Jonathan Leigh, Marlborough College’s new Master, has revealed the exciting challenge he faces at the prestigious public school – and his support for the strict new examination proposals of Education Secretary Michael Gove.
In his first interview since arriving last month with his wife Emma, he talked openly about his aspirations for the school where the Duchess of Cambridge is among its illustrious alumni, and his unique opportunity to continue his career having decided to retire.
And 60-year-old Mr Leigh picked up the controversial gauntlet of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s tougher exam proposals – an English Baccalaureate to replace GCSEs with the top grades going only to the brightest students.
“I like to think he’s got some guts and sticks up for what he believes,” Mr Leigh told me. “The move is positive. He is the most exciting man in that position for some time. He’s really got some ideas.”
While unaware that Mr Gove was originally an adopted child brought up by a Socialist family in Newcastle before making a name for himself as a journalist on The Times, Mr Leigh was pleased too that the changes have been enthusiastically backed by Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg.
And he rejected the initial criticism that the new ‘English Bac’, though not due for implementation until 2017, was limited to core subjects.
“That is fair comment but I think there is more to be developed further down the line,” he pointed out. “There is a Phase Two which includes important subjects like history, my own subject. Then there are all the vital things like music that need to come into the picture.”
“I like the fact that he thinks of teaching beyond the subject. If you teach too much for the exam, you are actually missing out the fundamental principle of education, which is to inform people broadly. I think he is up the right tree on that.”
Sitting with him in the Master’s study, it is difficult to realise that he is the first head in recent years to invite a journalist to interview him, an indication of welcome changes at Marlborough, where the decision of his predecessor, Nicholas Sampson, to take a new post in Sydney, Australia, left it in a dilemma when a potential replacement rejected the post.
Mr Leigh, who had returned from Ridley College, Canada, where he had been headmaster since 2005, and before that head of Blundell’s School, in Tiverton, Devon, answered the distress call of the governors of Marlborough, founded in 1843.
He knows the West Country well having driven under the Marlborough College bridge on the Bath Road many times, his wife more as she was a student at St Mary’s School, Calne.
“I am thrilled to be here,” he declared. “I wouldn’t have wanted to do it if I still didn’t want to be in touch with young people.”
“Marlborough is an incredible community to join, a lot to absorb. There are many colleagues to get to know, 170 something of them, then just under 900 pupils. So a lot of new names, a lot of new faces.”
At Ridley College, founded in 1889, he started with 650 students, 350 of them boarders, but ended up more when it brought in a local prep school, and at Blundells he coped with 950 pupils. “So I was used to the scale of it and the complexity,” he explained. “But here it is more complex again, yet another layer.”
|No happy honeymoon for Marlborough’s new Master
With Marlborough College attracting national newspaper headlines, Mr Leigh has not had an initial happy honeymoon period, travellers trespassing on the sports field within days of his arrival – “They were the first in 37 years of boarding education,” he admitted. “I only say them from afar until they left.”
Then the Sunday Telegraph revealed that two students had been expelled after being caught flagrante delicto, a decision condemned by the Marquess of Worcester, whose son is a pupil. He described it as a “life-damaging punishment” while other students are said to have petitioned for mercy without success.
While Mr Leigh preferred not to comment on that specifically, he made known his views on a general crackdown on alcohol, drugs and sexual liaisons.
“You have got to have firm principles about these things and trying to live by what you lay down,” he said. “That’s it really. One is sympathetic to the world in which youngsters live, and it is not an easy world.”
That takes in a 25 per cent surge in admission applications despite the recession and a rise in Marlborough’s fees (£31,350 a year for boarders and £26,640 for day pupils) for the 545 boys and 345 girls aged 13 to 18.
One new development is a direct link with Swindon College in a two-way process but not involved with the same exams.
“There are some Swindon students here today,” he revealed. “They are shadowing Malburians around the campus and getting a taste of what the lessons are like here.”
“Then we have various masters involved in helping at Swindon and various Malburians helping primary school children learning to read. Every Monday and Wednesday there is the potential to send a bus, one way or the other, and that is all quite exciting.”
His final thought: “I am hugely looking forward to the time ahead. It is an immense privilege to have this very exciting chance in life at the end of my career and the challenges it brings.”