Interview with Dr Joseph Spence by Brian Green

Dr Joseph Spence, the new Master of Dulwich College has accepted The Dulwich Society’s invitation to become a vice-president.  He took up his headship at Dulwich in September following seven years as Headmaster of Oakham School, Rutland, an independent co-educational boarding and day school with a roll of over 1000 pupils.  Prior to that he taught history and politics at Eton College, where for ten years he was Master in College (the housemaster to the 70 King’s Scholars). He took his first degree at Reading University and gained his PhD at London with a study of 19th century Irish History. He is also a playwright and serves on the governing body of a number of schools, including St John’s College School, Cambridge and The Dragon School, Oxford.   He is married to Angela, a solicitor, and they have three adult children. A new parent at the College, meeting the new Master, described him as being approachable and easy to talk to.

He arrives in Dulwich at a somewhat difficult time for independent schools.  The state of the economy is making life more difficult for fee-paying parents who are already stretched financially.  Low interest rates on investments make the further provision of scholarships and bursaries, to which Dulwich and Dr Spence are committed, more problematic. The public’s confidence in the A Level system is shaky.   It is likely that the new Master will have to address these and other problems fairly rapidly. Dr Spence kindly agreed to be interviewed for the Journal.  

Q. The College has a substantial number of overseas students and a wide variety of different faiths exist at the school.  How do you reconcile having a great diversity of religious faiths in what is an Anglican foundation?

An ecumenical spirit has long prevailed at Dulwich College and I am very comfortable with that. I believe that the presence of young people of different faiths (and of no faith) in the one institution can contribute to greater social understanding, integration and mutual respect. I would hope that at Dulwich we can provide a forum for spiritual and ethical debate so that each and every pupil can feel confident that he can explain to his peers something of the essence of his religion and his value system.  My understanding of the duty of the College as an Anglican foundation is that we who are in authority should provide opportunities for the Christian message to be put before all Alleynians. We will not be proselytizers but it would be wrong if anyone left Dulwich not having been introduced to the beliefs and practices of the faith on which the foundation was established.     

Q. Do you propose turning the College into a coeducational school, or admitting girls into the 6th Form?

I am committed to Dulwich College as a school for boys from the age of 7, although I greatly enjoy my visits to our Kindergarten and Infant school (DUCKS) where there are girls and boys.  I think that the three major independent schools of the Dulwich Estate offer the ideal choice to parents in this area: single sex education for girls at JAGS and for boys at the College, and co-education at Alleyn’s. Now I am back in a single-sex environment I am reminded that, ironically perhaps, the atmosphere of a boys-only school can play its part in breaking down gender stereotypes because boys, when taught on their own, don’t have to succumb to the temptation that can befall them in a co-ed setting of acting in a macho way. If you want to encourage boys to study Art or to sing, you have more chance of them doing so in a single-sex school than in a co-ed environment. However, I am looking forward to strengthening links with JAGs and Alleyns so that our boys and girls can do more together outside their formal lessons, in cultural and academic terms and in their service to the community. I will also welcome links between our pupils and staff and those in schools in the maintained sector, and I’m pleased to find a culture of co-operation already thriving in Southwark.

Q. Do you anticipate the College participating in the founding of more Academies in Britain and International Schools overseas?

I am enthusiastic about the existing Dulwich policy of creating Academies and International Schools, based on the Dulwich model. I see these as being able to transform lives.  I am particularly proud of the recently opened Isle of Sheppey Academy. This Academy has the potential to deliver educational excellence in an area where aspirations have not been high before. I hope all the pupils and staff who study and work in Dulwich schools can be inspired towards greater international understanding as a result of the inter-action of the various schools. However,  I am insistent that my role is as the Master of Dulwich College in South East London and looking after the interests of the pupils, parents and staff who have bought into Dulwich College, London, which will always be the priority for me.  

Q. How do the boys at Dulwich compare with your experience of pupils at your previous schools?

Children are children everywhere but the typical Dulwich boy (if there is such a thing) is a relatively streetwise South Londoner who is down to earth and not afraid to ask questions; someone who is growing up in a challenging community. There are advantages to that given my belief that it is the duty of schools to prepare its young people for the real world into which they will have to progress after they leave us, however safe and cloistered an environment we can provide during their formative years.

Q.  At your previous school the pupils took the International Baccalaureate. Given the growing dissatisfaction with A Levels, do you propose to change the examinations the College will take?

Education at Dulwich, as at any good school, goes beyond exams, but the first thing to declare is that I don’t believe that A levels are broken. The obituaries for that system have been written prematurely. My clarion call to my heads of subjects is: make the national system work for our pupils; if a syllabus is under-nourishing, then supplement it with further topics or by external competition. A good education must include such diverse ingredients as access to sport, cultural activities and adventure and an understanding of how to construct an argument.  I offer no commitment to rise up the exam league tables but I guarantee to set the highest possible standards for all my pupils and I believe examination success will flow from this. Offering the choice of A levels or the IB Diploma suited Oakham School; it’s too early for me to say whether Dulwich needs to move towards such an offering. I’ll take this year to determine where we stand on the curriculum question, taking soundings from all interested parties.

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