The 'most famous headteacher in the world', is retiring, after 29 years at one school. Gerald Haigh met him
Chris Lowe, headteacher of Prince William upper school in Oundle, Northamptonshire, for 29 years, retires this summer as - until someone disputes the claim - the longest serving secondary head of a single school in the country. He might also be the most famous head in the world.
John Sutton, the recently retired general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association and a friend and colleague of Lowe for 25 years, thinks he probably is. "He has friends around the world and is an ambassador for secondary education as well as an outstanding practitioner."
Mr Sutton, for some years a fellow Northamptonshire head, is part of the Chris Lowe story. Starting at county level, they worked together throughout their careers to bring good ideas and drive to the Secondary Heads Association. They are from similar moulds: they both have a steadfast belief in traditional secondary school values, together with an intelligent openness to new ideas and, on the personal level, both men exude an air of confident authority that is leavened with humanity and kindness.
Another ingredient is a sense of humour that unfailingly sees the absurd side of pompous occasions. It was particularly called upon when, together, on behalf of SHA, Chris Lowe and John Sutton advised heads and education officials in the emerging post-Iron Curtain countries. "There was a time in Lithuania," Mr Sutton recalls, "where they'd laid on a party. Everyone got quite cheerful and they decided to entertain us with Lithuanian folk songs of inordinate length. Then we were called on, and Chris Lowe and I stood side by side and performed 'Land of Hope and Glory', followed by 'Ilkley Moor baht 'at' and 'Annie Laurie'."
Chris Lowe was born over a grocer's shop in Newcastle under Lyme and educated at Wolstanton county grammar school. He did his national service as an infantry officer and then went to Cambridge, where he read English under the formidable FR Leavis. His first teaching job, at Trinity School in Croydon, Surrey, was supposed to be a means of earning a living while he studied in the evening for his law degree, which he passed in 1973. "By that time I knew I wanted to be a teacher," he says.
From Croydon he went to Leicester, first to the City of Leicester school where he was head of English and then to a similar post at Wyggeston boys' school. In late 1970 he was appointed headteacher of the new - and at that stage physically non-existent - comprehensive school in Oundle. "I was 33," he says. "I'd been educated at a boys' grammar and done all my teaching in boys' grammar schools." How, then, did it happen? The story is worth telling, not least because it raises the question of whether something similar might happen in these days of management training and the National Professional Qualifications for Headship.
The key player was a local councillor, Reg Sutton (no relation to John), later to be one of Lowe's chair of governors, who had spent years trying to get the Northamptonshire authority to address the fact that children from Oundle who passed the 11-plus exam had to travel miles to take up a limited number of grammar school places. "I felt that quite a number of local pupils were being denied their rightful opportunity," he says. Eventually, Reg Sutton's dream was realised and a comprehensive school was planned for Oundle. What was needed next was the right headteacher, and Mr Sutton knew that it had to be someone from outside, with new ideas.
Now in his eighties, energetic and still interested in Prince William upper school, Reg Sutton recalls the day Lowe was interviewed, Friday, November 13, 1970. "I wanted a school for all the children here, to bring out the best in everybody. Chris told us what he thought he could do and what he said made me prick up my ears." Reg Sutton was able to win over his fellow governors and Lowe - the only candidate who was not a serving head or deputy head - was given the job that has been the centre of his life ever since.
The pressure was intense and immediate. Lowe had to prove to the town that the new school would work - and the only way was through results. Slowly success came and doubters were won over. "The results cut across opposition," Lowe says. "We began to open eyes and open up opportunities."
The story since has been one of steady academic improvement. Most recently, the school ran a raising achievement project, examining how students organise their work and devising ways of helping them. Nevertheless, league table success - though necessarily important - has never been the only criterion at Prince William. Lowe has been at pains to build a community which though well ordered, hard working and content is also outward looking.
Glyn James, today's chair of governors, says: "Chris has always had a very strong belief in finding the best for the students and as governors we have always supported that. If it's meant not being quite as high in the tables, then so be it."
Lowe made it a point of principle to get his pupils out and about, within Britain and abroad. "In 1972 we took a camping trip to Germany," he says. "Now we have lots of visits and exchanges. We have 12 link schools and every pupil, in every year, has the entitlement to go abroad."
The "one-world" philosophy has been pushed to the point where the school is genuinely part of the wider world. The slogan in the entrance hall is "A school for Europe" and as well as links with most European countries, including Russia, it has friends in South Africa, the Gambia (where pupils have built a village rest home for visitors), India and the US.
The philosophy of opening eyes and broadening opportunities led Lowe to give high priority to the arts and music. The school is well known for its operatic productions, which have toured in Europe and the US, and it has had a long working relationship with the Royal Opera House - Lowe was a member of its board of directors from 1993 to 1997.
Prince William upper has a democratic pupil structure, with a council and an elected president instead of the traditional head boy or girl. From the start, Lowe has consulted his staff. There were only 12 in the early days and not all of them, he recalls, were used to discussing policy. "At that time the only management text was in the Gospel of Matthew: 'I say to this man go and he goeth.' The staff would say, 'For God's sake, make a decision, Chris, so we can all go home!' " Some people say that Lowe's professional personality is a complicated mixture of determination to push forward, coupled with a real concern for staff and pupils - "a soft touch" is how one person affectionately describes him.
His chair of governors says he is torn by the way the school's ethos encourages staff to stay (the senior deputy, with 17 years' service, is typical). "He was often concerned that people were staying when he thought they ought to be progressing their careers," says Glyn James.
This feeling for the well-being of colleagues led him to devote much of his energy to the Secondary Heads Association. Making use of his law degree, he was legal secretary for 14 years, offering advice to members in difficulty. "He's an expert in education law and has written books about it," says John Sutton, "but his approach was never that of the text book lawyer - he always applied good sense to tricky situations." (His legal knowledge has also been deployed in The TES, where for some years he wrote the much-read Chris Lowe's Casebook.) His years in the Secondary Heads Association peaked with his term as president in 1990-91. This led directly to his presidency of the European Secondary Heads Association from 1992 to 1996. He was also a founder member, in the late Eighties, of the International Confederation of Principals. And in 1992 he was made a CBE for services to education.
All the time, Prince William school was home. Now that chapter is coming to a close. Chris Lowe plans to work as a consultant with at least one education action zone and with schools in India, where he has long-standing contacts.
So the international vision is as bright as ever. Where does it come from? A story from Lowe's teenage years casts light on his social values. In 1952, with the Second World War a recent memory, a German student came to his home town to be a language assistant at Wolstanton grammar. "Nobody would take him in, but my parents put him up and he shared my room. I learned a lot from that, and I think he did too. We still write to each other."