When Simon Henderson became head master of Eton College in 2015, he soon took against the rooms in the school’s ancient buildings where his predecessors had worked since time immemorial, far from where most teaching in the 578-year-old school takes place. So within weeks, he moved across the old Slough-to-Windsor road that bisects the Eton estate and opened up shop "in the heart of the school".
“I wanted to see the passing traffic of boys,” he tells me as we sit in his modernised office, a conversion of an older building. “Here, I can stand outside at change of lessons and see 250 boys go past, and say hello to some of them.”
If this desire to commune with his charges sits ill with the traditional idea of a headmaster of a great public school, it does not, he says, indicate a desire to tear up the ideals of his world-famous institution and start again: “I haven’t come to radically change the school. It’s been very successful for many generations and it’s incrementally changed all the time.”
Henderson is a tall, spare man of 42 whom one might call boyish, were it not for his receding hairline. Prior to his meteoric rise, he was deputy head of Sherborne for two years, then head of Bradfield for four, having taught history for almost a decade at Eton. How will his plans for the school change the way it teaches, say, history?
Are there going to be some situations that will make people feel uncomfortable? Probably
“It’s not about changing it. It’s about constantly looking at what works and trying to build on that. History is all about debate and interpretation. So of course you still need to know the narrative and the facts, and there’s no getting away from that. But the focus in history lessons is on higher-level skills of analysis and evaluation. So it’s not about the teacher telling the pupils things, it’s about discussion, and pupils challenging each other.”
Should a school such as Eton teach boys to have minds of their own and to think for themselves? “Definitely,” he says. “That’s always been the case.” But he is also looking at happiness and well-being.
“Pupils here appear to get happier as they go through their time – which is unusual, because nationally teenagers get unhappier as they go through their teenage years. We think this is because boys are given a large amount of autonomy and independence: they are encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and to think for themselves.
"They create their own pathway through Eton, and when they succeed it boosts their self-esteem, because they know they have mastered things themselves.”
As to more radical change, he says: “We’re an all boys’ boarding school, and we intend to stay that way. But our boys are going into a world where gender equality is, quite rightly, important. We should have more female teachers – out of 160 we have 20 women – and that’s not enough.
"Last year, we appointed the first female lower master [deputy head], and on our management team we have four women and five men. Twenty-five per cent of the governing body are women. Young men have to develop gender-intelligent attitudes.”
So why not have girls in the school?
“Single sex or co-ed, I don’t think that one is necessarily better than the other. I was head of a co-ed school. There’s a choice, and parents can choose an environment they think their child will flourish most in.”
He adds: “I think it is important that we have meaningful links with girls’ schools. We increasingly have joint society meetings, joint debates, joint endeavours. We are trying to increase the number of female speakers at our societies, and we are trying to change the iconography around the school so it also reflects women who have made a contribution to Eton, and the ethnic diversity of the pupils.”
Unlike other teenagers, Eton pupils get happier as they go through their time here
Diversity now comes in many forms. “There’s wider support for boys in terms of LGBT: we have a LGBT society, and we make sure there’s proper support for boys who may be gay or bisexual or question their sexuality. We are trying to make sure we’re a modern, forward-thinking place.”
So what if a boy comes back in September wishing to identify as a girl? “We would engage with that individual, engage with their family and work with them to do what we thought was right for them. They would stay if that was considered the right outcome for them. We have to celebrate diversity. Are there going to be some situations that will make people feel uncomfortable? Probably.
“But it would be contrary to the values of the organisation to encourage the boys to be independent and to believe in themselves, to have their own identity, not to follow the crowd, and to stand up for what they believe in, and then say if you’re different in this way you’re not allowed to be part of our community.”
For the first time in almost half a century, there are no Old Etonians in a Conservative Cabinet, following Boris Johnson’s resignation last week. However, that sector is aware it must defuse charges of elitism.
While even supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have been known to educate their children privately, how does Henderson address those who say private education is an outrage? “We live in a democratic country, there is individual freedom, and I think part of individual freedom is being able to choose what you spend your money on. We think every young person in the country should have access to an outstanding education.
“I don’t see lowering the standards of Eton is going to help improve the life chances of someone from a disadvantaged background. We should be working to raise the standards of education generally.”
Some parents of Etonians, as of children at other major public schools, fear universities discriminate in favour of state school pupils. Henderson rejects that. “No, I don’t think there’s any evidence of that at all. We’re very proud that we get 80 to 100 boys to Oxbridge every year. The ones we think deserve to get in generally get in.” He does concede, though, that with borderline cases, “slightly more of those decisions are going the other way than was the case a decade ago”.
The private sector is increasingly affected by regulation. “The changes have been well-intentioned, motivated by wanting to make young people safer. And there should be transparency and high levels of scrutiny. But Eton has thrived on the fact that teachers here have more autonomy than in a lot of schools. We are lucky enough to attract very talented people, and we want them to have the freedom to be creative and to show initiative.”
Does the compliance culture make him more of a Chief Executive Officer than a headmaster? “I see myself as a teacher first, headmaster second. CEO? I’m not sure that’s a phrase I would use.
"I’m not able to spend as much time on the front line with the boys as I would ideally like. From the autumn, I’m going to be back in the classroom teaching. I’ve been doing guest appearances for the last couple of years. I spend more time in meetings and answering emails than I would ideally like, but that’s a feature of the job in the modern world.
“I try to get to meet every boy – there are around 260 in each year and we have 20 round for a buffet supper each Monday night. I’ve just completed the process of taking leave, which I regard as the highlight of my year, which is seeing every member of the upper sixth for what is effectively a 10-minute exit interview. There were 274, so it’s a big investment of time.
“Visible leadership is important,” he says. “You become detached from the core business of the school at your peril.”