“I don’t do that.” Shaun Fenton is refusing point-blank to pose for a profile photo alone, insisting that the picture has to include some of his pupils.
The face-off with a photographer in the modern, landscaped grounds of Reigate Grammar School – on the hottest day of the year – is the only sticky moment of the interview. But it could be a telling one.
Fenton is about to take over as chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC). It’s a key role, representing the elite of the country’s independent sector, and one that comes with plenty of scope for personal grandstanding. But Fenton’s obvious discomfort at being the centre of attention suggests this is not the approach he will be taking.
Such a trait might seem strange when you consider his family background. Fenton’s late father was ’70s glam rock star Alvin Stardust; his brother is Adam F, a leading drum ‘n’ bass DJ and producer of hip-hop royalty; and his mother, Iris, is a former dancer who previously dated Paul McCartney.
Shaun Fenton’s own professional background is far from boring – in educational terms, at least. This is a man who has taught in what was once dubbed “Britain’s worst school” and is that rarest of breeds: a headteacher who has led a state comprehensive, a state grammar and an independent school. He also names education secretary Damian Hinds as a friend from university.
It’s fair to say that Fenton has taken a very different career path from the rest of his immediate relatives. Sitting upright on a sofa in his neat, rectangular office, with its comforting antique-bookshop scent, he explains how someone from a music-business family came to lead an independent school in Surrey.
“I’m the first person in my family ever to stay in school beyond the age of, probably, 15,” he says. After moving down south from Liverpool, aged 5, he attended a state primary in Hertfordshire before winning a scholarship at the nearby independent Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, without having done any preparation for the exam. “I went to Habs from an unlikely background really,” he says. “It was just the nearest school.”
Despite his father’s pop-star image, the family didn’t have a particularly flashy lifestyle. The contrast between Fenton’s background and that of his classmates was apparent the moment he rolled into the school car park, which was full of swish Mercedes and BMWs.
“I remember we drove in in a Honda Civic with a bit of cardboard where the sunroof was – the glass had blown off at some point.”
When his parents were interviewed as part of the admissions process, his mother asked if there was anything she could do to support her son, and was told to consider buying him a thesaurus. “My mum said, ‘Yeah, he’s always been into dinosaurs,’” he smiles.
Fenton excelled at secondary school, throwing himself into sport – which he admits he wasn’t particularly good at – and finding a life-long mentor in his religious education teacher, David Lindsay. “He believed in me and made me believe in myself,” says Fenton. “He was – and still is – an inspiration.”
Hope for Hinds
In fact, his decision to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford was largely down to his enjoyment of Lindsay’s lessons, especially those tackling the philosophy of religion, and he would later go on to teach RE himself.
Fenton’s Who’s Who entry lists “loving God” as a recreation. Is he religious? He clams up. “I don’t…I wouldn’t use religious labels to describe me,” comes the eventual reply. It is just one of several rather cautious responses that pepper the interview, and might suggest a safety-first approach to his role at HMC. Fenton does nothing to dispel this impression when he says he will be aiming for “continuity”.
But the role may require a little more than that. The HMC, like the rest of the independent sector, is still in a potentially tight spot with a government that, less than 18 months ago, launched a Green Paper threatening to withdraw charitable status from independent schools unless they did more work with state schools. Asked whether Hinds was likely to strike a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor, Justine Greening, Fenton says: “I’m very hopeful. He seems to be someone who’s prepared to listen, who’s willing to look for pragmatic and sustainable solutions.”
And that’s when the head reveals that he knew the education secretary long before his promotion to cabinet, although he has not seen him since. “We were at Oxford together – we were involved in the Oxford Union together,” Fenton volunteers. So did they find themselves on the same side of the debate? “Yes, we were friends,” he replies. “He was president and I was a mere mortal, but we knew each other and met up a few years ago. I’ve got a lot of time for him professionally.”
While the Department for Education appears to be taking a less confrontational approach to independent schools of late, it is not backing away entirely. Towards the end of last year, the department set up a team, known as the System Partnership Unit, to “broker partnerships” between private and state schools (bit.ly/BrokerPartnerships).
