With over 25 years experience in the education sector, Gabbitas Managing Director Ian Hunt is well placed to look at what’s changed in schools – and what remains resolutely the same – as he spends time with School Report editor Mark Kebble
Let’s start at the beginning Ian – how did you come into teaching in the first place?
It’s a really interesting question. I was a merchant banker before ‘ banker’ became a dirty word! I was at Goldman Sachs and I loved it, but for me, long term, I wanted something that would offer something different. I therefore took the decision to go back to university to do a PGCE, and that set me off on the trail of teaching at Millfield School. That was about 25 years ago…
How different was the education industry then?
The bottom line is that children are children; they will always be the same and that goes with whatever school they are in. I am a great believer in what you put in, you get out – whether it is at a place like Millfield or a challenging and under resourced school. The children will respond if the teachers treat them with respect and vice versa. Of course there are different challenges and different areas to focus on.
How long did you spend at Millfield School?
I was very fortunate in that my first teaching job was at Millfield. It was a very difficult school to leave: it was so dynamic that every time I sought a new challenge it was provided. As a result, I was there for 17 years before having a park bench moment, when I asked myself ‘what if’ I stayed in that one place for the rest of my career? The thought was certainly appealing, but so was the challenge of new horizons. So I moved on and became Deputy Head at Wellingborough School, which was a really good independent day school. I had worked in a boarding school for a long time, and I wanted to balance my experience. And from there I became Head of a very proud school in Wales, Llandovery College, and did that for four years. Then the opportunity to lead Gabbitas came along and it gave me the chance to work in an environment that allowed me to marry my commercial and educational backgrounds
When joining another school as Deputy Head or Head, how difficult is the transition?
Every school is different, and unique. It is important to take your experiences of each previous place, but equally so not to impose them onto the new environment. it is very much about ensuring that you utilise your experience from previous schools and bring new ideas to the table without throwing away all of the excellent structures and systems already in place.
Do you miss the school environment?
I am really fortunate in my role at Gabbitas in that I get to see an awful lot of schools and Heads. What is interesting about most Heads is that they are programmed to tell other Heads how wonderfully their school is doing! In this job a lot of Heads come to us for support, advice and guidance. You really get to see under the skin of the different schools.
I suppose the thing I miss the most are the children. I don’t miss some of the more difficult conversations you inevitably have when you are dealing with the most precious commodity in a family’s life, but with the children, the buzz of the campus, the development of young minds and the general satisfaction of seeing youngsters grow as people is probably the most rewarding aspect of teaching. Children are children and they will always be the reason why you go into teaching, so when you come out of it inevitably they are what you miss.
For those not familiar with Gabbitas, what do you do?
First of all it’s the oldest educational consultancy in the world. It was set up in 1873, initially as a tutoring service. Mostly Oxbridge graduates who weren’t sure about their future careers would spend up to a year teaching either in a school or privately, Gabbitas have employed people like Edward Elgar, HG Wells, Evelyn Waugh, Stephen Fry, Graeme Greene and some incredibly high profile names. That then developed into finding teaching staff on a general basis for schools, and then finding the best match between schools and pupils, and really trying to offer a service that supported parents in the decision of which school to find. Then in recent years, in addition, we have been advising investors and governments on setting up British curriculum schools overseas, which has been a tremendously exciting opportunity for us and one that just reinforces the fact that British education is regarded as the best in the world.
As we approach 2015, what are the big issues in education?
The core issues will always be the same. We are about to have a General Election and in all facets of society people are holding their breath to see what might or might not happen depending whether the government changes. We have got a new A-level system in place that is not yet clear in its thinking. Many subjects are still offering the old route to A-level, others are going down a new route, and some are offering a mix of the two. Certainly not a satisfactory situation, especially for those about to embark on a sixth form programme (as my daughter is). Teachers are used to change, but it is a difficult time. In many ways, when new governments come in they have a different view of education and because it is such a high profile issue changes will inevitably occur. I think there are interesting times ahead.
Why is a British education so highly sought after?
There’s a huge thirst for the way in which British children, especially in the best independent schools, are taught. They are taught to be confident, taught to be leaders, taught to be team players, and taught how to solve problems. This occurs in a way well beyond the classroom and that holistic educational support is not replicated quite like it anywhere else in the world.
Finally, what would you like to add about Gabbitas?
The decision of which independent school to actually choose, next to your house purchase, is probably the most significant investment a family will make, and that is just financially. A family does not and never will invest as much emotional energy as they do when choosing their child’s education. It’s not about closing one’s eyes and hoping for the best. It is a crucial decision and it has got to be right. What a lot of parents don’t really appreciate is that every school is different, and not every school will be right for their child. This is a minefield, and parents often need help in navigating this road. If they get it right, they have set their child along the first steps of a very successful career path that will allow them to genuinely fulfil their own potential.
Visit gabbitas.co.uk to see how they can help you when it comes to choosing a school