'I retired from the job so I could do a few other things'

13th April 2012 at 01:00
Life after Harrow suits chair of the Independent Schools Council

Barnaby Lenon's idea of a good meal out is liver and onions, followed by a traditional stodgy pudding. That's what a 35-year career in some of Britain's most famous independent schools can do to you.

The former headmaster of Harrow School is the first to admit that he is institutionalised, having lived on school sites his entire working life, including a stint teaching at Eton College.

After retiring from Harrow last summer, the Oxford graduate is now living in his own home for the first time. And being set free from life in school accommodation has its advantages. Mr Lenon particularly relishes the novelty of being able to perform DIY on his Oxford home - or "bash holes in walls", as he puts it.

He has also been released from the responsibility of leading a large boarding school. "On a typical Saturday night I was looking after 800 teenage boys, and not many people ever have to do that," he says. "I retired from the job so I could do a few other things that might release me for the occasional weekend."

A "few other things" is certainly an understatement. Most prominent, perhaps, among the many roles Mr Lenon has taken on is the chairmanship of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) - the umbrella body representing more than 1,200 private schools.

The appointment of a former head of Harrow was something of a publicity coup for the council, which had been troubled for some time by disagreements among its constituent parts - not to mention the "public benefit test" row with the Charity Commission. This ended in victory for the council in October 2011, the month after Mr Lenon started, and the decision over what constitutes a public benefit was put in the hands of schools.

The ISC, he is determined to stress, is not about to change direction suddenly - it will press forward with more campaigns and research in support of independent education. One key area of work, for example, is arguing for improvements in the reliability of public exam results. Indeed, Mr Lenon recently courted controversy by standing up for the use of multiple-choice questions in exams. It enabled more of the syllabus to be tested, and marking was more reliable, he said.

But as a geographer, Mr Lenon can also see the many benefits of coursework, and has written several geography textbooks to help sixth-formers with their fieldwork. He even goes so far as to argue that controlled assessment, a hybrid of coursework and exams, has "reduced the scope for independent initiative".

Real, old-fashioned coursework, he says, is potentially "the most worthwhile exercise that students undertake in schools". But he recognises that the internet and the influence of over-helpful adults can "cast a shadow" over coursework and its value in assessment.

"We would favour there being a properly trained and qualified examiner in each school, whose job it is to help their colleagues establish the correct standards in relation to the supervision of coursework and the help that can be given," he says.

Other key areas of work include the ISC's campaign to free its schools that teach the youngest children from the constraints of the Early Years Foundation Stage, or "nappy curriculum".

In which context, it doesn't take much for Mr Lenon to get back on his favourite subject: geography. He studied it at university and is the vice-president of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). It is therefore unsurprising that he is delighted by geography's rising popularity since it was included in the English Baccalaureate. But there is a flip side: he is concerned about it getting lost in integrated humanities courses.

Pre-secondary, though, is his most pressing concern. "The weakness geography faces is in the primary schools. It's so often taught by non-specialists. That's why we are so keen to encourage more primary school teachers to do geography training and to provide geography training ourselves," he says.

Alongside this high-profile work for the ISC and the RGS, Mr Lenon is dabbling in several areas of government educational reform. He is working as a governor at the Chelsea Academy in South West London, a new-build state secondary serving a deprived intake.

He has also been chairing the education committee at the new London Academy of Excellence in Newham, East London. The state-funded sixth-form college has been set up as a free school by a band of eight leading independent schools to prepare pupils from less privileged backgrounds for top universities. Planned to open in September, it is already proving popular with locals, but existing colleges have accused it of leeching away good students.

"These two examples show the way in which the academies and free schools can fill gaps in provision and raise standards in local areas," says Mr Lenon. "Over the next few years we will see whether it is possible for the academy sponsors and chains to lift standards across the board."

At this point, Mr Lenon's lunch with TES comes to an abrupt end when he has to rush to another meeting. But what did the former Harrow head have for dessert before skipping off into the bustle of London? Eton mess. Make of that what you will.

CV

1954: Born in Chelsea, London

1965-72: Attended Eltham College, South London

1976: Graduated from the University of Oxford with a first in geography.

1977-8: Studied for a PGCE at the University of Cambridge

1978-1990: Taught geography at Eton College; sabbatical term at Holland Park School, West London

1990-1994: Deputy head, Highgate School, London

1994-1999: Headteacher, Trinity School, Croydon

1999-2011: Headteacher, Harrow School

2011-present: Chairman of the Independent Schools Council

Family: Lives with his wife, Penelope. Their daughters, India and Flora, are both at university.

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