'Every human being has a value and a talent, and it is my job to help them find and exploit it'

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
Drama is the driving force at a Hertfordshire comprehensive, where maverick headteacher Roger Harcourt uses the power of performance to inspire staff and students alike. Elaine Williams meets him

Roger Harcourt, 64, is headteacher of Freeman college, an 800-strong, 13-18 comprehensive in Buntingford, Hertfordshire. The school has a reputation for the quality of its school plays, particularly its annual Shakespeare productions, which Mr Harcourt has directed for the 30 years he has been head. The school is divided into "vertical" tutor groups, each with students across the age range, and into houses, with house matches, plays, choirs and orchestras.At the end of the year, students are out in the grounds or rehearsing for a language festival: the Wizard of Oz in Latin; Big Brother in French. Extracurricular commitment from staff and students drives the school, which draws from what it sees as the best of the public school tradition.

Why be a headteacher?

Because he wants to create happy students with a passion for life and learning.

Personal style

Has a traditional, formal air, yet has been known to rap with his students during street theatre. Loves to inspire them with the riches of great literature, particularly the words of the Bard.

In action

Teaches 21 periods a week, directs a Shakespeare play every year along with a sixth-form production, which has included plays by Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg. Each summer takes 60 students, ex-students, staff and former staff on a two-week camp to Stratford-upon-Avon - always oversubscribed - to see plays and prepare lectures and performances based on what they have seen or are about to see.

I took over this school when I was 35. It had been known as Buntingford secondary modern, and the divisional education officer at the time described it as the worst school in Hertfordshire. We had the cachet of the grammar school up the road to compete with, but we did manage it.

I remember the first person I got to Cambridge; he had been rejected from the grammar, though he was gifted and he went on to read English. I taught him A-level, and knew it was vital to get him to Oxbridge. I remember the tears running down my cheeks when I went to get his results. Word flew around a small town like Buntingford; it did the trick.

I see this as an idealistic comprehensive. We don't turn anyone away, though we are popular. We take on people who have been unhappy at other schools. We have remarkable success because the human values are right, which is far more tricky to achieve than top spot in the league tables.

What's valuable is the relationship between people, not transient, material gains. We once had a bomb scare and a supply teacher I had never met before ended up with 150 of my students in the gym for an hour. He told me afterwards that their behaviour was amazing. He had never seen such self-control. So I was able to congratulate people from an incident that could have been negative.

I love Shakespeare and I love my students. Shakespeare's work has the deepest understanding of humanity I know, and when I see my students, every year, exploring these great mysteries and doing it well, it's so uplifting.

These students are wonderful and they will always take risks. Every year my sixth form produces a classic play. I direct it, but they do everything else, designing the set and the programmes, selling the tickets. It gives them freedom. It's very empowering. It's only when they leave and talk to students from other schools that they realise how unusual it is for it to be "cool" to act in Shakespeare and other classic productions.

I am very much the headteacher rather than the manager. My philosophy is about creating a prosperous learning environment, and my role is to demonstrate how to do it. For years I have taught the bottom groups. It gives me an invaluable point of contact with the less academic, and is a signal that they are as valuable as anyone else. Every human being has a value and a talent, and it is my job to help them find and exploit it.

In my first term here, I said I wouldn't change much, but I changed everything in the first six months. I set up a working party to look into change, but I wasn't on it. It was other staff who wanted to set up the vertical house system. I was against it, but I let them go with it, I told them to make it work. None of us would change it now.

Properly monitored competition is good and we have a wonderful collegiate atmosphere. My own English teacher at the Perse school in Cambridge, Douglas Brown, was a real inspiration. My classroom theatre, the Arden room, is based on his. He got me to Magdalen College, Oxford, and he was intense, enthusiastic and committed. We would do anything for him because we knew it was good and valuable. He died when he was 42, but the way he taught has always been my touchstone.

In my leaving assemblies, I always read the last section of T S Eliot's Little Gidding, about endings and beginnings. A lot of the students respond to this though the words are opaque. I tell them it doesn't matter if they don't understand everything. If they are hooked on something, they are heading in the right direction - that's part of the educational process.


Rex Gibson is series editor of the Cambridge School Shakespeare

"Roger is a remarkable headteacher and an inspiration to his students. The school produces outstanding performances of Shakespeare. I have rarely seen anything like it anywhere. This is what leadership should be about, rather than form-filling."

John Barber is assistant head and has taught at Freeman college for 30 years

"Roger allows students and staff to flourish. He stimulates personal creativity. He will give you a job and let you get on with it, and he is always ready to praise. You feel valued by that and upheld by the responsibility, the trust, the excitement. I have two daughters, one head of French at a school in Nottinghamshire who went through Freeman college.

She told me, 'When I am teaching I am always thinking how Roger would have reacted to that situation or how he would havedone this'."

Rob Dixon, 18, left Freeman college this summer having performed in many plays

"I used to be shy and didn't do any acting, but Mr Harcourt forced me to go to an audition. He has this sixth sense about people. He's such a good mate, he's somebody you won't stop writing to."

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