Dr Joe Spence, you have been the Master of Dulwich College since 2009. What rules do you live by that have contributed to your successes?
Hoping not to sound pious, I’d say that the key to everything I do as a headmaster, as it was as a teacher, is based on the idea that I have a vocation. I differentiate between teachers who see their work as a vocation, or as a profession or as a job. Some teachers do a good job, without one feeling their heart and soul is in their work. Some are keen to make great personal progress in their chosen profession, and they can often be effective, in and beyond the classroom. But the key to success in a school, I believe, is to have a high proportion of teachers and school leaders who, whether they acknowledge it or not, are engaged in a great life-consuming but life-enhancing vocation.
If you are vocationally minded, then by definition you dedicate yourself to your work. You don’t really have to think in terms of finding a work-life balance, because everything you do, read, think, in some way serves your school. As a school’s Head, you don’t count the hours because while you might be out (of school) you are never off (duty). All that matters to you is that you do well by those you serve: your pupils, your staff – teaching and operational, the parents of your pupils, your governors and the wider community.
The other thing I keep in mind as a Head is that one can never do everything and that, therefore, one has to be satisfied with what one can manage to do. A Head should probably do more of what he or she is good at and find the right people to take on what they’re less good at. The best school leadership is distributed leadership where there is a great deal of delegation and a natural inclination towards teamwork.
I’m very interested in the history of ideas, and in how ideas are formulated and spread, and the more I’ve looked at the subject, the more I’ve come to believe that it’s very seldom that one person has an completely original idea and carries it to fruition on their own. Ideas tend to be in the ether, generated by a number of people in different places at the same time; sometimes these people are conscious that others are seeing things as they do, and sometimes not. Ideas spread when they are picked up and developed by a number of people. As a Head, one wants to work with those who are very good at carrying broad-brush ideas into tangible schemes.
What was your favourite subject at school?
I am by training an historian, but throughout my early school career my favourite and best subject was always English. I love drama, poetry, novels and short stories. But I didn’t study English to A level. Why? Because I didn’t want to be trained and directed in my reading, but to enjoy it for its own sake. That said, a good deal of my work as an historian, through to my doctorate, was essentially cultural history and often based on the analysis of literary and dramatic texts.
Recently I’ve answered an interesting variant of this question, which is “What subject do you wish you had been able to study at school and were not able to?” I think the commissioner of my contribution on this subject, who was simply looking for a pithy quote, was surprised by my impassioned statement in favour of a subject I feel is undervalued and misunderstood. However, at least it remains available at A level, thanks to a successful rear-guard action by its advocates, against the politicians and policy makers who wanted it scrapped. I wrote:
The subject I wish I’d been able to study at school is taught, formally, to just a few hundred fortunate children across the country. It’s a subject which encourages empathy and proper critical thinking. It requires an understanding of the context of one’s learning, perhaps to a greater extent than other subjects. It also affords students an introduction to almost every aspect of our western cultural heritage. It is creative and analytical, and at its most sophisticated requires understanding of elements of science too.
From what I’ve seen of those who have taught or studied it, it is never a soft option. I’m delighted that it hasn’t been erased from the curriculum completely, as seemed likely last year, and I would urge all schools to look for ways to introduce it to their pupils at as early an age as possible.
The subject is History of Art.
There is quite a lot of controversy as to whether the arts are deemed important subjects to teach in schools. What are your thoughts on this debate?
I’ve begun to answer the question in what I’ve said about my favourite subject and a subject I wish I could have studied at school. I think the creative arts are essential to a proper education and the sooner that any sort of English Baccalaureate is amended to recognise this the better. I’m very proud of the fact that the person who has done more than any other to popularise the idea that we should not be talking about the importance of STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – but of STEAM, with the arts (and, by extension, languages and the humanities) acknowledged as being of as much importance to good learning as the sciences, is an old boy of Dulwich College, the former chairman of the Arts Council, Sir Peter Bazalgette.
