27th November 2009 at 00:00
Katherine Haynes, head of John Lyon School in Middlesex, is the first woman to lead an elite British boys' school, but she shuns the role model label

Did you always want to be a teacher?

It sounds corny, but I think you get an idea very early on whether you want to work with people or not. Part of my reason for spending a year at Josca's Prep School was to confirm whether that was the right idea. I had done some sports coaching before and enjoyed it. That, combined with my love of mathematics, meant that teaching just seemed to make a lot of sense.

Do you miss being a classroom teacher?

After 17 years of teaching maths, of course I miss it. Being in a classroom gives you the energy of what schools are about. But I am very happy to be doing what I'm doing. I am busy, and it would feel like an indulgence to go into the classroom again: I don't think I could take it on as a head. I could not give it enough commitment, but I would not rule it out in the future.

How does it feel to be the first female head of a boys' HMC school?

I spent six years at Warwick School, which is a big boys' school with about 950 pupils, so in terms of the boys' school environment it does not feel any different from what I am used to. On a day-to-day basis, I don't see myself as a role model, but the comments I have received before and since taking up the post made me realise it was quite significant. Whereas in the past, gender or ethnicity might have been a barrier to doing things, it is much less the case now. It shows that the doors are open for people to pursue their dreams.

Do you think it is more difficult to be a female teacher in an all boys' school?

You have to have particular characteristics, but if you have an assertive, confident personality, and a lively and outgoing manner that boys respond to, not only can you cope, but you can thrive. Different schools need different types of people. Boys tend to be vibrant and outgoing and respond well to people with energy.

Do you prefer teaching at all boys' schools or all girls'?

I spent 10 years at a girls' school and then six years at a boys' and I prefer the environment of a boys' school. It feels more purposeful and you get a broader education; it is not just focused on the classroom.

Are you an advocate of single-sex education?

Yes, because I think you can tailor the education to the needs of the individual. I know in a mixed school you can have that, but I think parents want to choose. My own preference is to have children segregated. There is nothing to say then that you can't meet up in social circumstances. Most single-sex schools will have partnerships with other schools - ours is one - so you get the benefits of mixing in with girls and boys from different places, but the core lessons are gender separated.

What do you think are the challenges facing teachers at the moment?

Discipline is a big issue. Children don't always arrive at school with the ethos that you might expect, in terms of knowing when to work hard and take those boundaries a little bit further. Teachers have to set the tone and the limitations more than they did before.

Did you always want to work in the independent sector?

I did. I think it focuses very much on working with children who want to learn. When you go into an independent school classroom, you have a class in front of you who are enthusiastic, who don't need to be settled down before you start, where learning can really take off and where you, as a teacher, can focus on delivering your subject to the highest standard.

Has the recession had a big impact on independents?

Definitely it has. We certainly notice a lot more parents having a dialogue with us about their capacity for fee-paying. What has not happened is a huge reduction in numbers that some might have expected. Most schools are managing to stay buoyant. We don't know what will happen in the next few years, but what we have experienced so far is parents putting the education of their children first.

Do you think as a head that it is important to have a good work-life balance?

Absolutely. You will hear lots of heads say they work hard in the evening and weekends, but you will also hear them say that they make time for themselves. My particular way of doing that is gardening and travelling in the holidays. It is also important to set the same role model for your teaching staff and for the children in your school, to show that the idea of "work hard, play hard" can be achieved in whatever walk of life you have.

What would you do if you were Schools Secretary for a day?

I would give all schools the independence to choose the bits that suit them best from the education system


Sept 2009: Head of John Lyon School, Middlesex

2005-: School inspector, Independent Schools' Inspectorate

2003-2009: Head of maths and member of leadership team at Warwick School

1993-2003: Head of maths at Edgbaston High School for Girls, Birmingham

1992-1993: Maths teacher at Tudor Grange School, Solihull and Bablake School, Coventry

1987-1988: Gap year as teaching assistant at Josca's Prep School, Abingdon.

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