We recently sat down for a cuppa and a good chat with Tony Little, the former head master of Eton College and now, Group Chief Education Officer at XCL World Academy (formerly known as GEMS World Academy Singapore).
An internationally recognised educator (he started his career in 1977), Tony Little was the Head Master of Eton College from 2002 until 2015, a prestigious UK school boasting such notable alumni as David Cameron, Princes William and Harry, Eddie Redmayne, and many more. He is also the author of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education. Upon retirement from Eton in 2015 Tony became the Group Chief Education Officer at GEMS Education, where he’s responsible for ensuring the quality of education across the global chain of 90 schools in 13 countries, including XCL World Academy (formerly known as GEMS World Academy Singapore). Tony gave us his thoughts on the social media generation, international education, advice for parents, and what life was really like at Eton College.
We’d love to hear your take on this generation that was born into social media. On top of all the other challenges that children face, how does that impact on things?
TL: The threats to young people are undoubtedly there. Social media and electronic communication are some of the greatest changes I’ve seen in 26 years as a Head Teacher. In 2002 when I started at the boarding school I ran at Eton College it was still the case then that many of us truly believed we could control behaviour through controlling the electronic media; in other words there was a technological answer to this. Then it dawned on everyone that it didn’t matter what the school did. Everyone came to recognise the underlying truth: that the way to tackle this isn’t through technology, it’s through better education. Social media is just a modern challenge of a kind that has always beset educators. There’s always something that’s come up that you have to deal with or enable children to deal with.
We have a more negative view these days about young people and their capacity to do sensible things. And it’s not founded!
We have a more negative view these days about young people and their capacity to do sensible things. And it’s not founded! The vast majority of kids, most of the time, read things pretty well. There are phases of adolescence when they do daft things but that’s maturation and part of the growing up process.
How do you deal with young people, now that they seem to be more worldly at a younger age? Not necessarily emotionally mature, but just more connected?
TL: The world has changed. It’s a more relaxed and informal place, and one of the consequences, incidentally, of social media is that people tend to be more relaxed about one another. Funnily enough, you could argue the pendulum has swung so far the other way that you have to put in some corrective measures. I’m a great believer in helping young people appreciate appropriateness and I do think that is an important feature in schools. So, actually, I am a believer in school uniforms. Part of the point of having them is to enable 15-year-olds to rebel against it. Better to rebel against that!
One of the best lessons I ever heard was from a Head Teacher much older than me when I started off, and he’d been a Head Teacher through 1968. He said he used to make a huge fuss about hair length, about which he cared not one jot, and so all the rebellion was focused on that rather than anything significant. There’s some degree of truth in that, about these apparently petty things!
What do you think about the different approaches internationally?
TL: I’m all in favour of rigour, and challenging young people, and generally I think in the UK one of our national sins is that we underestimate what young people can achieve. And to be fair to Singapore, they take a very different view and it’s pushed very hard. But I would question the value of pushing hard in one specific direction, when there’s a whole stack of other directions that young people are going to need to be competent around in the future. And that’s one of the things we’re trying to do here at GWA, is to deliver the significant academic performance but do so within a context that’s broader. Great education should be about what young people are doing when they’re 25 and 40 and 50, not what they’ve achieved at the age of 18.
Great education should be about what young people are doing when they’re 25 and 40 and 50, not what they’ve achieved at the age of 18.
Is your approach borne out of your experience through the years as an educator, or from your experience as a school student?
TL: I enjoyed school a great deal, but I was going to be a lawyer. I had a particularly distinguished legal career: I swapped out of law on day two. Which, looking back now, I think was slightly long! I don’t regret it. I have a number of good friends who are successful lawyers, and not one of them is a happy person. Teaching, for all its problems, one of which is to do with perception still, and status in society, is an extraordinarily good area in which to be involved. It pushes you in so many different ways, and you can explore so many different parts of your own enthusiasms and experience, which I think is much harder in other ways of life.
Looking back at my own time in school, you really do learn more outside the classroom than inside it, and learn more from your peer group than from adults. Funnily enough, it’s the real reason for having these things called schools. You could argue that in 10-20 years’ time, schools will be redundant… on the grounds that it will be delivered in a virtual way of some kind. If you then peel it away and say “so why do we have schools?” it reinforces the fact that schools have always been principally about the social experience. They’re about interaction, about learning to navigate adult experience, having role models outside the family, and getting a sense of how to play life.
Schools have always been principally about the social experience. They’re about interaction, about learning to navigate adult experience, having role models outside the family, and getting a sense of how to play life.
We can’t help ourselves; we have to ask about your experiences at Eton College. Were there any challenges in discipline when it came to unspecified Royals or people with extraordinary privilege and status?
TL: Eton’s a school with 1,300 teenage males aged 13-18, so every permutation of adolescent human behaviour you can think of is going to be arrived at at some point! But if you think about it, 1,300 teenaged boys who are residential – 24/7, as they say – and for the thing to work so well for so much of the time is extraordinary. People assume there must be a prison regime. But there’s only one reason Eton worked the way it did, and that’s the vast majority of boys, the vast amount of the time, wanted it to work.
In answer to your question about ‘the sons of the rich and famous’: Eton’s been around for the best part of 600 years, 19 Prime Ministers and all that kind of stuff. It doesn’t matter who you are, the place is bigger than you. The fact that you are of some kind of royal lineage, or somehow distinct… well, so what? And that was the view of the school, actually. It was a bit of a non-issue.
It’s very important, of course, that people are treated consistently and in fairness, because the greatest criticism that comes from teenagers in every school environment I’ve been in, is to do with consistency of treatment. More than adults, teenagers have a very strong sense of fairness.
What advice do you have for parents in dealing with schools and teachers?
TL: I used to love complaints. Sometimes parents are concerned that if they make a fuss their child will suffer. If you honestly felt that your child was in a school where adults in the school would make your child’s life difficult as a consequence of making a complaint, you should have your child out straight away. I would love there to be a more open discourse about things that are going on.
One of the things genuinely I think XCL World Academy (formerly known as GEMS World Academy Singapore) does well – and it comes from the Chairman, Sunny Varkey – is parental engagement. Each school right across the world has its own Parent Relations Executive, and it is a full-time function to connect with parents. Last year at XCL World Academy (formerly known as GEMS World Academy Singapore)there were some 57 events bringing parents together. I hope that this makes people feel comfortable about open conversation about what’s happening for their children. Because if you can get that partnership right, half the battle is won.