Anthony Seldon recently failed to get the government to agree to a new leadership college he would run. Undeterred, he has bounced back with a new wellbeing conference. But why?
Anthony Seldon wants teachers and heads to get better at looking after themselves. As master of Wellington College he introduced happiness lessons. As vice-chancellor of the private University of Buckingham, he is trying to create “Europe’s first positive university” by adopting a “positive psychology” approach.
But is this all a marketing ploy and can it really help the state sector? After all, what sort of positive approach would he recommend to a headteacher dealing with budget cuts or staff shortages?
Don’t get “stressed about the things we cannot change” the 64-year-old advises, “we just have to learn to accept them”.
What, really? “Okay, no. I’m saying definitely fight. But, at the end of the day, a definition of madness is that you keep banging your head against a brick wall. I am saying, try to make the world as good as it can be for your kids, which is a very noble cause, but then when really nothing is going to get better, go with that and make the most of it, rather than screwing yourself up that things aren’t better. That’s what I think good leaders do and I think that’s a powerful lesson for staff and kids.”
His second piece of advice is to look after yourself: “Nobody wants to hear a head talking about how little they’ve slept. It’s not a badge of honour.”
I’m also expecting him to advocate positive thinking classes, teacher retreats, perhaps even job shares for new parents. But his suggestions remain so simple, it raises a niggling doubt about whether anyone really needs such advice: eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise.
You have to take weekends off. It’s imperative so that the body has a chance to reset
He adds: “Holidays are holidays and weekends are weekends. Weekday evenings you may well be busy, some, most of those – all of them if you are a head – but you have to take weekends off. It’s imperative so that the body has a chance to reset.”
As a friend of several politicians (he wrote Blair’s biography) he has seen frontline politics at close quarters. Given his penchant for wellbeing, if he’d had chance, would he have reformed things differently to Michael Gove?
“I agree totally with his high aspirations for all, regardless of background and not writing young people off,” he affirms.
But delving a bit deeper, it’s clear the two men part ways over the definition of “an educated person”. For Gove, “it’s all about passing exams,” says Seldon “and I don’t agree with that. There are plenty of other ways of measuring intelligence. A lot of kids have great qualities but they are not particularly academic, and we need to bring their qualities fully out, and that’s not what is happening in many schools at the moment.”
Entrepreneurship is a big theme for the former headmaster. He believes “passionately” in a form of education that is not about “passive learning and then passive regurgitation in exams,” but about encouraging young people to “come up with their own ideas”.
While he can’t predict the jobs of the future, he doesn’t want to produce compliant assembly-line workers. “We’ve had factory schools for a factory economy,” he explains, “now we need students who are able to think through their own solutions.”
“If it’s absolutely necessary to get the students respecting each other, not abusing each-other or staff,” but he believes they should be used as an emergency intervention, not a policy for life. “My worry is that it becomes an end in itself and then the kids learn nothing. We learn things not because we are afraid of punishment, but because we’ve made an internal choice ourselves not to behave in antisocial ways.”
It is difficult, however, to take his views seriously given that his entire career has been spent in private schools. The one attempt he made to aid a failing state school foundered.
I think schooling is more important than anything in the government’s spending priorities
Still, Seldon has never been one to let a slight bump throw off his self-belief. He believes schools and universities should become “therapeutic communities” as well as academic, and one theme of his upcoming teacher wellbeing conference is about ways schools can build up their capacities for prevention. Rather than waiting for a child teetering on the edge to “fall off a waterfall and get smashed up”, “schools need to be working at the top of the waterfall – but also to have people on hand when people hit the bottom”.
Seldon likes a good analogy, such as when senior leaders “don’t remember to be civilised, it’s like having a bowl of water, and you put a spoon in it and you start really agitating that, and everything gets agitated, whereas a calm head will be able to calm the whole school”.
The “rebarbative” approach to education reform, likewise, “leeched” trust out of the system and brought “a lot of negative emotion, which is pouring away, it’s like pouring away money”. He lays the blame squarely with the Tory government for cutting school spending: “I wouldn’t have taken those decisions, I think schooling is more important than anything in the government’s spending priorities”.
You have to hand it to him: Anthony Seldon is adept at getting his opinions heard, and he’s certainly using that influence to try to change the system for the better.
The Next Steps For Wellbeing In Education Conference, featuring Ruby Wax and Nicky Morgan, is cohosted by the International Positive Education Network and the University of Buckingham on Friday, 6 October 2017 in London. Use the code SCHOOLSWEEK for 20% off your ticket