Talking Heads: Gary Savage of Alleyn’s Senior School

on Jul 14, 2017

2494 SW Alleyns 162Dr Gary Savage has been headmaster of Alleyn’s Senior School, an independent co-ed school in Dulwich, since 2010. He previously worked at Westminster and Eton.

How would you describe Alleyn’s?

Alleyn’s is very much a modern School, built upon a long and proud heritage. We are progressive, yet holistic and balanced; boys and girls; arts and sciences; indoors and outdoors. Creating a sense of wholeness, as it were, is important to us. Parents tell me that our community has a wonderful ‘buzz’ about it. I fully agree; there is a special energy and creative spirit derived from our unique status as a co-educational, contemporary School in the heart of London.

What do you think sets Alleyn’s School apart from other schools; not just in your immediate area, but also for those who want to make the commute?

Fundamentally, it is the fact that we are co-ed. There are not that many fully co-ed independent schools in London, and I naturally think we are the best! I don’t mean only in terms of our examination results, which are extremely good, but far more than that: we are properly co-ed and have been so since the mid 1970s. If you believe that your son or daughter will flourish in a co-educational environment, we have been doing it for longer than most and achieve fantastic results in that context; properly balanced, 50/50 boys and girls, a wonderful, genuine co-curriculum in an atmosphere that is warm, friendly, relaxed – or as a parent described it to me recently, mellow.

What is your ‘secret’? How are you able to keep it ‘mellow’ and achieve amazing results without turning Alleyn’s into a hot-house?

When I was appointed, some people in the Alleyn’s community were worried when they saw my CV: Cambridge, Eton, Westminster: terribly academic. ‘Is he going to turn Alleyn’s into a hot-house environment?!’ That was never my intention and I think the governors who appointed me sensed that that wasn’t what made me tick. On the contrary; I love our children to wear their learning quite lightly. I love the fact that they are modest and grounded, and I have encouraged them to embrace the life of the mind for its own sake, cherishing intellectual stimulation and academic enrichment through all sorts of innovations over the last seven years. Not in the pursuit of examination results, but in the pursuit of learning for its own sake, and for life. They have embraced that ethos brilliantly from the word go.

How do you turn a school into a hot-house and what can you do to prevent that from happening?

If you want to turn a school into a hot-house, you recruit against very narrow academic criteria each year, which is something we have never done here. We interview over 300 of around 700 applicants. We look for children with all sorts of things to offer, and that we can in turn nurture and support: sport, drama, art, music, a sense of community, friendship. You can obsessively focus on assessments and examinations, but we prefer our exams and assessments to be formative and integrated into a holistic curriculum.

You can also cull pupils at the end of GCSE to ensure only the most able proceed into the Sixth Form, but we don’t do that either. We have a big range of A-Levels, all sorts of options and combinations that can make it work for everyone. I have done the analysis; I could institute a much higher hurdle for children going from Year 11 to Year 12 and it would make a significant difference to our A-Level outcome and league table positions, but neither the Governors nor I are interested in doing it. I don’t think it is right: we have made a commitment to these children to see them through their education till the end of their time at Alleyn’s, and indeed beyond – equipping them for that lifelong love of learning.

How do you select your teachers and how do you get them to work the Alleyn’s way?

I look to appoint men and women who share our ethos, which is fundamentally holistic and caring. When I interview people, I am of course interested in their subject-specific expertise and academic ability. But I am also interested in the fact that they like to be with, and care deeply about, young people. I want them to contribute to the school as a whole, in the co-curriculum and also in pastoral terms. Those who buy into what we do, who enjoy what we do, who appreciate the life of the mind but recognise that it is important to have other interests and activities too – they tend to achieve great results without blowing a gasket along the way.

How do you manage to keep your teachers considering the cost of living in London?

I think our terms and conditions are competitive; they have to be in London. But we have found that the teachers who come here– and we take great care in appointing those we think will flourish– appreciate working in an environment which is pleasant: apart from anything else, 30 acres of green space is as attractive to teachers as it is to children. Above all though, it is the relations between the staff and the children here, which are so natural and mutually respectful and supportive. There are all sorts of responsibilities that teachers can take on at all levels in order to develop themselves. Plus we are committed to lots of opportunities for teachers to develop professionally. We have significant funds set aside in our budget for this purpose, because we want to help teachers to improve and develop.

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Please tell us more about the Governors’ Research Project Prize that you have set up.

I have set up a range of innovations to encourage the life of the mind and a love of learning for its own sake. About five or six years ago, I set up the Governors’ Research Project Prize which is open to anyone at the end of Year 12 to spend a summer doing original research, probably in the subject area that they are going to apply to read at university. They will do a 3000-word project with some light supervision by a member of staff, but it is chiefly their own work. It gives these boys and girls an opportunity to throw themselves into their own work and have a viva experience (by me and members of the Governing Board, hence the name!), doing their own research and independent study, which is obviously a fantastic way of preparing for university and life beyond Alleyn’s. Recent topics we have had include dark matter, Byzantium, medicine and the classical idea of tragedy. It’s always a heady mix!

What more are you doing to inspire beyond the curriculum?

The Headmaster’s Review Prize is another project I instituted for those going from Year 9 into Year 10. During the summer they can see a play, read a book, see a film or listen to a piece of music and write a critical review.

