Leadership: The interview - 'Heads can be just like politicians'

3rd April 2009 at 01:00

Melvyn Roffe, former mayor and Liberal Democrat candidate, is principal of Wymondham College, a state boarding school. Is teaching alone enough of a challenge?

Did you always plan to go into teaching?

I fell into teaching after reading English at York. If I did a straw poll of most heads I know it would be a similar story - I think a lot of us didn't plan on it.

How does being a mayor compare with being a headteacher?

I think there are few heads who aren't in some way politicians. You've got to say what you mean and mean what you say, deal with all sorts of people, think on your feet and be good with people. I'd like to think that my political experience has fed through into my work as chairman of the Boarding Schools' Association (BSA) as well.

You were a mayor and a Liberal Democrat candidate at the same time as teaching - how did you manage?

I had an understanding head who was supportive of the whole thing. I did the same amount of work as everyone else, but it was arranged for me to have one day off a week in which I could do my council work. I was always grateful for that.

Do you think schools do well out of getting involved in politics?

I think there were a lot of benefits for Monmouth School, where I worked at the time. I was sitting on the fence between the school and the local community, and could see where both sides were coming from and that was useful in terms of community relations. In terms of the profile, having a teacher standing for Parliament was a bit of an oddity and that was useful. I was also able to spread awareness about the school when I was visiting various people and institutions.

What do you think are the major advantages of state boarding schools?

Whether its state or independent, the thing about boarding is that it is education in the community. You've got children who are learning, not just through simple interaction with a teacher at any time, they're learning in an environment where they see their teacher in different guises. Pupils also get positive role models from teachers and from other pupils, usually older ones, who have strong leadership roles. That is a powerful thing for creating successful schools. There's little disaffection in boarding schools - not that it's for everyone - but for those whom it is suitable, the richness and rewarding nature of life is fantastic.

But don't boarding schools take pupils out of their communities?

Pupils that I speak to feel that they have two sets of friends. It's not that they're losing anything - they're gaining something else. They develop their independence, sense of self-assurance and self worth. This is often particularly the case with children from more vulnerable backgrounds, who actually find that being at boarding school is an incredible release from being at home. They have something that is theirs and gain a great deal of personal strength from the experience.

What changes have you made that you're most proud of?

The college has increased in size in the past two years because we've had a large amount of funding to expand the number of boarding places. A lot of my energy has been directed at making sure expansion is not at the expense of quality. We've got a nice new boarding house, but it's not just about the buildings - it's about the systems and making sure people can work together to provide the type of quality education and care that we expect.

You've invested a lot of time in forging international links - why do you think this is important?

British boarding has a strong brand overseas. I feel strongly, particularly in these times of economic hardship, that British education is one of the products that we have to sell internationally. I'm somewhat dismayed that the Government spends a lot of money telling people how difficult it is to get into the country and not enough telling them how they can become pupils here, which is incredibly short-sighted of those in power. Part of my job as chairman is to fly the flag for British boarding overseas.

How do you relax?

With difficulty. I like to get on my bike and ride around the flat lanes of Norfolk. I have no musical ability whatsoever, but I also love finding a cathedral choir and listening to choral evensong.

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

Nothing. I would have a day where political activism in education was suspended, and I think we'd all be better for it.

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

I once challenged a group of pupils coming out of an off-licence with wrapped bottles, only to be told in quick succession that they were for a still life art project, presents for their mothers and presents for me


2008 - Chairman of the BSA

2007 - Principal, Wymondham College, Norfolk

2001-2007 - Headmaster, Old Swinford Hospital, West Midlands

1993-2001 - Director of studies (academic deputy head) 1997-2001 having been head of English 1993-1997 at Monmouth School, Gwent

1993 - Mayor of Oundle

1992 - Lib Dem candidate for Corby

1986-1993 - English and drama teacher at Oundle School, Peterborough.

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