In 2021, Royal Grammar School (RGS) Newcastle was named North East Independent School of the Decade – an accolade that came with quite some celebration.
But to Geoffrey Stanford, who has led the school since 2019, that award underscores an ambition to boost educational aspiration and attainment in the region as a whole.
“Yes, we have to be excellent at what we do with our pupils onsite but we have a responsibility to engage more broadly as well,” says Stanford, who was previously head of Fettes College in Edinburgh.
RGS Newcastle has a dedicated director of partnerships, a member of the SLT, and last year it worked with 7,000 children and 300 teachers across 70 state schools in the region. It also provided 80 fully-funded bursaries within the school.
As well as working directly with gifted and talented pupils, the school is helping to upskill non-specialist teachers in local state schools in subjects such as maths, physics, robotics, engineering and computer science. They also do work in a variety of other areas from sport to Classics.
“We have to be excellent with our pupils onsite but we must engage more broadly as well.”
But Stanford, a former a captain in the Grenadier Guards who worked for Citigroup and Boston Consulting Group before entering education, does not want these efforts to be piecemeal.
The school already has some funding from charitable organisations such as The Reece Foundation and businesses such as British Engines for this work, and he wants to find other sponsors so it can go further and make a real difference.
He says: “For me the issue with partnership work historically in schools is that it has been done with a bit of spare capacity and good will of individual teachers. But actually this is a scalable and sustainable model for making meaningful impact across the region.
“It does rely on there being the funding out there, and there are organisations who have the funding and want to make a difference in their communities and we have the expertise and the links with the schools. It can be a very effective way of engaging with them.”
He says the RGS governors are “absolutely committed” to the school having an impact across partnership work.
“Now we have demonstrated proof of concept we are actively looking to scale that operation up,” says Stanford.
Stanford admires the work that Eton College has done with partnerships, from its sponsorship of Holyport College, a boarding free school in Maidenhead, to plans for three selective sixth form colleges in Oldham, Middlesbrough and Dudley, in partnership with Star Academies.
Stanford says: “I think that’s a really interesting model, it could be in the future that we engage in something similar. Clearly Eton have substantially more funding behind them than we have but there’s a variety of ways of making that work.”
“Now we have demonstrated proof of concept we are looking to scale that operation up.”
He says it’s “not beyond the bounds of possibility” that RGS does something similar “but we have to get all our ducks in a row first,” he says.
While he admits he noticed “a degree of healthy scepticism” in the north about Eton’s plans, Stanford has also been impressed by the sheer range of people – including educational leaders – who support them.
“It is a really good thing that they are trying to do and they have clearly done their analysis of the areas of the country where they feel there’s a gap where they can have impact.”
The only fly in the ointment at the moment is the looming prospect of VAT on fees that may – or may not – accompany a potential Labour government.
“The arguments have been well-rehearsed,” says Stanford, “but I would be sorry if something like that led to families no longer being able to access the education we provide or a diminution of our ability to engage in the bursary and partnership work.”
“Our pupils benefit so much more from a holistic education than just pursuing grades.”
But whatever hurdles are placed in front of independent schools in the coming years, you sense that Stanford is equipped for them. His portfolio career in teaching, banking and the army – and an impressive climb of Everest under his belt – have taught him how to weather a storm and lead from the front.
Wisdom gained through his varied career has of course been useful when working with young people across a string of well-known schools including Millfield, Pangbourne and Sevenoaks, where he was deputy head co-curricular.
“I talk a lot to pupils about creating options that allow you to take opportunities,” says Stanford.
“And I’ve always believed in taking those opportunities when they come along and I’ve been tremendously fortunate in that…It’s about the understanding that our pupils benefit so much more from a holistic education than just pursuing grades…
“I always worry about the pupils who just go through life getting top grades academically and wonder about how will they cope when something goes wrong,” he adds.
“Whatever role you’re in there’s that element of imposter syndrome.”
Stanford has a degree in classics but taught economics during his teaching career, despite a rather boring presentation on the subject he attended when young.
“I was in Year 11 at a school careers day and an old boy came back to school [to talk about it] and I said I’m never doing that…come full circle and most of my career has been teaching economics.”
But does Stanford, who has two sons at RGS, regard himself as a better teacher or leader? “I always think I could be better than I am at both. I think in whatever role you’re in there’s that element of imposter syndrome, isn’t there?”