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Why I am no longer a Headmaster

Back in March 2017, when I received the phone call from the then Chair of Governors offering me the role of leading this amazing school, part of the conversation regarded my title.  I was quite adamant, at the time, that I wished to be known as the Headmaster of Rookwood School.  Indeed, for the first few years in the role, I was proud to hold the title, Headmaster.

However, more recently, I have become uncomfortable with being known as the Headmaster and I have, slowly but surely, been dropping the later part of the title, so that now I am even more proud to be the Head of Rookwood School.

Why ‘Head’ did you drop the ‘master’, I hear you ask.

Is it because I found the term ‘headmaster’ old-fashioned?  It is true that the overwhelming majority of state schools now prefer the term ‘head teacher’, but within the independent sector the terms ‘headmaster’ and ‘headmistress’ remain popular.  Indeed, I embrace many school traditions and I, personally, find the phrase ‘head teacher’ mildly irritating.  Whilst it is true that I am a teacher, headship extends beyond the leadership of teaching and learning.  Whilst a school cannot exist without its teachers, it also cannot exist without its support staff such as its boarding houseparents, learning support assistants, office staff, catering staff, cleaning staff, technicians, estates staff and minibus drivers.  I’m not just head of the teachers, I’m head of the whole school, and it potentially suggests that there is a two-tier system of employee if my title elevates one group above another.

Aha! You say.  It is therefore because the term ‘headmaster’ implies man’s dominance over women who are merely ‘headmistresses’?  You would be wrong again.  Indeed, the word mistress is derived from the Old French, ‘maistresse’, which is the feminine version of ‘maistre’ or, in English, ‘master’.  Their origin, therefore, is the same.  Headmaster and headmistress are equal in status.  Far from being old-fashioned, within the context of education, the term master is very much a modern concept – to master something is to achieve success in learning.  Indeed, a Master’s degree is highly regarded as a significant learning achievement.  I do, however, acknowledge that the term ‘mistress’ has gained some negative connotations in the last century or so.

No, the reason I now find ‘headmaster’ uncomfortable is because my title is inextricably linked to my gender.  Previously, at Rookwood, if I was a woman I would be called ‘headmistress’ and as a man I am called ‘headmaster’.  But, what if I do not identify as either a man or a woman?  When your job title is determined by your gender, what should you do if you are uncomfortable with the gender assigned to you at birth?   If I was to transition, would I have to change my job title too? And, if the choice is only ‘headmaster’ or ‘headmistress’, what should I be called if I was non-binary?

Now, before you get too excited, this blog is not some brave coming out story on my part.  I was born male and I continue to identify as male.  On that part, you could say that I am one of the lucky ones.  I have not had to face the emotional turmoil of realising that I do not identify with the gender assigned to me at birth, or with the difficult personal and very public journey such a realisation often entails.  I have never had to explain who I really am to my parents, family and friends or, Heaven forbid, been bullied by others because of my gender identity.

Now I am not so naïve as to believe that changing my title will suddenly make everyday life easier for pupils who may be experiencing distress due to their gender identity.  However, this is about leadership and being a role model to others.  By removing unnecessary references to binary genders, I am taking a small but positive step towards making this community more welcoming and inclusive for those amongst us who identify as non-binary or are uncomfortable with their gender identity.  This is part of the process that has included renaming Head Boy and Head Girl as Head Prefects and changing the uniform so that each pupil can choose to wear the uniform in which they feel most comfortable.  Indeed, there are more changes planned, including updating our signage to refer to co-educational rather than boys and girls.

It is essential that we create a school where everyone feels valued and included.  Every person at this school deserves the right to feel that they belong in this community, without fear of discrimination or reprisal.  Whilst this blog has focused on gender-identity, this right is true no matter who you are.  Being different from the majority is not something to be shamed or ridiculed about.  We all deserve the right to feel proud of who we are.

At Rookwood, I see a community where we genuinely try to recognise the uniqueness in everyone.  Whilst we do not always get things right, every single day I see acts of kindness and mutual respect amongst the pupils.  Our pupils look out for and support each other.  For example, if someone is having a bad day, their peers will encourage them to go The Hub – a safe and calming space with ELSA support.  At Rookwood, we truly strive to be an inclusive and welcoming community and this is why I am proud to call myself its Head.