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The power of the head boy

Published on isbi School News dated Friday 23rd of May 2014

I was fascinated to watch The Irresistible Rise of Boris Johnson, shown on BBC2 earlier this month. Like most people, I am intrigued by this Oxford Classicist who appears such a fool in public and yet manages to overcome every obstacle in his path and go bounding like Tigger to the top of the tree. Last summer I was at the concert in Hyde Park the night before the Olympics began and was able to witness his turning of a crowd from hostile boos to yells of 'Boris! Boris!' with a few well-chosen words. My feelings were balanced between admiration and horror. Surely this was how Emperors controlled ancient Romans by hosting lavish games or how Hitler might have won over Nuremburg? Neither particularly edifying adverts for a modern politician, it has to be said, but could any other modern politician have done the same?

This latest documentary took time to dissect Boris' school days and I was particularly interested to learn that he had scaled the heights to become Captain of School at Eton in other words head boy something fellow Etonian, David Cameron, had been unable to do. Speaking to the camera, Boris' sister Rachel pointed out that 'Cameron minor', two years her brother's junior, would always regard Boris as the older boy at school and, above all, head boy. This, she felt, still characterised their relationship today.

To some this may appear ridiculous. We are talking about adult men now and one is Prime Minister. However, as a headteacher, I can believe that Rachel Johnson might well be right. We should not underestimate the power and allure associated with being head boy of your school. For many this is the first position of power and authority to be sought. It requires gaining the respect of your peers, especially if there is a school election involved. Even if the post is in the gift of the head, it needs the approval of those who know you well; 'failure' can be painful. Many aspiring head boys have also nursed a secret ambition to hold the post from early days. Perhaps this is why, more than any other decision made, I have found across all three schools where I have worked, that this is the one most likely to bring parents to the head's office demanding explanation.

Why then do we persist in making the appointment at all? It's a question I ask myself regularly. However, the value of a good prefect body led by a compassionate head of school is worth the difficulties inherent in their selection. Teenagers do not like to listen to adults; they will look to older pupils to take the lead. Not long ago, I asked all of the girls at Kent College to name their personal role model. Not only was I delighted to witness a scarcity of super models and singers in their replies, but by far the most common answer was the school's own head girl, admired for being approachable and caring.

Most of us can remember the best head boys and girls from our own school days. Often it is these figures rather than teachers or parents whom we most aspire to emulate. Perhaps, therefore, we should spare a thought for David Cameron, who somehow has to continue to manage his.

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