Modest man of many talents

20th January 2006 at 00:00
He is one of our most successful heads, a best-selling author and leading education thinker. Now Anthony Seldon is taking over one of the nation's grandest schools. Graeme Paton reports

You do not envy Anthony Seldon's personal assistant at Wellington college.

Dr Seldon, who took over as headmaster of the pound;22,995-a-year private school in Berkshire this week, has a justified reputation as one of the hardest-working figures in education.

In eight years at Brighton college he transformed it from a coasting school into what is considered the best on the south coast. Not content with this, he forged groundbreaking links with local state comprehensives, established a business forum in the city to promote trade and ran a major education conference, attracting government ministers and leading academics to address the college.

Dr Seldon also found time to write or edit 12 books, including the most authoritative biography of Tony Blair, teach GCSE history and even direct the school play.

Debbie Batenburg, his PA at Brighton college, said: "He is extremely busy but the school and the people within it always came first. He knew the names and achievements of every pupil - whether it was an academic, sporting or artistic endeavour.

"When results day came, he would spend the night before committing the achievements of each child to memory and personally congratulating as many as he could."

Dr Seldon was known at Brighton for inviting every pupil to share lunch with him at least once a year and even dropping in on school trips, no matter where in the world.

Claire Cook, the England women's cricket captain, and an English teacher at Brighton, said: "The school goes on the most amazing range of trips, from Sri Lanka to Zimbabwe, and he will make a point of flying over, often just to take the boys and girls out for a day.

"When we won the Ashes in the summer (England's women matched their male counterparts by beating Australia last year) Anthony texted me from the Amazon to congratulate me. That's just typical of him, always thinking of others."

Dr Seldon's manner - a softly-spoken, almost shy man, and painfully modest about his immense achievements - belies one of the most progressive minds in the independent sector.

Educated at Worcester college, Oxford and the London School of Economics, Dr Seldon has not been afraid to stir things up among his fellow private heads in the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), accusing them of being too inward looking, failing to champion themselves or lead the national education debate.

His appetite for reform is already being felt at Wellington, where he was instrumental in the decision to admit girls for the first time at all ages from September 2006 before officially taking up his post. He also intends to introduce the international baccalaureate.

Dr Seldon has organised four conferences within the first six months at the school. Unlike the conferences he ran at Brighton, which will continue, these will be on single issues, such as the teaching of Mandarin, future of independentstate school partnerships, handling cannabis use and co-education.

However, the challenge of leading Wellington will be no less taxing than that at Brighton. The school has had more than its fair share of negative headlines in recent years with reports of bullying and drug-taking.

But Dr Seldon, who started his career as a teacher in 1983 at Whitgift school, Croydon, rising through the ranks at Tonbridge school, Kent, and St Dunstan's college, Catford, insists the time is right for a change.

"I have done all I can do at Brighton, I have made my contribution but I had nothing fresh to offer them," says Dr Seldon. "How can I fail to be excited about the prospect of leading a school like Wellington? It is one of Britain's and the world's greatest schools. It is the national monument to Britain's best known general and it is a school with new chapters just waiting to be written about it."

The literary analogy is not surprising from someone who has attracted as much fame as a published author as a headteacher. His latest book, the 768-page biography of the Prime Minister, involved more than 400 interviews, most face-to-face. But Brighton college was never far from his thoughts. He employed a team of five former pupils to help him with research and donated all royalties from his books to the college or to charity.

"When I was writing the Blair book, it was the hardest I have ever worked in my life. It was 12 weeks, seven days a week, for 14 hours," he says. "I have got a clear conscience about my writing, I am doing my job and not benefiting financially."

However much time he devotes to extra-curricular activities at Wellington, one suspects the achievements of boys (and from September, girls) will always be his number-one priority.

Opinion 23


Wellington College, whose motto is 'Heroum filii' (sons of heroes), was established in 1859 as a national memorial to the Iron Duke. For more than 150 years it has been seen as the private school with the closest links to the Army.

Membership of the Combined Cadet Force is compulsory for all pupils for a year. But it has recently attracted headlines for distinctly ungallant behaviour by some pupils.

In 2003, a tabloid exposed a lurid tale of sixth-formers: "drunken, booze-fuelled romps" while staff thought they were studying. It was also revealed that two prefects set up an unsuspecting schoolgirl to be videoed having sex.

Since then there has been the alleged rape of a girl by a 15-year-old pupil and seven girls from a nearby school being taken to hospital after allegedly having their drinks "spiked" at a Wellington disco.

Particularly damaging last April is news that police are investigated alleged bullying at the school, which lists pop star Will Young, impressionist Rory Bremner and TV presenter Peter Snow among its old boys.

But Anthony Seldon, the 13th head of the school, in Crowthorne, Berkshire, is a skilled journalist in his own right and will certainly not be intimidated by the media glare.

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