We have also massively expanded the number of visiting speakers at lunchtime and after-school lectures. Our Science department alone has offered over 80 such talks this academic year. We have instituted a number of annual events, such as the Chaplaincy Lecture, RV Jones Science Lecture and Edward Alleyn Lecture, which provide thought-provoking presentations by pioneering public figures like Edmund de Waal and Jonathan Sumption.

Two years ago, I appointed a Scientist-in-Residence, Dr Adam Rutherford, who is a UCL geneticist and BBC Radio 4 presenter of ‘Inside Science’. He comes in once a week and the children love him. He is inspiring and he also has all sorts of useful connections across academia. Through his good offices, we have been fortunate enough to welcome scientists such as Professor Steven Jones and Dr Helen Czerski; and in the autumn we shall hear from historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb speaking about the Reformation in this anniversary year.

I believe that the best education transcends the classroom, so we have developed an extensive co-curricular programme that inspires pupils and colleagues alike. A Geography teacher may run a Geography society (though that might equally be done by a student!) and also be a CCF officer, train the U14B hockey team or enthuse about music composition!

Boys and girls can access a myriad of clubs from ceramics through to bridge and taekwondo, take part in volunteering, Duke of Edinburgh or CCF (we have one of the largest School programmes in the south-east). Be it a dance performance, a national sport decider or a dramatic or musical extravaganza, I love the fact that our co-curricular so fully complements the classroom to enrich, inspire and help draw out different skills and interests.

We would love to know more about your involvement in the Southwark Schools Learning Partnership.

The SSLP has been going for around 20 years and involves a number of schools, both staff and students from the state and independent sectors in Southwark. Every year there are different projects organised by different teachers; there might be shared academic lectures, or something around the Duke of Edinburgh Award or CCF. There is a series of constantly changing projects with the aim of ensuring that schools are in touch with one another to share views, opportunities and good practice. Parents can find out more at

We know you have more enrichment programmes. Please tell us about them.

There is also the Southwark Community Education Council which is a scheme where students from state primary schools come to the three Foundation schools to work on their literacy, science or maths. For instance, we welcome Year 5 students from local state primary schools on Saturdays to do extra maths with the help of our enthusiastic Year 11 volunteers.

Rhythm for Reading is another partnership where our Year 12 students go out to local primaries using this innovative scheme which deploys musical annotation to help younger children with their reading. The primary school children make huge progress with their reading speed through this scheme.

There is also an American project called Sweet Readers that Alleyn’s is the first school in the UK to participate in, whereby our Year 8 pupils go into a local care home for elderly people suffering from dementia and read to them every week. It is fantastically powerful both for the elderly and also for our 12-year-olds: it is very challenging stuff, but they rise to the occasion brilliantly.

We are so pleased to play a positive role in these activities and many more like them; lots of which parents can find out more via the collaborative ‘Schools Together’ website at

All of these project and partnerships will be a great help in preparing your students for life beyond school as well as setting Alleyn’s apart from other schools.

Projects like these really switch on a light bulb in the children wanting to get into medicine, education or public policy. Above all though, they are critical for a school that wants to prepare children for a life lived well, responsibly and compassionately. It helps the pupils to develop their own characters, talents, capacities and values. We want to attract people who share these values so that we can nurture, develop and enroot them: when they go out into the world, Alleyn’s will hopefully have left something with them which continues to inspire and motivate them.

The majority of our pupils like to return to visit, come and do talks, help with fundraising. It is a relationship that tends to endure; once you have been part of Alleyn’s, you want to remain part of our family. Lots of alumni send their children here too.

Science is really big here, isn’t it?

It is. We have invested in science with three new labs built in the last few years as well as the introduction of our Scientist-in-Residence. We have provided such advanced facilities as a spectrometer, cloud chamber and even a rooftop observatory! Every year, we have lots of boys and girls going off to Oxbridge, Imperial and other Russell Group universities to study science and maths, and also a great many who go on to study medicine.

What about the arts? You are well known for it.

We are equally devoted to the arts and have a professional theatre with a full time stage manager. We have long since been a place of outstanding musical and dramatic heritage – going back to the Founder, of course, Edward Alleyn, who was Elizabeth I’s favourite actor.

Dance has also been introduced in the curriculum and both boys and girls do it. We have a massive annual dance show. Performance art is big here, as is visual art, and the creative arts in general. It’s all part of our holistic curriculum.

You are obviously comfortable here now after about seven years and you have had time to implement some of the things you have wanted to do. What are some of the things you still would like to accomplish?

There is still a lot to do. I have been invited to explore other opportunities, but I have no interest in doing that. I feel very content here. The school suits me and I share the values of the school.

Our bursary fundraising is really important. Currently we have 60 pupils on 100% free places. Part of our work is getting the message out so that parents know that we have this bursary scheme. Another part is fundraising to enable even more children to be able to come to Alleyn’s. We are generously supported by the Dulwich Estate and also by the Worshipful Company of Saddlers. What we have, in terms of benefactor support, is amazing; but I feel we still have a long way to go so that we can reach many more children who we know would love it here, and flourish.

In general, I am always eager to develop new opportunities to find ways to add to the richness of what Alleyn’s is all about while still retaining the balance and wholeness that I talked about earlier. Running a school like this, with very capable children from very interesting and discerning families, maintaining our ethos and values in this fast changing world, and preparing the children to flourish in it – that’s a big challenge which I relish.