Was your passion for Geography ignited in childhood?
Absolutely. My dad was an expert in tropical medicine, working for the armed forces. That meant we travelled a lot. I was born in Sri Lanka (called Ceylon at that time) then we moved to the Middle East and West Africa. Our last posting was in Gibraltar. I grew up enjoying the travel and relished exploring new landscapes and cultures.
Was there any downside to that lifestyle?
I was sent away to boarding school at the tender age of eight and I worried that meant my parents didn’t love me, or that I had done something wrong. Neither of those things were true. They had just taken a practical approach to offering me a consistent education. But I was miserable. The experience had a profound impact on me and, I hope, made me become a more compassionate school master. Boarding schools need to offer children a very secure nest.
How did you survive such a ‘miserable’ early boarding school experience?
I found myself in sport. Sporting teams became my family. They offered me consistent values, rules, goals, support, responsibility and companionship. It’s a wonderful environment in which to understand yourself and others. It was a wonderful springboard for my development and certainly transformed me from a sad and lonely child into a remarkably confident young man.
Any significant youthful disappointments?
Oh yes! I applied to read Geography at Oxford and I didn’t get in. But falling flat on my face like that turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. Failure forced me to reassess myself. I ended up going to London to work in a prep school and that was a revelation. I became fascinated by watching little ones learn. I’d only intended to work there for one year and ended up staying for three.
You developed your philosophy of sport education as a teenager teaching at a prep school?
Yes. I would make up simple games for them to play and I realised that most sports are exercises in problem solving. You’re solving your own problems and setting fresh problems for your opponents. Too many students are turned off by highly physical, competitive machismo. And that works for some, but it’s not how most people learn about themselves. I strongly believe that the more children understand the cerebral aspect of sport the more they are turned on by it.
Any other landmark moments?
I had changed my mind about becoming a House Master, and sought another challenge. The school supported me in my ambition to get another degree which I did through the Open University. It’s been fantastic. I love teaching geography. You’ll find maps all over my schoolroom walls. I start every year by asking the question it took me years to answer: What is geography? That’s the Holy Grail.
What else would we find in your schoolroom?
Rocks! Lots of lovely rocks! My schoolroom is covered with them. I often pass one around the class and ask the boys how old they think it is. They notice things like the shells they’ve seen in rock pools on holiday. The estimates usually start with hundreds and thousands but then one boy will venture a guess of one million. The rest of them laugh and say “no way!”. Then I tell them it’s actually 145,000,000 years old. They’re blown away. Then I tell them the stone is used throughout the College Chapel (the research element of my second degree was on the mystery of why it was knocked down in 1448 and rebuilt) and they’re blown away all over again. Marvellous!
What are your goals in the PE department?
To build confidence and competence. Everybody is good at something and the extraordinary panoply of options we have at Eton enables every boy to find the area in which he can excel. We have over 90 clubs and societies.
The Twenty-First Century Eton ethos expects older boys to support and encourage the younger pupils. House sport can be wonderful for building warm and inspiring relationships across the different year groups. Most team sports here are separated by age groups but in athletics, for example, the senior boys coach the juniors. It’s terrific to see them working together.
This wonderful school continually backs me when I want to try out new things. I re-introduced pole vaulting in 1986 which was very exciting and engaged some boys who lived on the margins of school life. I’ve had my failures too. I was very keen on teaching dance but it turned out I didn’t have what it takes. I love dancing but teaching it required an expertise I lacked. But the great consequence was that the boys formed their own street dance club which ran for many years.
What do you count among your successes at Eton?
I’m passionate about outreach so I’m particularly proud that I continued the great work of George Fussey and Stephen Spurr becoming the Director of the Brent-Eton Summer School. BESS was one of the outreach initiatives which led the way to the development of the current extensive commitment to partnership work. The College’s huge network of state school partnerships helps raise the aspirations of young people across the country.
I loved helping raise the aspirations of gifted Year Elevens from Brent each year during the intensive residential week at the College. I remember one young lady who had left Afghanistan and arrived in Brent unable to speak English. She was a brilliant mathematician who had started a club for the juniors at her school. She told me she wanted to study law then go back to Afghanistan to become her country’s first female Prime Minister. I heard she has qualified with a law degree from Cambridge and is now a lawyer. She’s on her way to her goal and it was a privilege to witness her unleashing her potential.
What has teaching and coaching taught you?
That you’re a fool to stop learning. I go on courses to pick up new skills and update my thinking all the time. The role of the coach and teacher is to excite the spirit, nourish the soul and stimulate the mind. When you start out as a teacher you think your students will be learning from you. It doesn’t take long to realise how much you learn from your students. The best advice to give to young teachers is always: talk less, listen more.