Interview: Tony Little, Head Master, Eton College

Photo Courtesy: The Telegraph

By Ashley Coates. Published: 07/05/2013

“Like all the powerful things in any institution, it’s not what’s written down, it’s what’s lived, it is the way people feel about a place..”

Founded by Henry VI in 1440, Eton College is one of the best known schools in the UK. Successive Head Masters have fostered an ethos at the college that centres around self-reliance, achievement and a belief in being able to do great things, nurturing an impressive alumni that includes 19 Prime Ministers as well as major figures from the media, business and royalty. Tony himself is an Old Etonian, as is Sir John Gurdon, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who features later in this book.

Tony studied English Literature at Cambridge and stayed on to complete a PGCE there. He arrived at the college in 2002, having risen up through a series of headships at other schools in different parts of the country. Throughout his previous appointments, Tony developed a reputation as having a perceptive understanding of the education system as well as the strong leadership skills needed to govern a school of 1300 students.

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This is an abridged version of a series of 30 interviews made for a book exploring successful personalities.

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The headship of Eton is one of the most coveted roles in education, certainly in this country, how did you get appointed to this position?

I had been a headmaster of two schools before I came to Eton so I suppose on one level I had become “known on the circuit”, in many more ways than one might think. I started as a headmaster at Chigwell School towards the east of London, which was a very good place to start. It wasn’t a particularly big school, but it was in an interesting part of the world with an east-end dynamic. I was there for seven years and I then went to Oakham School in Rutland.

Oakham was very much middle England, a co-educational and predominately boarding school,a very different environment. I was there for six years and then I was contacted about the job at Eton.

So it’s more about building up a reputation to an extent?

To an extent, Chigwell is the sort of school that makes a good first “headship”, people tend to apply out of the blue, responding to an advertisement. By the time one is dealing with more famous schools, on the whole they approach you.

What did you make of the state of the British education system when you were starting out?

This was in the middle-late 1970s. It was an interesting time in a variety of ways, not least how difficult it was then for anyone to get a job. Teaching jobs were thin on the ground, wherever you looked. In my PGCE group many of them found jobs very late in the day. Within a few years it was very much the other way round with schools struggling to find people.

The PGCE course I took was, frankly, not terribly good. One of my abiding concerns in our country is the inadequacy of teacher training generally. Teacher training has become more practical over time which is a good thing, but when compared to other national systems of education, such as Finland, it’s a long way shy of what is needed.

Where do you feel it is failing specifically in this country?

I think the notion has been that you give people a starter kit, send them off on their way as teachers and somehow by osmosis they find out how to do the job. This might work if a young teacher ends up in a good school in a good department, because he or she will pick up good habits, but there hasn’t been anything like the quality of training needed, for example, in the development of neuroscience.

Very few teachers, practicing teachers I mean, are versed in the science of the brain and yet if you are to be a truly effective teacher you should understand these things. My view is that as a nation we would benefit by having an open house for people to experience teaching, so that we can attract people of different ages from different backgrounds and different professions.

Then after a few years those who wish to continue with teaching would have to become chartered teachers, with a pretty stiff level of training and certification to make it a genuine professional body. One of the problems with teaching at the moment is that it calls itself a profession, which it is up to a point, but often lacks professional credibility. It is a bit of a halfway house, by comparison, for example, with medicine or law.

There are so many different schemes now for people who want to enter teaching, how would you go about establishing yourself in the sector now?

I am completely relaxed about teachers coming to Eton with or without a professional qualification. I’ll appoint them if they are good people with good academic qualifications who we think will make decent schoolmasters. Then we’ll train them on the job and that is at least as effective as appointing someone who has the current level of formal qualification. That isn’t a criticism of the idea of formal qualification, it is a criticism of the situation we are in now.

So if you are not looking for qualifications, what are you looking for in a potentially respectable teacher? I know a lot of of my own teachers complained having started in teaching 20-odd years ago and it has become something it wasn’t when they started out, they are being held to curriculums and the environment is becoming more clinical in their eyes.

Indeed, there is a strong truth in that. What I look for is a good academic qualification, and an ability to contribute more broadly in the curriculum, or co-curriculum, which is very important in a boarding school. The other crucial aspect is that the person actually likes young people. There is a surprising number of people in the teaching profession who really don’t like their pupils.

Eton has been around now for 570 years, what did you want to preserve and what were you looking to change when you arrived in 2002?

The ethos of the school is strong. It wasn’t exactly a broken vessel; this clearly was a successful school by all kinds of measures, so in many ways it was a question of identifying what was good and making sure we developed it rather than filling in any gaping holes. Having said that there are several areas where I hope we have moved on. We have touched on one of them which is teacher training.

