Not such a new boy now

The head­mas­ter of Sum­mer Fields on a po­lit­i­cal and ed­u­ca­tional legacy

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

David Faber talks to Kate Green about the ca­reer tran­si­tion from MP to head­mas­ter of Sum­mer Fields

THERE was splut­ter­ing in com­mon rooms across the land when former Con­ser­va­tive MP David Faber’s ap­point­ment as head­mas­ter of one of the finest prep schools in Eng­land was an­nounced in 2009. The re­ac­tion—‘un­usual’ gasped one tabloid—was, per­haps, akin to the flut­ter in the mu­seum world at Labour MP Tris­tram Hunt’s re­cent parachut­ing into the V&A.

‘There were raised eye­brows, but it blew over. The boys were great and the par­ents were pre­pared to trust me,’ Mr Faber re­calls. ‘They pay a lot and make sac­ri­fices and we need to be in touch with that, but I would hope that they know I’m one of them and can see it from their point of view.’

Mr Faber had writ­ten two re­spected his­tor­i­cal bi­ogra­phies and was a gov­er­nor at Sum­mer Fields, his old prep school, as well as a par­ent—his son, Henry, was the fifth gen­er­a­tion of the fam­ily there—but he had no teach­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tions and had by­passed the tra­di­tional route of deputy head or house­mas­ter.

‘It’s easy to say in hind­sight, but I wished I’d done a teach­ing de­gree,’ ad­mits Mr Faber, whose warm, friendly style com­bines the re­as­sur­ance of es­tab­lish­ment with the glam­our of the out­sider. ‘Peo­ple had said I’d make a good teacher, per­haps be­cause I’m bossy. I cer­tainly had the teach­ing bent—my maiden speech was on ed­u­ca­tion.’

Aged 31, he was part of 1992’s bright young in­take of Tory MPS, with Liam Fox, Iain Dun­can Smith, Alan Dun­can and David Lid­ing­ton—‘i’m pleased to see that some of my gen­er­a­tion are hav­ing a re­nais­sance un­der Theresa May’. As the grand­son of a Prime Min­is­ter, Harold Macmil­lan—‘i got to know him well as he didn’t die un­til I was in my twen­ties and I re­mem­ber him very fondly and with pride’—and the de­scen­dent of three from the 18th cen­tury, in­clud­ing the 4th Duke of Devon­shire, as well as the pos­ses­sor of good looks, he re­ceived more at­ten­tion than most.

Mr Faber served in the For­eign Of­fice and Health and was a shadow spokesman on for­eign af­fairs un­der Michael Howard—‘he suf­fered from a bad press, but he was a very kind man and a great men­tor’— but stood down in 2001. It was partly prompted by the prospect of a new young fam­ily (his sec­ond wife, So­phie, has a dis­tin­guished ca­reer in the fash­ion in­dus­try) and partly, he ad­mits, by do­ing time in the fog of op­po­si­tion: ‘a sort of em­peror’s new clothes ex­is­tence’.

His un­cle (by mar­riage) was the politi­cian Ju­lian Amery, whose fa­ther, Leo, fa­mously told Cham­ber­lain: ‘In the name of God, go!’ Their fam­ily tragedy was the ex­e­cu­tion, for trea­son, of Ju­lian’s brother John, who broad­cast Nazi pro­pa­ganda. Mr Faber had un­ri­valled ac­cess to the vast fam­ily ar­chive, now at Churchill Col­lege, Cam­bridge, where it’s the most ac­cessed af­ter those of Churchill and Thatcher, and, en­cour­aged by lit­er­ary agent Michael Sis­sons, whom he knew through the MCC com­mit­tee, he wrote a book about the trio, Speak­ing for Eng­land (2005).

He fol­lowed up with Mu­nich (2008) about Cham­ber­lain and the ap­pease­ment cri­sis of 1938. This did well in Amer­ica—where ‘Mu­nich is a by­word for cop­ping out’—and got him onto the schools lec­ture cir­cuit here. ‘Radley [the first en­gage­ment] fos­tered a hunger for teach­ing and school life,’ he ex­plains. He was pon­der­ing how to make the jump when Robin Bad­ham-thorn­hill an­nounced his re­tire­ment from Sum­mer Fields. Mr Faber was ex­pected to head up the in­ter­view panel, un­til ‘I thought, ac­tu­ally, I’d like to go for it’.

Sum­mer Fields was founded in 1864 by Gertrude Ma­claren— ‘I’m proud that it was started by a woman’—to cram friends’ sons for Eton. Her hus­band, Archie, was fit­ness coach to the Bri­tish Army; the school’s motto is ‘A healthy mind in a healthy body’ and it still owns 70 of the orig­i­nal 200 acres in which it was set. Be­sides Macmil­lan, alumni in­clude nov­el­ist Dick Fran­cis, food writ­ers Tom Parker Bowles and Hugh Fearn­ley-whit­tingstall, Lord Redes­dale, fa­ther of the Mit­ford sis­ters, and ac­tors Pa­trick Mac­nee and Christo­pher Lee.

The school’s long-held sta­tus in academia—and in games and mu­sic as well as a strong board­film-star ing ethos—re­mains: 25% (15) of the class of 2016 went to Eton, with four schol­ar­ships. ‘I think we’ve main­tained the rep­u­ta­tion. The aca­demic feel has pre­vailed and that’s what many par­ents come for,’ says Mr Faber. ‘We can at­tract good teach­ers be­cause we’re in Ox­ford and in a cir­cle of academia.

‘Thirty or 40 years ago, the word “hot­house” was used and we wouldn’t recog­nise that now, but the past few years have been a pur­ple patch and we’ve been very suc­cess­ful in mar­ket­ing our out­put. I think we’re known for ex­cel­lence and for try­ing very hard. We are am­bi­tious for the boys, but it’s also a happy en­vi­ron­ment. The at­mos­phere of fam­i­lies and dogs [liv­ing on school grounds] is good for them.’

He says a Sum­mer­fiel­dian is typ­i­cally ‘con­fi­dent, but not cocky, and a good “joiner-in”. I’m con­fi­dent they won’t be lost when they ar­rive at their se­nior school’. He does, how­ever, worry about the ef­fect of the mod­ern ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. ‘There’s a lot of pres­sure on these boys. They’re be­ing tested younger and younger (page 96) and that has be­come an in­dus­try in it­self. It can drag on and one of my jobs is to guide the par­ents and man­age their ex­pec­ta­tions,’ he ex­plains.

‘It’s the big­gest change I’ve seen in my six years here. I do worry about the state of ed­u­ca­tion— it’s a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball. Both sec­tors [in­de­pen­dent and State] are un­der con­stant re­flec­tion and change. We’re hold­ing our breath on the Green Pa­per. The char­i­ta­ble ben­e­fit is up for grabs again and we’re wait­ing to see what hap­pens with gram­mar schools. It doesn’t stand still.’

Mr Faber ad­mits to miss­ing pol­i­tics—when he can’t sleep, he watches his friends on the Par­lia­ment Chan­nel—and he’ll write another book, but the prep-school world’s mix of nos­tal­gia and progress has him cap­ti­vated for now. He is a wel­come ad­di­tion. Kate Green

‘I do worry about the state of ed­u­ca­tion– it’s a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball

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