An exclusive interview with Mr Adam Pettitt, Head of Highgate School

 

Mums In The Wood interviewed the incredibly articulate and incisive Head of Highgate School, Mr Adam Pettitt on 20 January 2021.  After graduating from Oxford, Mr Pettitt took  the helm at Highgate School in 2006 and he did so, with several big names under his belt. Now, 15 years later, he  has seen the school evolve under his headship to one of the most academically selective, highly sought after schools in London.  Having overseen the successful change from a single sex school to a co-educational one and more recently, being responsible for both setting up the free school LAE Tottenham which Highgate is an academic sponsor of, and pioneering the Highgate Is Here initiative to help those most in need due to the pandemic, Mr Pettitt consistently demonstrates by example inspiring the students of Highgate to give wholly of themselves be it socially or academically and it is rewarding to see even the very young children in the school take pride in their civic duties.  The drive to clean up the environment, reduce plastic and pollution is taken very seriously by children all the way from the pre prep to the Senior school and regular visits to a local home for the elderly and other community activities are very much encouraged throughout the school under his headship.  Mr Pettitt believes in fostering an environment that ensures all Highgate pupils have their feet planted on the ground and this is wonderfully apparent throughout the school. In fact, the difference the school has made, because of its ethos, in the lives of a large number of its pupils is almost tangible.

Mr Pettitt also writes an insightful blog which can be read at   https://www.highgateschool.org.uk/news/heads-blog/

 

 

Question:

What do you feel is the heart of the school? 

Answer: 

What’s at the heart of any school is clearly the pupils and their experience in the instant: however long-term your planning and wide-ranging your vision is, you need to be trying to look after and to propel the pupils you have in your care at the time. And Highgate pupils – while they have changed (and will continue to change, no doubt) – are adventurous, open-minded, high octane, omnidirectionally talented, witty but purposeful, so that’s pretty central. But in terms of what is at the heart of this school, of Highgate, I’d pinpoint two (of many) things: teaching as an intellectually ambitious calling (one that doesn’t need external pressures, like exams, for its validation or its purpose) which feeds off curiosity and fuels personal and moral growth; second, being a charity is more than checking off a tick-list but is a way of behaving that makes a difference to others and our community, and makes sense of being the organisation we are.

 

Question:

Parents often refer to you and Mr James as “The Dream Team”. What qualities do you feel the Head of a school that goes from 4 -18 needs, in order to achieve the level of success that you have?

Answer: 

You’re missing the third and critical player there, Principal of the Pre-Prep, the wonderful Katie Giles who has stepped into the enormous shoes of the equally wonderful Diane Hecht! But Mark and I will take the compliment! But more seriously, we all agree that each of us needs to understand and be properly informed about the full age-range. I line-manage the Pre-Prep and Junior School quite closely in terms of the teaching and the policies around teaching and learning, and both Principals are full players in the Senior School Senior Team: we benefit hugely from each other’s expertise: understanding the fullest picture possible of a child’s schooling, whether at Highgate or not, is critical and invaluable in making sense of their potential.

 

Question:

Highgate school has been awarded both the 2020 Tes Award for the Senior School of the Year and the Independent School of the Year. The school was also the Sunday Times choice for the Independent School of the Decade. This is an impressive list of awards within months of each other. What do you feel has brought the school to the forefront over the last year? In other words, why now?

Answer: 

In each award citation our work with other schools – our Chrysalis Partnership Programme and our sponsoring of the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham (which also was named Sunday Times State Sixth Form of the Year 2020) was mentioned. These programmes have taken time to build up and to develop and have coincided with an increasing consensus that independent schools need to do more to contribute to the nation’s educational provision, so I suspect that the awards and their respective judges have (rightly in my view!) promoted the importance of this work in their list of judging criteria. Perhaps the sense that high-performing schools have to choose where to focus their discretionary efforts and our choices have set us a little apart from the traditionally successful top-of-the-league-table schools (who we give a great run for their money!) in ways which point to a better future for independent schools.

 

Question:

You do a tremendous amount of community service both of your own accord and through the school. How would you inspire young people, in Highgate and outside, to do more and care more for the community they live in?

Answer: 

I’d turn this on its head: young people do an amazing amount themselves and I’m constantly struck by how much they do and want to do. Lockdown has acted as a catalyst for action among the young, one of few silver linings! But I would say that we need to model this ourselves so it doesn’t ever seem hypocritical, and not to despair when the young don’t respond to things we adults would like to see them doing (repairing the damage we have created, perhaps). Starting young helps – picking up litter, walking when we know it would be easier to drive, letting them choose a charity to donate to, taking things to charity shops, buying goods from them – and talking about what we can do and why. For older children, understanding how fundraising and the charitable sector works, so that they can make informed choices about how they wish to make the world, their world, a better place. A subscription to The Economist is not a bad place to start!

 

Question:

You are consistent and strong in your views about students not being hampered by glass ceilings at any level throughout the school which is welcomed by parents. How do you balance this with extending children who fall within the “gifted and talented” category with those children who need more support and what is the school’s policy on both categories of children?

