It's a game of two halves - and he's well into the second

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Harrow head Jim Hawkins is committed to improving social mobility

The head of one of the country's most famous public schools is a Leeds United fan. It is not often these words have been found together in the same sentence.

It might surprise you that the head of a school that has educated Winston Churchill, Lord Byron and India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, should even know what Leeds United is.

But 45-year-old Jim Hawkins, headmaster at Harrow, is a thoroughly modern man. The son of an Australian headteacher - his father was in charge of King's Heath Boys' School in Birmingham, one of the early technical schools - Mr Hawkins' passion for Leeds was ignited in the late 1970s at his former school, King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys, a state grammar.

Mr Hawkins, who can be spotted on his morning jogs wearing his replica Leeds top from the 1990s, is speaking just a few weeks into his job and the day after one of his staff - art teacher and former Miss Northern Ireland Joanne Salley - made the headlines in the Sunday papers after appearing in lingerie to front an underwear campaign for a department store. "Anything to do with Harrow gets national attention," is all he will say.

He did not think he would get the job when he applied for it. "It's such a significant role at such a great school that it was quite an exacting and lengthy interview process," he says.

He had his preconceptions about the school beforehand - its traditions, history, academic and sporting achievements. On the day TES visited, Mr Hawkins reeled off the sporting opponents Harrow had faced in the previous week - beating Eton at squash was the first item mentioned.

Also on the agenda was the upcoming Churchill's Songs evening - a tradition dating back to 1940 when Churchill's private secretary heard him singing a Harrow song and arranged for him to visit his old school. He went back as guest of honour for the next 20 years and a guest of honour still makes the trip today.

"Certain rituals might be a bit odd, but it makes young people think," says Mr Hawkins. "But you do ask questions. What will the attitude be like, how open-minded and creative? What will the governors be like? How much flexibility will the head have?"

He was impressed and impressive enough to be offered the job last year. He then had to wait 16 months before taking his post at the beginning of this term. He gave his maiden address to the school's 830 boys in the Speech Room, where the entire school congregates every Monday morning to hear the head run through the achievements of the past week and the calendar for the next.

"There was certainly a lot of adrenalin," he says. "This was a key moment. There was a danger of the new head saying too much, too early, but I wanted to set an appropriate tone."

He's not planning radical surgery, but has his own views of where the school should be heading. "The school's in great shape and it's a great situation to inherit," he says.

"I'm keen not to be motivated by league tables. A real aspiration of mine is not only for the boys to be high achievers, but to have character admirable to others."

Following nine years as head of Norwich School, he went for the Harrow job after discussing it with his wife Zoe, an artist. "I was happy but it was a case of 'Do we stay where we are until I retire?'"

The capital was not new to him; he had already spent a decade there when he was at Forest School in Walthamstow and, later, Chigwell School in Essex. He lived in Islington and watched the birth of New Labour in the early 1990s, bumping into the likes of Tony Banks and Chris Smith.

One of his most ardent points is one that New Labour would feel at home with, not least the founding father of the academies movement, Lord Adonis: he is a fan of state and private schools working closer together. "We have to learn from each other."

With a brother working as a physics teacher at a state school and himself a product of the state-school system, Mr Hawkins is keen to help. He understands, he says, the government's desire to get some of the private-school DNA into the state sector and thinks that independents should share their knowledge.

A fan of improving social mobility, he cites Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London, as an example of what a previously failing state school can achieve. This year, 10 of its sixth-formers were offered places at Cambridge University.

But he thinks not enough state schools turn Bs into As and As into A*s. And he is appalled at suggestions by exam board AQA that exam marks should be weighted up or down depending on a pupil's school. "It's astonishingly misguided," he adds. "Social mobility is a serious question. I don't see the solution as downgrading the systems and processes that deliver quality."

He is looking at the possibility of sponsoring a failing primary school and was a contemporary of free-schools champion Toby Young at Brasenose College, Oxford. "What he has done is fairly admirable," he says.

He dismisses suggestions from some that the private sector is being hectored by government into having to do something with state schools. "In many ways, it's an opportunity at this moment when independents are being listened to by politicians."

But Mr Hawkins admits that independent heads will have to package the idea of forging closer links with state schools well to governors and parents. He worries that some of the original academies are not as independent as first promised. Then there is the reputational risk of trying to turn a failing school around. And all this will cost management time.

The move to Harrow was also prompted by a desire to get back to the community life he experienced in his first teaching job at Radley College after graduating with a maths degree.

"It was a time when the City was booming, the height of Thatcherism, and I remember my contemporaries talking about the milk round and feeling that I didn't share this excitement."

He decided on teaching after finding that he liked explaining maths problems. "It seemed like a natural choice to do a PGCE."

During his PGCE he heard of a job at Radley that would allow him to combine teaching and other loves: "I thought teaching maths and coaching rugby and rowing would be wonderful."

How different his life is now. He is in sole charge of running a school of more than 800 boys and 500 staff - including 135 masters. "It is similar to being the chief executive of a company," he says. "Running a great school is about incremental change, pushing subtly in one direction."

A typical day sees him in his study by 7.30am with work continuing right up until 10pm. "There's something virtually every evening - an event, a dinner, a concert or a play."

He is planning to be on first-name terms with all Harrow's pupils. So far, he's up to about 100. "Sometimes it feels an impossible task and then suddenly the mist clears."

Clarity and direction, which he so clearly seeks, are two essential ingredients in making a success of one of the most extraordinary jobs in education. Oh, and managing a football club with a similar level of recognition. Leeds United, perhaps.



1973-77: Moseley CofE Primary School, Birmingham

1977-84: King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys, Birmingham

1984-88: Brasenose College, Oxford; MA mathematics; PGCE


1988-92: Maths teacher, Radley College, Oxfordshire

1992-97: Head of mathematics, Forest School, east London

1997-2002: Deputy head, Chigwell School, Essex

2002-11: Headmaster, Norwich School.

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