Sermon given at Evensong attended by members of the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools: Monday 27 September 2010

27 September 2010 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

IAPS Conference sermon
A Passion to Lead

It is a great privilege to address the annual conference of the Heads of 600 of the leading Preparatory schools in this country. For those amongst our worshippers this afternoon not associated with Prep schools I should explain that these are independent schools educating boys and girls aged between eight and 13. Many of them will also educate younger children and some will be associated with schools educating children older than 13. One of the smallest of the Prep schools educates the boys within the precincts of Westminster Abbey who form the treble line of the Abbey Choir. So I speak not only as Dean but as a chairman of governors.

The conference title is A Passion to Lead and the various conference speakers have subject titles such as Passionate about Winning, Passionate about Customers, Passionate about Leadership in Education. Fringe meetings address issues about safeguarding children, boarding, marketing, parents and bursaries. I am sure this will all be very interesting and help enable the Headmasters and Headmistresses to think further about A Passion to Lead. The programme however fails to resolve the ambiguity of the title. Clearly we see the Head being or becoming passionate to lead his or her school, but whither? to high places? to inspection success? to transfers to the best schools?

Many years ago, when I was the Church of England’s chief education officer, I sat listening to a debate in the House of Lords about spiritual and moral education. It had been proposed by HM Opposition that the assessment of such education should be made more rigorous, that some objective criteria be applied to the outcomes of spiritual and moral education, such as could be measured by inspection. Lord Dearing, a wise man sadly missed, intervened with the point that personal development, including spiritual and moral development, was one of the most important aspects of education, but impossible to measure. That might turn into an argument about the current method of inspection, but I cite it as an encouragement to ponder a deeper question about leadership. I take it for granted that we all want to achieve all we can in terms of the obvious measurable outcomes for our schools. We probably have a pretty sharp idea about where we want to lead our teaching staff. I wonder though whether we have a coherent idea where we want to lead our pupils.

There was a time when schools could advertise staff positions free of VAT if they included a strap line about the purpose of education at the school. This was sometimes interesting, even revealing. Most of the strap lines were fairly leaden. One caught my attention. I think it concerned teaching posts at Ampleforth, the Roman Catholic monastic school in Yorkshire. It said simply, ‘We prepare children for their death.’ You might think this a little extreme, though at least it takes us beyond the bland and often meaning-lite ‘preparation for life’.

When in the 1990s I worked in Lancashire as diocesan director of education, I was struck by a conversation with Sue, the Head of a Church of England primary school serving an extremely run-down housing estate on the edge of the moors. Sue described to me the circumstances in which her pupils lived. Many came from broken homes. Many of the homes with a father had even so no positive role-model. At home, there was usually routine swearing, often violence, the use of drugs or excessive alcohol or both. It occurs to me that these circumstances are by no means exclusive to such estates. Sue had no doubt about where she wanted her school to lead her pupils. She was determined to offer them not only the best academic education she possibly could, so that they had a chance of escaping the confines of their domestic upbringing, but also an alternative pattern of behaviour and way of life to that of the home, so that as they grew up they would have the basis for choice as to how they wished to live.

It would be interesting to see whether the schools represented here, so many of them founded on very clear Christian principles, with a focused understanding of spiritual and moral development, would be willing or able to articulate their purpose in a similar manner.

In a culture and society that at the very least threatens to loose its moorings and cast off into a choppy sometimes violent sea of the selfish and heedless pursuit of gain and pleasure, our schools are able to offer an education that challenges the prevailing culture and prizes above all things education for a life of generous, self-giving love. So e can play with the words ‘passion’ and ‘lead’. In our pupils, as in ourselves, we need to develop A Passion to Lead, where leadership is modelled on the leadership of the Son of Man, who ‘came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many [Mark 10:45]’.


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