As a young Durham languages graduate in the 1990s, Michael Windsor spent “three fantastic years” in Italy, where he taught English at the British School in Bologna.
Windsor, who is now headmaster of Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, hopes that the same kind of opportunities will be open to young people today.
In spite of Brexit and ongoing Covid restrictions, he says he remains “optimistic” that the new barriers can be overcome. Windsor, who was a teacher of French, German and Italian at King’s College School Wimbledon for seven years, says: “It used to be just so easy to go and work overseas, I benefited from it…I was able to work…it was pretty seamless.
“I see my own children now who have their own aspirations to live and study abroad and it is that much more difficult. I remain optimistic that we will get through it and we will give our young people the freedom to work in Europe if they want to.”
“There is a real problem if we assume everybody’s going to speak English.”
The new stumbling blocks to travel and international awareness, he says, make it even more important for schools to teach children about what Europe has to offer. But like many, he is dismayed by the general falling-off in GCSE language entries nationally.
He says: “It’s really sad and it’s really important that we promote the advantages of learning languages and the fun of learning languages and the excitement that it can bring.
“The fact that we’ve gone through Brexit makes it even more important. There is a real problem if we assume everybody’s going to speak English and it feeds into this sense of British exceptionalism which doesn’t go down well on the global stage.”
At all-boys Abingdon, students learn French, German, Spanish and Mandarin and Windsor says the school is able to “get good numbers for those subjects.”
“Just reducing languages to a list of words is not the right way to go about it.”
And while there are some students at Abingdon that get “absorbed and obsessed by Mandarin”, he notes that nationally it has not taken over in the way that was expected 10 to 15 years ago.
“Mandarin hasn’t taken off in schools as people thought it might. It’s not felt that this is going to take over or elbow out French. But there are some students at Abingdon that get kind of absorbed and obsessed by Mandarin and I think that they just embrace the difficulty, they’re really interested in the culture of it and that’s really exciting to see.”
Windsor is concerned about the proposed changes to GCSE languages that will mean teachers have to put the focus on students learning a particular number of vocabulary items.
He describes the plans as “really uninspiring”.
“Just reducing languages to a list of words which this does is just not the right way to go about it,” he says. “I think the proposals are just reductionist and just rob even more joy out of the languages curriculum.”
He acknowledges the challenge of making language learning accessible to all, but believes the best route to engagement is through “a focus on the culture of the country.”
“That for me is what it’s all about, it’s about making a connection with the country and the culture, it just risks becoming very transactional and fairly uninspiring.”
“When I came to Abingdon it was in a very strong position already and you just want to capitalise on that.”
Although Abingdon is lucky to have an enthusiastic linguist at the helm, Windsor’s main task since joining in 2016 (after eight years as head of Reading Bluecoat School) has been the challenging task of improving an already high-performing and popular school.
A key area, he says, has been the increased development of its co-curricular life. Windsor himself is a double-bass player with a passion for jazz.
“When I came to Abingdon it was in a very strong position already and you just want to kind of capitalise on that and extend it. I think the real strength of Abingdon is the balance between academic life and what we call ‘the other half’ – the co-curricular life of the school.
“At Abingdon it really is a big part of us as a school. That was a strength and we wanted invest in the quality of our sports coaching and make sure that was a really rich selection of activities.”
He points to projects such as the Abingdon Film Unit which he describes as “the real jewel in the crown”.
Professionals from the film and TV industries come in to support pupils as they work on film projects. “It’s a year-long project and the work at the end of it is absolutely amazing,” he says. Students from other secondaries also come in to benefit from what the unit has to offer.
He has also focused on the quality of teaching and learning.
“We want a real sense of developing the staff at Abingdon – we are able to recruit great teachers but we want to make them better.
“We have a director of teaching and learning and she has a team of five assistants around her who all have timetabled sessions to see what’s going on in the classroom, undertake learning walks and work reviews and really help the staff develop.”
A local partnership project, the OX14 Learning Partnership, brings together three independent schools – Radley, St Helen and St Katherine’s and Abingdon, together with three local maintained secondaries in the area.
He says: “We’ve done particularly a lot of work in science and then we’ve had a big focus on bursaries on making sure that the education at Abingdon is available to as many people as possible…those have been the main areas of development.”
“Boys need to be equipped to work alongside women when they leave school.”
There is also a new strategic plan – which for the first time mentions sustainability – both in terms of teaching children about it and making the school itself environmentally friendly.
A final key area is ensuring the boys are “equipped to work alongside women when they leave school”, says Windsor, whose school – like many others – was named in some of the Everyone’s Invited sexual harassment testimonials.
“I am really aware of our obligation to make sure our students are ready to teach everybody with respect and kindness. Everyone’s Invited was a wake up call, it’s one of those things that did go on but suddenly we were all confronted with it,” he says.
“It’s tempting to put your head in the sand or think ‘that doesn’t sound like the students that I see around the school’ but actually we’ve got to engage with those issues and make sure that we educate our students as best we can.
“I think it’s a problem for society to deal with but men have a particular obligation for thinking about what masculinity means and making sure that respect and kindness are our watchwords.”