It’s the first week of August, mid-summer holiday, and I can see on our video call that Julian Noad isn’t wearing his usual suit and tie, but sportswear instead. He’s just got back from a jog, and it seems I’ve caught him in one of his more relaxed moments – after all, he’s currently juggling two diaries: one as the outgoing headmaster of Oswestry School, Shropshire and one as the incoming headmaster of Queen’s College, Taunton.
He’s still in the West Midlands for now but is moving down to Somerset at the end of the month. The south-west is a place of familiarity for Julian, his wife Jane and their two university-age children, as Julian spent 12 years as a housemaster at Clifton College in Bristol. However, it was the south-east, in Kent, where he grew up.
Julian read engineering at the University of Southampton and admits that he thought he might end up designing nuclear power stations. “That clearly never happened, but I still have a passionate interest in engineering,” he says. When he moves to Somerset, he’ll live close to the new Hinkley Point C power station; he’s hoping he can have a tour one day.
Julian also has a science PGCE from the University of Bristol. “Good scientific understanding helps us make good-quality decisions,” he says. On top of his headmaster duties he’ll be teaching physics to a year 9 class at Queen’s College.
Leading in a pandemic
Julian says he recalls well the day in March 2020 that they were forced to shut Oswestry School, as other schools across the country did the same.
“We really didn’t know what lay ahead,” he remembers, “but just like so many organisations across the country and around the world, people pulled together and recognised there was a problem to be solved.” As the Covid-19 pandemic swept the country, he is grateful that Oswestry School had an existing “strong digital setup”. He is also proud of his school’s decision to put a strong focus on pastoral care, with time carved out in lessons to stop and chat.
Julian’s role as head changed in an instant. “My job suddenly became a public health officer and a communications chief overnight,” he says, remembering typing up messages to parents in the evenings after government press briefings. However, he says feedback from parents was “fantastic” and the school’s community spirit “came to the fore” in that period.
A fresh start
At Easter this year it was confirmed that Julian would be moving to Queen’s College. In June the school revealed he would start in September, instead of the following year as planned.
“I’m very excited,” he says about joining the co-educational day and boarding school, which educates pupils from 3 months to 18 years.
“I’ve been at Oswestry for seven years and I’ve loved it, but I think we all have a natural period of time where we can make the greatest impact. Although there’s plenty more I could do at Oswestry, I think it is right that it has a fresh pair of eyes on it. Particularly now when there’s an opportunity post-pandemic to reset.
“That’s why I think going to Queen’s at this time is really quite exciting, too. It’s a wonderful school. It’s got a great community; I think that’s something which draws me to it.”
He says that while independent schooling is well understood in the south, it is a challenging market with a lot of competition. “It’s about differentiating what Queen’s has to offer and focusing on its strengths,” he explains.
We move from being teachers to chief executives without necessarily having had the training in the business world that goes with it – Julian Noad
Amongst Queen’s College’s strengths, Julian lists community engagement, pastoral care, sports and performing arts. “Queen’s is a powerhouse for performing arts,” says Julian. The Queen’s Hall, a fully equipped 570-seat theatre, complete with high-quality lighting and sound systems, is used for all of its productions throughout the year.
When it comes to areas to improve, Julian has a clear idea of what needs to change. “I think everybody in the school community knows that its pupil roll is smaller than they’d like it to be at the moment. It has declined a little bit in recent years and that’s something that I intend to turn around.
“It’s very evident to me that Queen’s is a fabulous school, and it really does have heart and soul about it. What it hasn’t got at the moment is enough self-belief. Queen’s is a great school that needs to regain its confidence; I am certain that it will.
“We’ve got to get together a strategic investment plan; that’s something that the chair of governors has mandated me to deliver and the trust behind us will support me with that.
“There’s been some lack of care with some facilities over time, and those things just need to be tidied up. What I hope to bring to Queen’s is a real sense of strategy that has been lacking at times. It’s a fresh start for me, and it’s a fresh start that Queen’s needs as well.”
