MR PAUL WILSON, “I FIND THERE IS SOME BIAS TOWARDS SPORT AT WHITGIFT.” INTERVIEW BY SAMUEL HERMAN-WILSON

Whitgift School in South Croydon is renowned for its sporting attributes. The rugby is second-to-none, and so is the hockey. They pride themselves on their cricket and have national championship winners in the Modern Pentathlon and in Fencing amongst the 1200 students there.  For Mr Paul Stuart Wilson, the Director of Music and the Performing Arts at Whitgift, and rugby fanatic, this is all good news. However, Mr Wilson passionately believes that, even with such a sporting reputation, the performing arts should be pushed as much if not more, than the sporting aspects of the school.


But, in order to find out why he believes this, we need to rewind and figure out why Mr Wilson became a teacher in the first place. When asked, the 60-year-old teacher said: “Well when I was 40, for various reasons I needed a new career direction. I read English at university and had always been passionate about it and it occurred to me that going in to teaching would enable me to continue my enthusiasm for English and also pass on my enthusiasm and knowledge to a younger generation. I thought the time was ripe so I decided to gain my teacher qualification and apply for a teaching job.”

 

Although Whitgift is a very good independent school with great facilities and a superb reputation, it doesn’t hold the legacy of schools such as Eton, Rugby, Charterhouse, Wellington or Harrow. So why did Mr Wilson choose to teach at Whitgift? “Well, to be brutally frank, there weren’t many schools prepared to offer me a job, or even an interview because I was quite mature for a beginning teacher. But Whitgift has a very charismatic and visionary Headmaster, and Dr Christopher Barnett thought that I might be able to offer something useful to the school. I knew of Whitgift’s reputation so when I was offered a job there I didn’t hesitate. I accepted immediately.”

 


Teaching at a school with such a great reputation at Whitgift must have its ups, but also a job there must come with a few downs. When asked, Mr Wilson said he loves teaching at Whitgift because, “The boys generally are very intelligent but more important than that they are generally speaking very charismatic and characterful. They are always interesting; even if they are difficult boys they are always very interesting. I like the fact that the school has a very wide co-curricular programme; I am a musician as well so I enjoy that aspect of my school life. I am also a great devotee of rugby, so having some little input into that is also very exciting, with my Under 15 C rugby team, that’s a very important part of my life. I also find my colleagues stimulating and pleasant. The school is housed in very impressive, beautiful grounds so everyday going to school is a pleasure. I can honestly say that I have not on any occasion not wanted to go to school and I think that is a great tribute to Whitgift and the ‘ethos’ which it has.”

 

However, teaching at Whitgift does sometimes have its downs, says Mr Wilson, “I find there is some bias towards sport, which I don’t find healthy and some boys come in to the school who are not academically or intellectually up to the task. There is a tendency in the school to judge everything as if it were a sporting competition: so, if I put on a school play or if there is some musical activity it’s always “Is this is equivalent to a Daily Mail Cup winning performance?” And of course that analogy will never work because if I put on a production of ‘Hamlet’, we are playing Shakespeare if you like, literally and metaphorically. If the Whitgift Under 15 A’s play Dulwich Under 15 A’s then they are two sets of 14 year olds playing rugby; you can’t compare the two.”

 

When asked, Mr Wilson said he would like to see an equal balance between sport and music, “Whitgift has 1400 pupils, and we have on any Saturday certainly hundreds of boys playing sport. When we put on even a very big musical, we don’t have hundreds of pupils involved. We might have around sixty, which is impressive, but I’d like to see an equal amount of enthusiasm and support.”


So how did Mr Wilson gain this passion for the performing arts? And why did he come into teaching so late? He mentions how he was a singer before: “Well I was lucky enough to go to Jesus College, Oxford to read English. I then worked for Abby Life Insurance Company for a year, which was a disaster! But at least it got me to London, and it gave me the opportunity to start singing part-time at the Royal College of Music. My dear professor there, Mr Frederick Sharp suggested to me that as I was very unhappy with my current working life, I should go to the College full time to study singing, which I then did. So I was very fortunate in that I was able to spend three years at university and three years at Music College on a full grant for all six years. Then following that I had a reasonably successful 20-year career as an opera and concert singer before I retrained as a teacher.”

 

But why would someone give up such a successful and flamboyant career in order to become a teacher in a boy’s independent school? Mr Wilson said it was because he believed his time as an opera singer was coming to an end… “One has to admit when one has done as much as possible in the circumstances one finds one’s self. I was in my early-forties, I’d had a number of very good singing opportunities and they’d gone quite well but they hadn’t led on to anything else. Opera companies were not employing me and I wasn’t even able to get auditions in some cases because I was a known quantity as far as they were concerned. Plus I had just met the love of my life and I wanted to set up a secure environment for our children. So reluctantly I had to leave my singing career behind, and teaching was the obvious course to take.”

 

Whitgift School is a stone’s throw away from Croydon town centre, a bustling town with a not so great reputation. Mr Wilson says that he tries to spend as little time as possible in Croydon, since it contrasts so greatly with a school as grand as Whitgift. “Basically I think Croydon is boring. It has all the shops we can possibly want, but certainly over the weekend I would not go to Croydon through choice; I enjoy Whitgift School and I love the house where I live and if I could just go between the two without venturing into Croydon at all I’d be very happy. However I like Surrey Street and some other aspects of Croydon but in general terms no, Croydon is not my favourite place.”


It is very clear now that Mr Wilson will not spend the rest of his time in Croydon, so when asked what he would like to do after teaching, he responded: “Where we go is yet to be determined. We won’t be moving very far from London, but no we won’t be staying in Croydon. The jury is still out on where we will go, but Croydon, no. Croydon we will leave.”

 

As both a resident of Croydon and teacher at Whitgift, Mr Wilson leads a very varied life and encounters a plethora of different people. But would Whitgift be a different school if it were situated elsewhere? When asked, Mr Wilson says it definitely would be: “Yes that is a very good question. I think yes Whitgift would definitely change if it were moved. One of the qualities of Whitgift is that is has a very diverse student population. We have some boys from very well off backgrounds, but we also have boys whose families get by on very substantial bursaries and scholarships in order to allow their sons to attend the school. The diversity is something I like. There would not be that certain vivacity and edginess to the school if it were situated in Guildford or Cobham or some more ‘comfortable’ places. A number of the boys we teach are quite challenged and challenging, and that’s all to the good I think. I suppose you might say any school is unique and one of a kind. But there is a certain atmosphere about Whitgift and I don’t think it’s accidental that we are known for having a very friendly and inclusive atmosphere which would not be the case for a lot of other schools who might be more forbidding.”

 

To conclude, I asked Mr Wilson what his favourite things about Croydon were. In reply, he said: “Well, Whitgift School.”

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