When I arrived at Eton I came across teachers who had never had someone sit in their classrooms and watch them teach. Some refused point-blank to allow people to come in. It stems from a culture of autonomy. This was not good enough in my view. We now have a system of annual review, there is an appraisal, we have a system of lesson observations within departments and even across departments such that teachers are randomly paired with someone from a completely different discipline in order to learn more about the art of pedagogy.

But we were in the fortunate position of having an able teaching body in the first place, so the trick from a leadership point-of-view, was to encourage, support and embrace the way that things have been done, but tweak and shift them gently. One hopes over a period of time that the culture of the school will have progressed.

I’m keen to ask, because this book is primarily focused on how people have got where they are and how they achieved success in whichever area that may be, obviously Eton has got a fairly staggering track record of producing people who have gone on to do great things, what do you think it is about an education at Eton that gives someone that extra edge?

I think it’s a mixture of things but perhaps I can identify four points. First is the tradition of the place. It’s largely unspoken and I am very loathe to talk to boys about ’19 Prime Ministers’ and all that because it becomes self-referential and rather inward looking. Nonetheless, teenagers at Eton live and work in an environment where for the best part of six centuries, people have gone on to do quite extraordinary things, so it becomes part of the warp-and-weave. It becomes a level of expectation that certain things are possible.

This makes for a powerful environment of which to be a part. Like all the powerful things in any institution, it’s not what’s written down, it’s what’s lived; it is the way people feel about a place.

Point two. When I talk to boys, particularly older boys who are about to leave and ask them about their views, they frequently come up with the word ‘excellence’. The interesting thing here is that it is not so much that which is expected by teachers, but of each other. It makes for a compelling climate in a school where students expect each other to be pretty good at whatever they do. It’s not cool to be bad at something, whether you are writing a play, playing in a concert, whether it’s your academic work, games, putting on a rock concert or running a charity function.

The third thing I would say is independence, which is an historic theme at Eton, and something I am keen to sustain. It’s this notion that you stand up for yourself and stand up for something higher than yourself. In a nutshell this is what we want our boys to be able to do. Eton is structured in a way that is unusual: for example, in a boarding school of 1300 boys, each boy has his own room, there are no shared dormitories, so you have a sense of being your own man in your own place.

When your housemaster comes round and you’re aged 13, you are talking to him man-to-man rather than as part of a group of others. The tutorial arrangements we have are in small groups, with tutorials taking place in the tutor’s home. So it creates a culture where young people are expected to behave in an adult way and stand on their own two feet.

And the fourth element is that when all these three strands come together, you have young men, in the main, who are the kind of people who roll up their sleeves and get things done, with an attitude that “I can change the world”. Sometimes they think too much that they can change the world. but it is a good starting point. I would sum it up by saying this: schools should enable young people to have a true sense of self worth, because if they have that, then they can start being of use both to themselves and to society.

Do you have any words of wisdom for students who are deciding what to do as a career?

Even when they are quite young, I talk to boys about the idea that many of them will work in jobs not yet invented. This is a huge shift, a paradigm shift in the way that schools should see that they are doing. I’m of the generation where students were trained as something specific like a lawyer, with a linear progression to become a more distinguished version of what they started out to do.

For the next generation that shifted to having three or four different careers, but it has shifted again and the current generation is faced with the prospect of having several careers that aren’t even described yet.

So we should not be looking for a finite set of skills. In many ways I think the liberal British tradition of education is even more relevant that it has been, because this liberal British tradition stresses underlying qualities of character and a range of skills such as flexibility and dealing with people, the soft skills if you like. I think these are going to be even more important to the next generation than they have been for the last.

To sum it up, I say this: the world is as it is, driven by exams, students have to achieve their exam certificates, nothing else matters to get into a university; that is the truth of it. But they also have to understand that from the moment they are at university and certainly as soon as they are in the job market, all that will really matter is everything they did at school other than the stuff they did for the exam certificates. Bright students understand that.

Yes it is about differentiating yourself to an extent.

Yes, but also seeing how you are part of the tribe. As far as I am able to do so, I seek to be honest with our boys. I am quite clear to them that this is the world as I see it. You can be sceptical, even cynical about our exam culture, but students need to be able to put it in perspective.

What do you think makes a great educationist?

I think it’s about passion, someone who really cares about young people. It is having the ability to deal with the daily and the mundane, which can easily take over the whole day, while at the same time keeping your eyes on the horizon and beyond the horizon. That’s the real challenge.

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