The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Sir Anthony Seldon
67, British educator and contemporary historian What would your younger self make of your life today?
I’d like to write one thing before I pop my clogs that I think will make a difference
My parents were absolutely brilliant, but they were both affected, as all of us are affected, by their past. Dad was orphaned when he was two. His parents were Jewish émigrés killed in the influenza plague. My mother’s father was a First World War casualty who was a depressive and very difficult. Mum was very anxious about accidents and illnesses and everything, and of course that makes you anxious and fearful of the world, but she did her best. When we criticise other people, we’re often just criticising ourselves for things we can’t see that are there.
As a teacher, I would always be drawn to the children and families who were having difficulties. On one level, the naughty children are more interesting, but also, I was very naughty, so I understood where they were coming from. I preferred teaching lower sets because there’s a lot more teaching to do, but also a lot more satisfaction because there is more progress.
As a boy, I was quite shy and not confident. I’m still not very confident, to be honest. I still get knocked far too easily. I didn’t blossom until I was at university and I started directing a lot of plays and becoming much more my own person.
I became a teacher because it wasn’t obvious to me what I was going to do. I really didn’t want to become an academic. It didn’t excite me enough, and I just didn’t feel I was good enough to go into theatre.
I thought I’d go into teaching to see how it went. And I just loved it. I took sports teams, directed plays, edited the magazine; there were endless school trips to incredible places. It was ridiculous fun, and also incredibly affirming.
I saw friends who went into banks, law and accounting; they must have been earning more but it didn’t seem to me they were getting a fraction of the enjoyment of life out of it.
Schools should be factories of joy or they’re nothing. For very good motives though, a terribly drab blanket has been put over them.
People are afraid of spontaneity, of being individual teachers. The obsession with results has narrowed down all schools and knocked out the arts, sports and roundedness. It’s put in a regime where people are afraid of mistakes. I certainly tried as a head for 20 years to make schools joyful places and help every child succeed in their own way. And of course we have limited notion of what intelligence and success is in schools.
There’s also less social education. The conversation about sexual harassment was a ticking time bomb. If you’re telling children all that matters is your success in an exam, rather than whether you’re a decent human being, we shouldn’t be surprised if this happens Or if mental illness arises. We’ve lost our way because policy is dictated by grey people whose hearts and heads are disengaged.
I was incredibly lucky in that I married someone I met at Oxford who was intellectually stellar, and a great actress – but what I didn’t know was she would also be a great mother. Joanna just loved being a mother.
And because I’ve worked very hard at whatever I’ve done, putting in long hours (often because I was worried about not being good enough), and on top of that writing books – all my deficiencies were considerably mitigated because so much of the primary care was done by Joanna. Nothing prepares you for a loved one’s death. I don’t think I understood how she touched every part of my life. I’d like to write one thing before I pop my clogs that I think will make a difference. I haven’t written it yet. I would really like to write poetry. Who doesn’t want to? Joanna’s poems were published posthumously.
I think all the time about how much more I’ve got to do before I lay down my head and go to sleep one last time. I feel like my life hasn’t really started. I have to walk the miles. Thousands of miles. I haven’t found what I can do in life yet.
I’m just keeping going and keeping hopeful, but at the same time, you have to be content with what you have. I wouldn’t have done anything without the advantages I had, which makes one think about all those unknown
Einsteins who have genuine talent but because of where they are born in society, we have not given them the opportunities.
The same goes for every child. I think the most important thing about education is to give every child a sense of who they are and what they can do.
If my younger self could see me now, he would say to me: “Keep walking. You’re not there yet.”
Interview by Boudicca Fox-Leonard