What I learnt from Stephen Winkley


Earlier this month one of the superstar heads of the independent school world passed away. He was a witty, refreshingly human and honest man. Like all the best heads opinion in the staff room was sharply divided about him.

I was fortunate, as a young teacher, to have stayed on the right side of him. Stephen Winkley taught me an awful lot:

Public speaking - it is possible as a head to make a huge impact at set piece occasions. For many people these occasions will be the only time they get to meet and to hear what the head thinks. Stephen Winkley was masterful at such events. He invariably had notes with him (admiring those who didn't). Despite giving the appearance that it was all effortless a lot or preparation went into his speeches and he wrote them out verbatim. Here he suggests that such things took about 5 hours, but I suspect they took a lot longer - he had a reputation to live up to. But what really matters is that they worked. All those hours of preparation paid off: teachers, parents, pupils and anyone else fortunate enough to be able to squeeze in and listen was able to watch a master at work. He knew his audience and blew them away with the skill of his oratory. Marvellous.
Searing intellect - if you haven't got this (and by definition most people haven't, myself very much included) you might think you're stuffed and that there's not much you can learn from this trait. Winkley was never lost for words, even - perhaps especially - when under attack from angry staff or parents. He managed without sounding glib or high-handed to put people back in their box. For the rest of us, we must make do with doing our homework more assiduously and having strategies in place for potential ambushes..! Working for a head with that sort of intellect is great fun.
Going against the crowd - having been bullied at school, and not being any great fan of sport (he once confided proudly to me that he'd never broken sweat through exercise) he was a marvellous reactionary against the rugger-bugger culture with its casual anti-intellectualism and disdain for the arts that infused many top public schools. Under Winkley the odd, the outcast, the undervalued felt they had an ally. No small feat given that the established route to headship for much of Winkley's career was to be crushingly conformist.
Disdain for officiousness - despite sitting with the good and the great on various committees. Winkley was no box-ticker. He told me once, when I was an aspiring Housemaster, that the BSA's course for aspirant Houseparents was a 'waste of time' (he was Chairman of the BSA for a time!) On another occasion, being quizzed by an inspector on how the school ensured that everyone was safe in the boarding houses at night he replied: "Once they've got past the barbed wire and the search lights we let them go..." His point was made.
Administrative sloppiness - despite all his great strengths, working for Winkley had its frustrations. He was notoriously slow at replying to e-mails, for example. In some cases he didn't bother replying at all. I remember one occasion when a colleague had been to see him to be allowed to drop one of his commitments. It was agreed a response would be forthcoming after discussion at an SMT meeting. Nothing happened. The colleague in question politely enquired via e-mail as to what was going on. No response. When eventually he engineered a face-to-face meeting the colleague was told that it was "unreasonable to expect a decision to emerge from an SMT meeting, of all meetings". Behind it all there was a method in this. The colleague continued on with his commitments for several more terms, before a suitable replacement emerged.
Lapidiary way with words - the ability to craft letters like this; concise, cutting and to the point is a real skill. I suspect they can only be sent towards the end of a career though!









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