Choosing a good school and the right school – John Moule, Warden of Radley College

15 Apr 2016

Radley College

Radley College

In the dim and distant days when I was a Housemaster, a bright-eyed boy arrived for his first day and I was chatting to him and his parents. I remembered (rather impressively, I thought) that they had been torn between us and another school. I asked politely what had made the difference, fully expecting the warm affirming compliment which makes all the difference early in term: ‘We loved the house. It seemed just right for him’ or, better still, ‘We just thought the Housemaster was so important’. I waited. ‘Well . . . .’, the mother said, ‘He came here for a cricket tournament and thought the cream cakes were good’.
There is a lesson in that. And not just that the catering department is a vital component of school marketing. In fact, digressing, good catering can even be a disadvantage on occasion: at an open morning, a parent was heard to complain when confronted by an array of the finest freshly made canapés: ’Haven’t you just got a biscuit?’. You can’t win. No, the lesson is that however hard you try, one small thing that you haven’t thought of can make all the difference; in both directions.
From my side of the desk, however, it is relatively easy compared to what the parent faces. When I was Head Master of Bedford School (2008–14), I knew what the school was offering; as Warden of Radley (from September 2014), I know the same. At Radley we offer full boarding and mean it when we say it; we are single sex and will remain so; we are selective but interested in potential and character as much as raw results at our entry point; we have the highest academic standards but pursue excellence beyond the classroom just as thoroughly; we love our traditions but are modern in our approach to education.

Filtering all the information
Then I put myself across the table and on to the sofa where prospective parents and boys (in my case) sit. And I sympathise. How, in a few hours, do I get all my questions answered; how do I move beyond the propaganda that the school is throwing at me? Boarding or day? Type of boarding? Town or rural? Big or small? Co-ed or single sex? League table position? What is the entry procedure? When should my child start? What does the school do about bullying, drugs, alcohol? Careers advice, UCAS preparation, work experience? How many subjects on offer? How many teams? Activities? And how, just how, do I filter all that information?
So, back on my side of the desk, can I offer advice that will, I hope, assist parents in identifying a good school and, once that is done, the right school for their child. Firstly, go beyond the surface. When looking at a website, go several pages in . . . randomly, even. It is all too easy for headlines to be trumpeted and the best to be celebrated; you want to find out the mean and the median of a school as well since, by definition, not all will be the best. How many sing in the Chapel Choir; how many orchestras are there; how many teams are offered; how many matches do they play; how many productions does the theatre put on; does the debating society meet once a term or once a fortnight; is that special lecture an annual event or is there a regular programme; does academic extension simply mean good results or is there genuine and widespread enrichment as well; how many entered that competition . . . and so on. One swallow does not make a summer.

Look for natural and normal
But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Next: the visit. And here again, do not be fooled by the headlines: the new state of the art building, the Head Master’s patter, the air-brushed prefect and the stress ball with a logo (sadly, yes, we were guilty at Bedford). Look deeper. If the tour guide knows every answer, it is likely he or she has been prepped. Watch the pupils coming out of a lesson and try to catch a glance before they see you. Listen to a conversation before you go round the corner. Stop and talk to the gardener or to the receptionist. Ask a pupil for help even if you do not need it. Ask to see a second room in the boarding house and if it is slightly messy, see that as a good sign: it has not been tidied specially. Look for natural and normal, and less for show. Ask the obvious questions but look for different answers: if the bullying question elicits a ‘we do not have that problem’ or a recitation of the latest compliance policy, alarm bells should ring. You want answers that recognise teenagers for what they are but address how a sense of community is built and how issues are monitored and addressed and an ethos created.
Please do not get me wrong. Facilities matter; results matter; policies matter. But I say to every prospective parent I meet that there is one question that is more important than the minefield of information . . . and to ask it as you walk out of the gates having visited. Would my child be happy? I firmly believe that a child will only be happy if he is inspired, if he is aspirational, if he has opportunities, if he has friends, if he feels at home, if he has fun, if he feels loved. Schools are about people and ethos, not bricks and mortar and statistics.

Use your gut instinct
And so it comes back to the cream cakes. Well, nearly. The more time I spend in schools – the more time I spend with prospective parents and children – the more I believe that gut instinct is the best measure. I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’ which investigates the phenomenon of the immediate instinctive response. He talks about ‘thin-slicing’, our ability to gauge what is really important from a very narrow period of experience. I remember the famous polar explorer Shackleton’s method of selecting expedition members: he used to shake them by the hand, look them in the eye, and reach a judgement after a few seconds. I am not advocating ether approach: speed dating has not reached school marketing yet, I trust. By all means ask every question, do the research and have an extensive visit . . . all are important. But so is instinct.


John Moule took up the post of Warden of Radley College in September 2014, having been Head Master of Bedford School from 2008 to 2014. Before Bedford, he was Head of History and Senior Housemaster at Stowe. He is a former scholar of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and would list his interests as avid sports spectating (armchair and otherwise); boring people with cricket statistics; reading: theology, political biography and P.G. Wodehouse; directing plays; and playing golf badly.


Radley College – Oxfordshire