I am aghast that politicians and opinion-leaders don’t more actively promote the idea that in the UK in the 2020s there will be millions of jobs in the creative industries or which will require all the skills one learns from engaging with the arts. That’s the basic utilitarian reason for studying arts subjects at school, but beyond that they help us to become more human and more humane. We are storytelling animals; we learn to empathise through the access that the arts afford us as to how others think and see the world. Of course, propagandising art can as easily inspire hate as understanding and can be employed to demonise our enemies, but perhaps we should leave the debate as to whether propaganda can ever make good art for another day.
I think the final word on this topic should be given to the novelist Hilary Mantel who in the course of one of her Reith Lectures this year said: “History, and science, help us put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art”. I read that as shorthand for the fact that the Sciences and the Arts and the Humanities are equally important components of a proper education; it’s a fool’s errand to keep arguing about which is more important than the other.
In recent years, technology has had a real influence on education. Coding is a prime example of this. How do you see courses in technology progressing?
Just as we need to fight to put the creative arts back in to the core curriculum, so we also need to have a revolution in how we approach the teaching of Information Technology. At Dulwich we’ve done this in creating a discipline we call Informatics. I don’t know if that title will take off, but what I mean by it is that we need to make sure that in teaching IT we go way beyond introducing pupils to Word and Excel and, indeed, well beyond programming and coding. We have to make sure that there is a syllabus that encourages pupils to think about the ethics of the Internet too and about digital citizenship, that encourages them to engage in digital entrepreneurship and that ensures that teachers of subjects like history and the classics are exploring the possibilities of computerised learning as much as our mathematicians and scientists. That is, I talk about the need for us to promote the Digital Humanities. For example, I want our History teachers to be setting projects such as seeing if they can trace the progress of the Enlightenment by a statistical analysis, made simple by IT, of, say, which philosophers Voltaire was writing to, and in which European cities, at different times over the course of his life.
What are your thoughts on social media?
At its best, social media is making us a truly interconnected people and basic knowledge is more accessible to more people than it has ever been before. However, we are still going to need good teachers and mentors to ensure a deeper understanding and proper interrogation of the “facts” we think we know. The obituaries of the teacher have been premature! But the expansion of social media also brings new pressures for young people: there is the problem of the inordinate amount of time some teenagers spend on Facebook or on similar forums; there are the more dangerous addictions to gaming or porn; there is the possibility of cyber-bullying or of grooming. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that over half of the disciplinary issues that reach my desk are social media related. However, my optimistic reading is that every technological revolution has brought forth these sorts of problems which it takes a couple of generations to overcome.
Our job in schools is to help young people to use social media responsibility and creatively. Many are already doing so.
You’re a great advocate of ‘free learning’. How does this work alongside, or as part of, the curriculum? What engaging teaching methods do you and your staff use to keep pupils eager and keen to learn?
This is a really good question and one that I think about all the while. Over the course of the summer I’ve been looking again at my strategic development plan for Dulwich College and I have to confess that I know I have to work hard to balance two things I like talk about with equal confidence, to make sure neither is mere rhetoric: (i) the primacy of the classroom – the need to make sure, in an academic school, that we’re giving the right time and attention to every subject to enable pupils to do really well when it comes to the depth of their learning and their ability to pass public exams; (ii) free learning – promoting the idea that young people often learn best when you take them beyond the syllabus and when they engage in learning beyond the classroom, in their clubs and societies, in entering prize competitions, in their debates and personal projects.
I’m absolutely dedicated to our free learning days and creative learning weeks at Dulwich when we allow a given department or faculty to hijack the timetable, so that they choose what pupils do over the course of a day or a week. We started this in 2015 with Dulwich Creative, run by our creative arts departments, and over the course of a week every pupil in the school made a clay mask, which became part of a 1000+ mask installation, and did a line drawing of the person sitting opposite them at a preselected time. They engaged in a multiplicity of other creative activities too, from play writing to composing, to dancing to listening to careers advice from a range of people working in the arts and media. That was succeeded by Dulwich Inventive, when the scientists hijacked the timetable, then last year we enjoyed Dulwich Linguistic and we’re now looking forward to Dulwich Political, in October, which will see a great number of visiting speakers and debaters talking about every aspect of political life – local, national and global. Pupils will engage in mock elections, competitions and debates; for example, all of Year 8 will be in form teams addressing the question of which of the continents is likely to be the source of the next great super power.
