back on the water and the exercise. A boy who's coachable in cricket or rugby will be able to translate that focus into GCSEs and A-levels.
We have never gone for charitable status here on principle. My father didn't apply for it in the 1970s because there was a strong chance then it would be abolished. Now I cannot see the point. I don't understand the finances of charities, but in schools all it seems to do is push up costs and provide the head with a free house. Our charges are less than all our charitable rivals. I can hold my head up with the city fathers of Maidenhead and say I pay my taxes and business rates. There's no freeloading at Claires Court, we pay our way.
WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT HIM
Robin Williams, father of Jonathan, a pupil at Claires Court for six years
"This is a very inclusive school and whatever strengths a child has - sport, creative or academic - James makes sure they are spotted early on and developed. He is very charismatic, he reads widely, has a tremendous vocabulary and draws on a broad base of contacts and references. He acknowledges everybody's contribution, whatever it is. He never sweeps anything under the carpet. If there's an issue to be faced, we all have to face it. A lot of ex-pupils come back to the school as staff. He's very good at recycling in that way."
Jane Billing is head of Frances House preparatory school in Tring, and often a co-speaker with James Wilding
"James is a lateral thinker, he has a real intellectual curiosity. He is an astute decision-maker and though he often does things at high speed, he gets it right. He likes to challenge and keep people on their toes."