At home with the private champion

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Graeme Paton meets Andrew Boggis, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and the new voice of independent schools

Most headteachers will tell you that school pretty much consumes their lives. But few mean it quite like Andrew Boggis. His home, a roomy Georgian house, stands at the front of the private school he has led for the past 14 years.

Every day, pupils file through the front door into his office at the bottom of the stairs. And on the first-floor landing there is a large door leading directly into the school's elegant main hall - "a bit of a pain" during student discos.

As if to underline his commitment to life at the Forest school, pupil Tomas Ruta, a sixth-former from the Czech Republic, lodges with Mr Boggis, his wife, three children and two dogs.

But then this is just the sort of dedication you would expect from a man elected to lead the most venerable society of private schools, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC).

Mr Boggis took over as chairman last month from Priscilla Chadwick of Berkhamsted collegiate school, the first female and the first former state-school head in HMC's 137-year history.

But, as head of the pound;10,131-a-year school in Snaresbrook, north-east London, Mr Boggis is no less the moderniser. Forest is a co-educational day school for 1,200 pupils aged four to 18. It dates back to 1834 and has almost a third non-white pupils. It does not share the profile of HMC members, such as the pound;20,000-a-year boarding schools Eton, Harrow and Winchester, yet its new chairman insists that schools such as his are "exactly what independent education is all about".

"We are not internationally or even nationally known, and we do not appear in many crossword puzzles, but in this area of London we are a significant player, and that means we have the same right as any independent school to have a voice," he said.

He is not afraid of upsetting government ministers, or some of his colleagues. In an interview with The TES last year, before taking the HMC chair Mr Boggis was heavily critical of independentstate-school partnerships, the government project in which private and maintained schools are encouraged to share staff and ideas.

He said the scheme had hugely laudable aims (its promotion will be one of his priorities this year). But he said that with just pound;1.2 million annual expenditure, it was "a policy of distraction - short on cash and long on rhetoric".

In a press release marking the start of his year-long chairmanship, Mr Boggis took another swipe at the Government, this time over its "ham-fisted" interference in university admissions, warning ministers to "get your tanks off our university quadrangles".

When we meet this week, he is in similarly confrontational mood, saying that some private schools risk fragmenting the exams system by dropping GCSEs in favour of the tougher, exam-based international GCSE.

In direct response to growing numbers of schools - including recent converts such as St Paul's boys' and girls', in London, and Manchester grammar - Mr Boggis acknowledged that concerns exist over GCSE standards, but said that children deserved the chance to sit exams which retain a "national currency".

However, this is not to say that Mr Boggis is completely at odds with the elitist HMC stereotype. He was educated at Marlborough college, Wiltshire, and New college, Oxford, and, apart from two years as a teacher in a state comprehensive in Hertfordshire, he has spent his entire career in private education.

A languages teacher, he joined Eton in 1979 and spent eight years as master-in-college - housemaster to the 70 King's scholars, the small band of pupils in receipt of free fees, by grace of Henry VI - before moving to Forest as head in 1992.

Geoff Lucas, HMC's general secretary, once described leading the private sector - a group of schools characterised by their independence - as "like herding cats".

Mr Boggis will have to draw on all his experience to make a success of it this year.

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

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