Elite private headteacher: ‘The children we educate will create a fairer society’

No other headteacher in Britain boasts a CV quite like Shaun Fenton’s. Born 1969, son of the pop singer Alvin Stardust and his first wife, Iris Caldwell (ex-girlfriend of Paul McCartney and George Harrison). Oxford graduate (philosophy, politics and economics). A brief City career in accountancy. Head of humanities at the Ridings comprehensive in Halifax, once branded Britain’s worst school, now closed. Head for five years of a Hertfordshire comprehensive. Head for six years of a state grammar in Gloucestershire. Since 2012, head of Reigate Grammar school, Surrey, a fee-charging selective day school. Member of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), the (sort of) trade union for heads of top public schools, which recently elected him chair for 2018-19. Recreation (according to Who’s Who) includes “loving God”.

In his study at Reigate Grammar, which has a 32-acre sports ground, a 25-metre indoor swimming pool and a new “state-of-the-art learning centre”, Fenton tells me he went into teaching not because he loved his subject – he doesn’t seem entirely sure what that is, saying he taught religious education, history, economics and social studies – but because he wanted to join “a community of moral purpose”.

Can he explain the moral purpose of Reigate Grammar, where annual fees are £17,460? “The children we educate here will take on future leadership roles. They will be opinion formers, wealth creators, employers, healthcare providers. They can create employment opportunities and a fairer society. At our leavers’ day last week – it was fabulous, we turned the school into a fairground, with dodgems and bouncy castles – my final words in the final assembly were: ‘Reigatians, go and make the world a better place’. Yes, they are privileged to come here. As long as they pay back in spades, it will be an investment not just for their families but for their country.”

During this peroration, and several others, Fenton reminds me of a variety show presenter with his high-speed patter. He never had ambitions to follow his father on to the stage but, he says, “teaching is a performance art”. Even the name Fenton is a show-biz confection: Alvin Stardust, who died in 2014, was born Bernard Jewry. He started as a roadie to a teenage band called Shane Fenton and the Fentones. When Shane Fenton (not his real name) died at 17 from rheumatic fever, Jewry adopted the name and joined the band. The surname of Shaun Fenton’s younger sister is Jewry. Were Alvin’s children offered a choice of names? Fenton looks at me blankly: “No, we were just given them.”

I sit back and enjoy the performance. How does Fenton set about turning Reigate pupils into exemplary citizens? “We focus on qualities of character, so that they define themselves not just by professional success but by their roles as partners, neighbours and members of a community and family.”

Though Fenton highlights Reigate’s emphasis on pastoral care, it’s surely the exam results – more than half the A-level grades and 83% of GCSE grades last year were A*s and As – that will propel its pupils, selected on academic ability and parental income, into leadership positions. Can this and similar schools do more to help the 93% of children who don’t attend fee-charging schools by, for example, opening an academy, as Theresa May suggested in the election campaign?

“We really want to be part of the answer to the question of how more children can get good school places,” Fenton says. “If it’s through some independent schools having partnerships with academies, that’s great. But we’d be nervous about a one-size-fits-all approach where Whitehall says: it has to be done like this.”

Fenton with his father, Alvin Stardust, mother, Iris, and younger brother, Adam.

Fenton with his father, Alvin Stardust, mother, Iris, and younger brother, Adam. Photograph: Alamy

He is keener on bursaries to widen independent school entry. More than 170 of Reigate’s 900 children are on means-tested bursaries; 60 of these have at least 95% of their fees paid. Would a parent earning £30,000 annually, the median for Reigate, get help? “Below that, they probably pay no fees at all. We look at family circumstances. We had one parent who had taken a career break to do a master’s. We’d probably be less sympathetic in that case. We’d be more sympathetic where both parents are working their socks off but getting a pretty modest income, less so where we think the family has potential to earn more.” Fenton claims the proportion of Reigate pupils eligible for the pupil premium is twice that of state grammar schools.

For some years, he has pressed an “additional places” scheme on the government. This sounds like the unlamented assisted places scheme introduced by the Tories in the 1980s and abolished by New Labour, but Fenton says it’s quite different – the affluent wouldn’t benefit as they did under the earlier scheme.

He says: “We have a shortage of school places. The government can build new schools but can’t be sure they’ll be any good. So we in the independent sector say: just give us the funds that you would spend on each child in a state school and we’ll take dozens each year and not charge their parents or the state a single extra penny. And you, the government, can decide which pupils we take – only those who qualify for the pupil premium, say.”

He continues: “We could take 10,000 across the sector and guarantee a high quality education. If £5,000-£6,000 follows the child here, we can raise the rest of the money.”

But the children would have to be academically selected? “It depends on the school. In the independent sector, most schools are selective. But some state schools select on church connections or you have to live in a certain postcode.”

Ministers told Fenton his scheme would be hard to sell politically. “It would look as if they were giving funds to independent schools when there were insufficient funds for state schools. But it would be the opposite. We’d save money from the education budget. Providing 1,000 places in a new school, with building and start-up costs, would cost an awful lot more than providing 1,000 in an existing school.”

How, then, did this champion of independent schools, himself a former pupil (on a scholarship) at Haberdashers’ Aske’s, a fee-charging school in Hertfordshire, come to teach at the Ridings?

He saw a vacancy and applied. “The Ridings had been on BBC Panorama. It was more famous than Eton. Who wouldn’t be interested? I was attracted to making a difference. I thought I had a vocation for education but it was only really awakened at the Ridings.”

Still in his 20s and only two years into his teaching career, Fenton applied for head of RE but was offered the more senior role. The school, created by a merger, served two tough estates between which there was, as Fenton puts it, “rivalry”. Truancy levels were high; “internal truancy” (pupils attending school but not going to lessons) even higher. “In two years at the Ridings, I probably had 10 years’ worth of professional experience.”

Why did he leave? Because, though not yet 30, he saw a vacancy for deputy head at a St Albans comprehensive as “the next phase of my career”. He says: “When I joined the Ridings, the deal was that I wouldn’t leave until it was successful. The measure of success was Ofsted which, after coming every six weeks for two years, took us out of special measures and judged us a good school.”

After getting his first headship at a comprehensive, did he deliberately look for his next at a grammar school? “Yes. I felt I had most to offer in an environment where academic excellence was one of the school’s distinctive features. There’s academic excellence in comprehensives, of course, but it’s not their raison d’être.”

There is something admirable in the open and almost reckless way he deals with such questions. He is, I think, a restless soul, which perhaps has to do with his childhood. It was, he tells me, a happy one and Alvin Stardust “a good dad” – “I remember him watching me play rugby”. Then he adds, almost in the same sentence: “I wish I’d known more of him first hand, because where I saw him most as a child was on TV”.

What will he do next? “This is the best job I’ve ever had and I’ve no ambition to go anywhere else.” Then he pauses. “I sometimes wonder, though, if there might be a chance at Haberdashers’ Aske’s. That would complete the circle.” Perhaps the restlessness hasn’t entirely gone.

This article was amended on 13 June 2017 to correct the size of Reigate Grammar School’s swimming pool.


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