Debrett's really wants heads...

18th November 2005 at 00:00
... and it really really doesn't want the Spice Girls any more. Adi Bloom on this year's edition of society's book.

The Spice Girls are out. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is in. Comedians Ant and Dec are in. Jonathan Ive, iPod designer, is in. And five headteachers have also made it.

This is the pronouncement made by Debrett's People of Today, the guide to social arrivistes of contemporary Britain.

Each year, Debrett's decides who are the influential public figures of the day, and who has descended to the mere passe.

This year, the Spice Girls (with the exception of Posh) were ejected, as was one-time Tonight presenter Cliff Michelmore, and Murder She Wrote star Angela Lansbury. In their place, another five headteachers have joined those already listed between the book's prestigious blue covers.

Charles Mosley, editor-in-chief, said: "We recognise social merit and social prominence. To become headmaster of a major school is itself a sign of meritocratic ability. Heads aren't as well known as singers or actors.

They don't get the honours and the money. But a good teacher can have a profound effect on people's lives."

All heads of well-known public schools are automatically eligible for entry. State-school heads are a relatively recent addition. Entries include those leading the 50 highest-achieving schools, as well as those who have turned around failing schools. They appear alongside politicians and prominent educational theorists, such as former chief inspector Chris Woodhead, and Alan Smithers, of Buckingham university.

Nonetheless, Stephen Wright, head of Merchant Taylors' independent school in Northwood, north London, is underwhelmed by his social triumph over the Spice Girls. "I would feel very sad if I thought I'd replaced the Spice Girls," he said. "Our challenges are slightly different. I'm not a celebrity socialite. And my diary is so full anyway, I probably wouldn't be able to make any society engagements.

"I don't think it's a particularly discriminating exercise. It's just by virtue of being head of a well-known, well-respected school."

But Mr Mosley insists that inclusion in Debrett's is as valid an accolade as a mention in the Queen's honours list. "We're bestowing an honour. I like to think there's no one undistinguished in our book.

"If headteachers are regarded with more respect now, it may be that being in our pages has gone some way towards helping that."

But Sean Heslop, who has been included following his appointment last year as head of Tiffin grammar, a state school in Surrey, believes that Mr Mosley has confused cause and effect.

"The respect was always there," he said. "But heads are more approachable now, rather than being behind closed study doors. We're more PR-savvy than we were before. In the past 10 years, education has been part of the public, as well as the political debate."

And, he says, heads are learning to use that fail-safe society tool: the network. "We know that we've got to share knowledge to move on. I don't know if we've arrived, but we're arriving."

Bestselling children's author Jacqueline Wilson is also among those lauded by Debrett's this year, following her appointment as children's laureate.

"I'm not going to crack open a bottle of champagne," she said. "But it's very sweet. It's nice to feel that representatives of children's literature are taken seriously."

But, she says, it does serve as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of fame:

"As a children's author, you can be huge one year and nobody the next.

There will be a pang if I'm kicked out.

"I'll just make the most of my time being an in-person, and hope for the best next year."

But few of the new Debrett's heads will be nervously checking future editions to ensure their continued social status. "I absolutely won't be watching to see if I'm kicked out," said Mr Wright. "If I go the way of the Spice Girls, at least I'll be in good company."


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