Dear Diary: Headmaster of Dragon School reflects on 30 years

John Baugh, Headmaster of the Dragon School, Oxford, reflects on the past three decades as a headteacher

When I first became a headteacher in 1986, I received some sage advice from an experienced colleague who had run his school for many years. He said, “The two most important things on your desk are your feet. Get them off the desk and get around your school.” Over the last 30 years or so, this advice has haunted me. Even now, as I write this, ‘my’ school is going on outside my window. It is break time and children are dashing around, shouting and screaming and playing ‘He’. I should be out there. I should be standing around; chatting and listening to the children tell me how their day is going. Instead, I am back at my keyboard, where I have spent most of the morning trying to keep my inbox at approximately the same level it was when I sat down. 

If asked, “What is the single biggest change in your time as a Head?” the answer would be, “I have become an Outlook slave and am in danger of becoming a stranger to the children.” I did have a computer on my desk in 1987 – it was an Amstrad PCW 8256. It had no hard drive and a dot matrix printer. I may have switched it on each day, but I don’t think so. I do my best at the start of every term to think of ways of getting around more, going to school lunch more and making sure I enjoy the company of the children and my colleagues. I may be being too hard on myself but that advice does still haunt me.

Another glance at yesterday’s diary, highlights other issues that cross a Head’s desk today: safer recruitment, security (online and real world), safeguarding and child protection, IT management, the charity commission and fundraising legislation. All of these are extremely important and, somewhat curiously, many of them touch on the other biggest single growth area of concern: children’s mental health – and, importantly, adult mental health.

The last 30 years have seen a dramatic increase in childhood mental disorders. It’s not just that we are detecting such disorders where we failed to look before; the increase is real. The British Medical Association reports that one in six children in this country now suffers from mental health difficulties severe enough to require treatment – up from one in ten five years ago. In a country where we are wealthier, healthier and more privileged than ever before, children, it is said, grow unhappier every year. The best schools have responded to this by placing greater and greater emphasis on social and emotional learning through the creation of nurturing programmes, offering full-time counsellors, developing individualised care plans and placing the care and well-being of the whole school community at the top of the agenda. All of this takes up time and all my colleagues spend countless hours supporting children and families who have come to rely on the school to help see them through difficult times.

These days we are more aware of multiple intelligences, growth mind-set, cognitive development in adolescence (earlier and earlier), attachment theory, resilience, well-being and much more. Perhaps, sometime in the not too distant future, we will have learned to turn the curriculum on its head and spend more time on the things that lead to a well-balanced and healthy life and less time on those things can cause stress, anxiety and worry. If I had my time again, that’s where I would start.

In the meantime, a glance at my diary for Monday shows me in a Senior Management meeting, an appraisal, four other meetings with staff, an upper school concert (hooray) and I think I spy a slot to have some lunch with the children. I have eight weeks left as a Head and I promise to do better.

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