The challenges of leadership
Before his first headship at Oswestry, Julian was deputy head academic at Rydal Penrhos in North Wales. He was “lucky”, he says, that he had a close relationship with the head and was able to be “close to the action”, with governing body meetings and decision-making.
“I think that preparation was very valuable,” says Julian. “We move from being teachers to chief executives without necessarily having had the training in the business world that goes with it. That certainly supported me in that transition.”
His advice for starting a headship? “Don’t underestimate the changing gear that needs to be made from being an academic or pastoral lead or deputy head to having that overarching headship role. It is amazing how broad the portfolio of head is – from choosing the colour of paint for the girls’ toilets to making high-level financial decisions about the school. You will be pulled from pillar to post and that is, in itself, exciting and energising, but it’s also distracting and tiring, quite frankly.”
When it comes to starting a second headship, there are more specific hurdles to overcome. “A second headship is a notoriously difficult challenge,” says Julian. “There are some governing bodies who are very wary of appointing a second head, worried that they won’t get the same enthusiasm, or that they might come with a set of fixed ideas that they’re trying to impose upon the new school. I’m mindful of both of those concerns but determined that I won’t fall foul.
“Be mindful when you go into a second headship that you don’t believe for a minute that you know it all, or that the new setting is going to respond wonderfully to everything that you’ve done before. It’s going to be horses for courses, most definitely.”
The future of assessment
Julian mentions early on in our conversation that many discussions in education have been stimulated by the pandemic, including how exams will look in the future. On our current system, he says: “I do join those who wonder what the purpose of GCSEs is in the current format, given that pupils are now in some form of education until 18. That terminal examination at 16+ doesn’t really have the same meaning anymore.”
He suggests that teacher-assessed grades could replace exams at this level. “If we were in a system where we knew that this was going to be the case at the beginning of the year 10 GCSE programme, teachers could spend their time carefully considering the grade that is likely to be achieved at the end and have better conversations with pupils about where they are in their learning programme.”
In doing so, Julian believes, the GCSE curriculum could be “creative” and “flexible” with “more exciting programmes of study”.
Be mindful when you go into a second headship that you don’t believe for a minute that you know it all – Julian Noad
He supports A-levels in their terminal form as a qualification that universities can trust, but takes issue with the current admissions process.
“I think we are one of the few education systems in the world which relies on a prediction as your passport to university and that leads to some difficulties. It could be fairer if we had a post-qualification system. I’m not the expert on how that’s going to be achieved but there’s got to be give from both ends. Examinations would have to be earlier and university start dates would have to be later, probably, to make it work. But that’s a negotiation to be had.”
As we turn the corner on the pandemic, I can see the appeal of starting a new chapter, and I can hear Julian’s elation as he says: “We’ve got exciting times ahead post-pandemic; there’s been a significant digital revolution and the world has shifted. We’ve got to look forward to what education might be in the future.”
Julian on… mathematics:
“It does worry me that we have a wider culture, not just in schools, where to be weak at mathematics is genuinely acceptable and should be celebrated around the dinner table. One wouldn’t shout loudly that they can’t spell or can’t read. That divergence is something that we should resolve. We need to look again at how we teach mathematics and how we embed numeracy within our wider curriculum.”
On exams during the pandemic:
“It’s been a bit of a battleground between the government and teachers at times. There’s not as much trust as I would have liked to have seen. Although this year without the algorithm, trust has been placed entirely on the school – unfortunately also the responsibility. I think there are a lot of members of the teaching community who wonder whether they might be being hung out to dry if the grades aren’t what people hoped.”
On skills development:
“There is a clamour still for greater skills emphasis. I don’t think a skills-only focus is the answer, but there should be an emphasis on developing the right skills. Some of those are the soft skills, which are implicit in good-quality independent schools and all good-quality schools. But there are some other skills for life, like digital skills, that need to be better supported.”