It’s hard to open a newspaper without spotting a headline about Roedean. One week it’s lessons in Brexit etiquette; the next, phone-free retreats. Days after I meet 51-year-old headmaster Oliver Blond, the Times trumpets: ‘Let homeless eat steak, says Roedean.’
It’s a blustery walk up the drive to the 134-year-old girls’ boarding school, perched on the South Downs overlooking Brighton Marina. Girls stream through the corridors excitedly. There’s a whoop here, a cheer there — not long to go until the end of term.
In his office I find Blond in an armchair. He took up teaching following a degree in English and philosophy from the University of Essex, having been educated at a grammar school in the north-west. After graduating, he had two options: ‘A PGCE at Cambridge or an MPhil at Oxford. At that point I said, I love the academia but I want to have a practical impact as well.’ Cambridge it was, and then a succession of schools in Essex and in London, where he was deputy head at North London Collegiate School. In 2006 he became headmaster of Henrietta Barnett School, a grammar in Hampstead Garden Suburb which is the top-performing state school in the country. Seven years later, Roedean called.
His last three schools have been girls’ schools. ‘They are incredibly empowering places,’ he says. ‘They tend to have few rules because they’re peopled by self-motivated, dynamic children, and it creates an atmosphere which is inspiring… It seemed to me a profoundly positive educational model.’
The three schools were all founded by pioneering Victorian women. North London Collegiate, established in 1850 as one of the first girls’ day schools, ‘set the model — it was one of the schools doing battle for women to be recognised for their academia’. Dame Henrietta Barnett, founder of the Hampstead grammar, ‘was an inspirational figure working in the East End, trying to change the way culture was transmitted’. Roedean founders Penelope, Millicent and Dorothy Lawrence set up a school to provide an income when their father had an accident: ‘They wanted to give women a future for themselves.’
When Blond took over, Roedean was a school of about 350 pupils. ‘It probably wasn’t doing as well as it wanted to,’ he admits. Encouraging local girls to apply was a priority, and this has been a success, thanks to the Brighthelm scholarships. These were launched in 2013 for pupils from the state sector living within a 20-mile radius. He has almost doubled the number on roll, increased the number of domestic pupils and upgraded the boarding houses.
These were, as Blond puts it, ‘draughty, old-fashioned, [not] fit for purpose’. A feature in Tatler in 2015 painted a different picture. The new boarding houses, it said, were ‘the swankiest in the world’, with painted wooden islands in the kitchens, common rooms ‘dotted with contemporary, Scandi-style sofas’ and walls ‘decorated with William Morris wallpaper’. The project cost £9 million. ‘Investing in them was important,’ Blond says. ‘People want to know that if they send their child boarding they will be looked after in every way, not just educationally.’ Now the boarding houses, of which there are four, are ‘very nice and comfortable’. Plus, they’re full — ‘which is good for us’.
You might wonder whether the regular headline-grabbing initiatives are marketing driven. But Blond says it was the girls who asked if they could gain an understanding of ‘how to deal with different social situations… how to manage conversations if someone asks you about something that is difficult’. He got Debrett’s on the phone. ‘A speaker came and asked the questions of the girls, and it was fascinating. It gave them immense confidence in dealing with some of the things you will have to deal with when you go out into the world.’
The tech-free retreats were also pupil-led. Two girls were sitting on the sofa in Blond’s office one day — ‘They were good friends and I asked, because they were from different countries, if one knew which city the other was from. When she said no, I thought that was strange.’ These girls, who frequently communicated through group chats and on social media, said ‘you wouldn’t ask that basic stuff in a group chat’. The pair suggested some time away from phones, and a new idea was born.
Now, during the school day, girls in years 7 to 10 do not have phones with them. ‘It means the girls talk to each other, and don’t get into trouble misusing social media,’ says Blond. ‘When we spoke to them, it seemed the compulsion wasn’t to text — more that they were worried they couldn’t reply to something within a certain time.’
Blond wants his girls, all 600 of them, to go out into the world believing they can do anything. ‘Sometimes there’s a fear of failure in life — and I want them to go away thinking that there isn’t such a thing.’