Summer Fields is a full-boarding and day boys’ preparatory school in the heart of Oxford. David Faber, Headmaster since 2010, discusses his transition from the world of politics to teaching, and shares his insights into educating boys. In this interview he reveals how, having celebrated the school’s 150th anniversary, he is making plans for Summer Fields’ future.
Could you tell me about your own career? What led you to transition to a career in education?
After leaving Oxford I was elected as an MP in 1992, but at the 2001 election I decided that I was young enough to try my hand at something else. After writing two books on 20th century history, I was invited to lecture in a number of public schools. In many ways, I wished that this is what I had started out doing twenty years ago.
You have a strong personal connection to Summer Fields, both as a former pupil and a parent. How does knowing the school from these different dimensions inform your work as a Headmaster?
I was a boy here a long time ago. Whilst the school has changed considerably since then, and it is important that we keep on reinventing ourselves, having studied here myself has given me a great respect for Summer Fields as an institution. Some things must remain constant: our commitment to providing strong boarding and pastoral support and our academic success for example. It helps to have experienced the school from a parental perspective too, as it gives me an insight into the academic and pastoral issues that might arise.
What has been your main focus as Headmaster of Summer Fields since taking on the position?
I inherited a school that was in good shape. It was important to me to maintain and enhance the strength of the common room, of course to maintain our student intake, and to secure our academic reputation.
Similarly, what will be the main focus of your work over the coming years?
After our 150-year celebration in 2014, we thought it was a good moment to look forward. Oxford is a thriving and growing city and we want to expand the school to make more places available for local students to attend as day boys. Whilst we won’t be diminishing our boarding offer in any way, we think it’s important to be ambitious for the school as well as for our boys, and to consider where Summer Fields fits in, in this changing world.
What do you feel differentiates Summer Fields from other prep boarding schools in the UK?
We are well known for the academic achievement of the boys and the academic ambition of the teachers on behalf of those pupils. This ambition extends well beyond the classroom, and our boys excel musically and in sports. Our students are good joiners-in; they are very keen to get involved, take up a new instrument, join new clubs and be the first to put their hands up when they move on to their senior schools.
Other than academic ability, what criteria do you use to determine a strong ‘fit’ between prospective students and Summer Fields?
The child’s enthusiasm is key. When boys first visit, they see the acres of playing fields and the older boys running around at break time; I want them to be inspired by that. Obviously there is a basic academic level that we seek, but we’re not expecting to see evidence of the coaching that goes in to preparing children for the London entrance exams. We’re looking to see that boys engage and are motivated.
How do you help boys settle into the boarding system when they first start at Summer Fields?
All the boarders are housed in seven separate boarding houses, which are allocated by age. So the youngest boys are all boarding together, in a small, homely environment, looked after by extremely experienced house parents. We believe that this horizontal boarding model, quite rare in prep schools, is absolutely key to the youngest boys settling in well.
How do you foster emotional and social intelligence in your students?
This is something that, in a boarding school environment, we take responsibility for on a daily basis. The pre-testing industry is a major threat to children’s emotional wellbeing. Even over the six years that I’ve been here, the level of stress placed on children as they go through the senior school application process has increased markedly. We try to do our best to manage this as pro-actively as possible.
Why do you think that emphasis on preparing for tests has increased so dramatically?
As one Head describes it, there is a ‘race to the cradle’. The major public schools are heavily oversubscribed, and see themselves in competition for the best children; the testing starts earlier and earlier, parents understandably become more anxious and put their sons down for more schools and the situation becomes self-perpetuating.
We were assured for example, that the ISEB Common Pre-Test would be a partial solution to the proliferation of pre-testing, while what has in fact happened is that a lot of schools now use it in addition to their own assessment day, including a further test – it has become a pre-pre-test.
Summer Fields is renowned for its strong exit results. How do you ensure a strong fit between your boys and their future destination schools?
Making sure that the boys go to the right schools to help them thrive is a crucial aspect of my job. I try to work very closely with our parents and we look together at their son’s academic and extracurricular strengths. We build good relationships with the senior schools, and I hope that the senior schools trust us; we are very honest and transparent about our boys.
How do you foster individual success in all your students?
One of the things that I admire most about the school is that all the boys take great pride in their friends’ achievements; the very sporty boy and the brilliant cellist are equally admired, so it’s really important that we help each individual to feel that they are doing well in an area. I am very keen that we don’t have a menu of success. Parents often ask about what senior schools are looking for and I tell them that their children don’t have to be good at everything but they do need to be interested and engaged in whatever it is that they enjoy. We have such an amazing array of opportunity here thanks to our wonderful facilities; at weekends, for instance, the staff are happy to give up their time to keep the science labs, the art room or the technology lab open. The students have the opportunity to enjoy exploring in their own time.