Fenton says he supports a climate that encourages these alliances, although he sounds sceptical as to whether Whitehall involvement will help. “All the best partnerships are authentic, local, based on real relationships,” he says. “I’m a bit suspicious of any government view that you can have a silver bullet from Westminster.”
He has tried to convince the government to subsidise 10,000 places for disadvantaged pupils in private schools, paying no more than they would if the children were attending state schools. And it is an idea he wants to continue promoting as HMC chair (bit.ly/FentonTes).
So far, the government has steadfastly ignored the proposal, but Fenton thinks it has legs. “I don’t think it’s dead in the water because it’s such a good idea,” he says.
Of course, Fenton has first-hand experience of both sectors. Not only has the future HMC chairman spent many years working in state schools, but he taught in the comprehensive that the media once dubbed “the worst school in Britain”.
Moving to The Ridings School in Halifax, West Yorkshire, was, he says, a “formative moment” in his career. It was only his second teaching job, after a stint teaching RE and history at a West London comprehensive, preceded by a year working in the City (“I didn’t feel I was making enough difference every day,” he says).
The Ridings had appalling GCSE results, served a very deprived community, and had struggled ever since it had been created by merging two struggling secondaries. It found itself at the centre of a national media storm in 1996 when staff walked out, declaring 60 pupils to be “unteachable”.
When Fenton arrived, the school was on the up – although it later closed – but was still subject to Ofsted inspections every six weeks. “If there was an improvement initiative that was thought up on the Thursday, it had to be implemented on the Friday – because Ofsted were coming in the following week,” he recalls. He held his “visionary” headteacher Peter Clark in great esteem, and left the school with “a sense of the transformative value that education can bring”.
Flair for the dramatic
A deputy headship and then a headship in two other comprehensives followed, before Fenton became headteacher of Pate’s Grammar School in Cheltenham, and then switched sectors. One of the things Fenton enjoys most about leading independent schools is being able to champion the extracurricular activities that he enjoyed so much as a pupil.
“We’ve got a little bit more room to celebrate the arts, the extracurricular, and not be looking over our shoulder at what the inspectors will say,” he acknowledges.
While many state schools battle acute funding pressures and are having to make curriculum cuts, his own school has recently expanded its drama department. Pupils also have access to an indoor 25-metre pool and a 32-acre sports ground, which is opened up to local state schools at specified times.
Having a strong non-academic offering clearly means a lot to Fenton. He describes his own experience of school productions and competitive sport as “his touchpoints in life”. “I learned more on the stage and sports field that stayed with me than I was taught in maths or English lessons,” he says. “I think that’s important to where I am now.”
And he thinks these extracurricular activities provide teenagers with a much-needed dose of “healthy” stress. He is concerned that “there’s a danger in our narrative around teenage life that we see stress as a negative”.
“Some of the best moments of being a teenager are first-night nerves, are pre-match butterflies when you’re playing a local derby.” At this point, Fenton becomes animated, suddenly seeking eye contact. “Those are the moments – those stressful moments – that give life its texture, its purpose, its real value.”
These days, his sense of purpose appears to come from leading a school that seems like more than just a staging post in an upwardly mobile career. His wife teaches in the art department, and both of his sons attend the school as pupils. The head repeatedly stresses how much he enjoys interacting with pupils, talking eagerly about interviewing prospective pupils using the Harry Potter sorting hat that perches on his bookshelf, above a Quidditch ball.
Fenton says he deliberately chose an office that has wide, low windows directly facing the playground, and a door that he opens to groups of pupils wishing to escape cold weather during breaktimes. “It’s unusual that we’ve been sitting here and a football hasn’t bounced off the window,” he remarks.
While he jokes that he is still holding out for a place in this year’s World Cup squad, Fenton harbours no regrets about his career path. “The world of DJing and hip hop and drum ‘n’ bass that my brother works in…I think I’m in bed by the time they’re going to work!
“For me, I wouldn’t for one moment swap bright lights and fame for the benefits that come from working in a school community…That’s what gives me a buzz, seeing young people on their journey to young adulthood.”