What extra-curricular activities would you recommend pupils take part in during their time at Dulwich?
Over the course of their school careers I want boys to try everything and become very good at something. That is, I really don’t mind what they do from a wide range of co-curricular options as long as they engage broadly to begin with and then deeply, as they become more specialist in their appreciation of certain activities. So, for example, I can picture some of our Junior or Lower School boys happily engaged as sportsmen, musicians, debaters and actors, while doing very well in their lessons. My expectation is that for most of these all-rounders one or two activities will begin to capture their attention and that in the later years most of their co-curricular engagement will be in a just couple of these areas. Perhaps one will found a society that will enable further free learning in one of his favourite subjects while continuing to take his acting quite seriously, but playing sport for fun. Another pupil might emerge as an elite sportsman and manage to continue to play in the school orchestra, but he might not engage very deeply in the world of clubs and societies. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for Renaissance Youth, striving to do well at everything, but one of the most important responsibilities of a tutor is to weigh and measure the degree of engagement of his or her pupils to ensure that they don’t spread themselves too thinly, to the detriment of their work and wellbeing.
What sport are the boys at Dulwich College best at? Is there a particular favourite sport amongst the students?
One of the things of which I’m proudest, as I look back at what’s changed at Dulwich over the last decade, is that we have become renowned for engagement with a greater number of sports than in the past. We are no longer a school which only celebrates the big team games for good ball players. While we remain competitive in rugby and hockey and cricket, and while there’s been real progress in our soccer, I’m pleased by the number of boys engaged as rowers (towards 150), sailors or fencers, with basketball and badminton, and as swimmers, water polo players or cyclists. The important message is that while the majority of boys at Dulwich College continue to enjoy the traditional team games, you don’t have to be good at any of these to find your sporting niche here. And when you find it, you can either engage happily in playing for a minor school team or for your house, or you can take your interest to an elite level.
How do you teach the pupils interpersonal skills? Is this a quality you deem important for your boys to have?
The only way boys are going to grow into young men of good character is from learning by example so, whatever we cover in the curriculum in relation to good manners and interpersonal skills, is as nothing compared to what the pupils learn from watching how their teachers interact with each other and with them. You can undermine a term’s worth of Well-being lessons with one unkindness or cynical comment or perceived discourtesy. Of course, our pupils make serious mistakes, as children and teenagers always will, but I believe that I have a Common Room at Dulwich that sets down certain principles that encourage the boys to strive to be considerate, independent, responsible and mature.
To answer the question in another way, I would say that interpersonal skills have never been more important. We are witnessing the death of the passive CV, with the mere listing of what you’ve done counting for very little. The onus now is on what you make of it all: of the A*s at A level, of that Gold Duke of Edinburgh award, of your Grade 8s on the piano and violin. The future will lie with those who can lead, communicate, and show they can work in teams and think out of the box. I like the notion these are not soft skills but human skills; they are the aptitudes we need to develop to live safely and creatively with each other in this increasingly complex age.
How would you define Dulwich College?
That’s a difficult one, because I’m wary of confident statements about the uniqueness of schools. I hope your readers will have captured something of the spirt of Dulwich from my answers to earlier questions, but I don’t believe my College, or any school, has a unique selling point. There was a time, around the turn of the millennium, when Heads were expected to be able to identify their school’s USP. But good schools share more than differentiates them.
In a “Welcome to Dulwich” piece for our website recently, I found myself suggesting that Dulwich is a magpie school. It steals initiatives from others and it is content to find its own best practices taken up by others. This relates to my notion of where ideas come from; there is never a single originator, there is only the Zeitgeist, and my job as the Master of Dulwich College is to be in touch with it, to understand it or to stand in opposition to it, as seems most fitting, at any given moment.
Dr Joe Spence has been the Master of Dulwich College since 2009. He was previously Master in College at Eton College and Headmaster of Oakham School. Dr Spence is a trustee of The Art Room, of Inspiring Futures and of the Blackbird Academy Trust, Oxford, a governor of Windlesham House School, Sussex and Co- Director of the Southwark Schools’ Learning Partnerships. He is also a playwright and librettist.