The Conversation: A public school ethos

1st February 2008 at 00:00
What is it like to run one of the country's most high-profile institutions? Geoff Barton talks to Barnaby Lenon, head of Harrow School, about his job and his idea to open the school up to disadvantaged boys.

Q: Harrow is famous, but few of us really know it. How would you characterise its ethos and values?

A: Harrow has 800 boys, all of whom are boarders. The school is selective: some pupils gain a place through academic strength, but many are admitted because they are especially talented at something outside the main academic curriculum, such as sport, music, acting or art. Pupils do an average of two to four hours of extra-curricular activity a day. That is a fundamental aspect of our ethos.

The happiness of pupils is high on our agenda. It is a Christian school, but with pupils of many faiths. Above all, we are a community, with pupils and teachers living on a campus, as if it were a small, ancient university.

Q: It sounds very civilised. How much are you affected by a sense of competition - either to be seen to do as well as other schools or to ensure that you keep attracting students?

A: We are hugely affected. We are competing for pupils across the whole country and to some extent the whole world. We aim to have a distinctive character and to be the best school in our very small niche. This need to be competitive drives us to improve continuously. It is fundamental to understanding any successful school - but especially a fee-charging, boarding school.

Q: How do you respond to critics who might perceive the school culture - based on gender and ability - as potentially rather narrow?

A: We are pleased to be one of the few all-boys schools left. Demand for single-sex schools is great, especially in London. Most of the best schools academically are single sex, despite having half as many potential applicants. Girls and boys benefit from different teaching styles. We do many activities jointly with girls' schools, but teenagers benefit hugely from being taught separately.

Q: So how does that fit with your recent suggestion of opening up the school to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds? Isn't this a risky strategy that could alienate your traditional parent base, who may feel that it dilutes your exclusivity?

A: Our parents are not, by and large, interested in exclusivity. They just want their sons to be educated really well and within a happy community. They know the availability of bursaries will attract a wider pool of talented boys who may well act as role models for their sons. Twice in the past five years, the boy chosen to be the senior pupil by his peers has been on a full bursary.

Harrow has always taken pupils from all over the world; 100 years ago Nehru, the future first prime minister of India, attended the school. Former pupils tell me they benefited from our ethnic diversity; future pupils will benefit from a greater social diversity as well.

Q: Doesn't that imply that you could take a more direct approach by becoming a leading partner with a significantly underperforming school?

A: We already work with both independent and state schools in projects from which we all benefit. We provide Latin A-level teaching for state pupils, we help run GCSE enhancement courses for pupils on the AA* and CD boundaries, and we are a centre for athletics and swimming coaching in the borough. I am always happy to consider proposals - as long as no one mentions the phrase "charitable status".

Q: Talking to you, it feels as if the traditional distinctions between state and private are becoming obsolete. How do you see the future development of state and independent schools?

A: The advent of independent state schools has certainly blurred the boundaries and most independent schools now have an excellent relationship with neighbouring maintained schools. We must hope this continues, but independent schools should not be asked to do things that are unrealistic or patronising, such as "lending" teachers. Nor should schools help each other because of pressure from the Charity Commission - that is no basis for a relationship.

Geoff Barton is head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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