Answer: 

This is central to any good school and to all good teaching, and the British – perhaps the English – have got themselves tied up worrying about it. The difficulty we have created for ourselves in this country is the early choices we impose on pupils (specialisation so that university courses are shorter), so we tend to force-feed our children much earlier than the majority of western systems. The glass ceilings mantra is less an educational method than a plea to parents and teachers not to pigeon-hole pupils with their strengths and weaknesses before they genuinely hit a conceptual ceiling, or at least hit at the time when they are best placed and most motivated to break through it. To avoid gender stereotyping, too. Gifted and talented programmes have their place, of course, but they are essentially an import from across the Atlantic: the US has a middle school system which has non-specialist teachers delivering a wider range of subjects, and accelerating or enriching abler pupils means they need a different kind of support from the subject specialists we have in the UK teaching most pupils from age 11. That said, we have seen the benefit of having a responsive, well-developed Learning Support Department: some of their work is to help pupils whose overall ability in an area or sometimes across the board means they take longer to get to grips with new material, but it is also critical in supporting pupils with a specific learning difference or difficulty which presents them with additional hurdles. For abler pupils (and this will be common to most selective schools) we look to teachers to differentiate activities and tasks in class and to train pupils to see the opportunities to do more challenging work. An ostensibly straightforward consolidation task, if it’s worth doing, should be able to be done in a more complex manner, and that shouldn’t mean devoting even more time to it. And then the programme of competitions and academic societies kicks in to get learning on to a child’s own agenda.

 

Question:

How does setting work in the Senior School for core subjects? For example what percentage of children would take the AQA Further Maths or the Free Standing Maths Qualification (FSMQ) Additional Maths for GCSEs? What percentage would do the same, in for example, Further Additional Science GCSEs? Are there plans to integrate the newly introduced Natural History GCSE into the school’s curriculum? 

Answer: 

We don’t enter pupils for additional qualifications in maths or any other subject. We frame years 10 and 11 as the first two years of a four-year course leading to opportunity to go to university and try to limit the impact of GCSEs on the exciting upward trajectory of learning that could take place without the sixth-month interruption of GCSEs (past papers, revision, mocks etc). Our policy on and attitude to, setting is always to ask: who is this benefiting? We deploy it in some subjects in some years. Generally we will group pupils needing most support in smaller classes, but not exclusively so.

We will always look at new qualifications, with interest. But you need to interrogate why the qualification has come about and to check that something worthwhile doing, needs further assessment. There’s a strong argument that we over-assess our pupils already and most GCSEs, even the enhanced ones, put limits on what you actually wish to teach.

 

Question:

Many parents often look at school league tables and inspection reports when trying to make a selection between schools with similar offerings. How much importance should parents place on league tables and school inspection reports when making their choice?

Answer: 

It’s helpful to be able to interrogate publicly-available information, but aggregated exam results are perhaps just a factor you take into account before you visit a school and help you to direct the questions to your school. I wouldn’t personally be using them to make final decisions as they are quite blunt instruments. How schools use them can be quite revealing, however. Inspection reports are similar but they have perhaps become less detailed and revealing since they have been directed towards important matters of compliance. That said, at least they are generally consistent between schools so some form of comparison is possible. You need to read a dozen to get a feel for the inspection ‘argot’. They are all available on the ISI website. Exam results compiled by DfE are a little difficult to read as they measure value added (quite complex unless you are into those measures) and don’t take account of IGCSEs or Pre-U.

 

Question:

What is your view on parents who resort to tutoring to gain a competitive edge in entrance exams? Do you feel that parents should trust the system and leave it to the respective schools or do you feel that some level of tutoring is justified when competition, especially into secondary schools arena is so fierce? 

Answer: 

Very difficult to say! Each situation is different and most children are aiming at different schools with different requirements, and coming from different primary, feeder or prep schools. If your child attends an independent prep school it would always be wise to inform your Head that your child was being tutored and to ensure that you were keeping your tutor away from the child’s regular homework. We would never want to sit in judgement on what families do, but work hard to create exams which don’t necessitate tutoring. It’s important that your child is happy and feels as though they have some say, and indeed that they still feel like coming to school every morning. There will always be outliers: don’t let yourself be over-influenced by the terrifyingly well-organised families (dare I say, ‘Tiger Parent’?) who have been at it since Reception. Families have their own style and priorities!

 

Conclusion

With their fantastic junior school building, amazing playing fields, brand new swimming pool and re development plans afoot for both the pre prep and the senior school, an enormous number of extra curriculars on offer throughout the school, innovative, enthusiastic and warm hearted staff who never cease to amaze and an academic record to match, it is little wonder that the school is so heavily oversubscribed. So much so that not all applicants will get call backs for the assessments at 4+ and only around 1 in approximately every 13- 14 students are offered places at the very competitive 11+ exam. As the school no longer offers an admission entry point at 13+ those 11+ places are even more sought after.  Plans are shortly being announced to introduce a bursary scheme at 7+ for  first entry in either 2022 or 2023 to ensure that pupils who may not be able to take advantage of the vast array of resources the school has to offer, due to financial constraints will have an opportunity to do so from a younger age than at the traditional 11+ entry point. An option that is not available at most of the schools that have a 7+ entry point, this innovative move is guaranteed to see the school soaring even higher in popularity and academic excellence.

Highgate is a school that is constantly evolving and expanding in its teaching methods, its approach and jn the value it places on the enjoyment and love of learning. It has thus fast become one of the most popular schools in London not just because of an excellent academic record but also because of its incredible pastoral care.  Few schools can boast the level of commitment and nurturing and care that pupils receive especially in the Junior school and the Pre prep and the values that are instilled in the children at this young age, the values that matter, like kindness, tolerance and acceptance are carried with them into the senior school and beyond. Today, Highgate stands proud not just because of its numerous accolades and awards but because it is truly moulding a younger generation to be the best versions of themselves , to not only strive to achieve and do their best but also to give back to the community they live in and to care about the impact they make.  There is clearly, little room for error at a school with three fantastic heads whose inimitable approach, ethos and values are so well reflected in the teachers they hire and the students they produce. 

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