There aren’t many headteachers brave enough to say they “don’t care about statistics” but Brendan Wignall is one of them.
After 26 years at the helm of Ellesmere College in Shropshire, he claims to have an “an aggressive lack of interest in statistical outcomes for the school”.
It’s a bold statement, but one the head of the largely non-selective school says with confidence.
Focusing on overall numbers of A*s and other figures is “a fundamentally anti-human approach,” he says, “I’m only interested in how our individuals do… all I care about is that they get their best personal results and that affects everything we do.”
He does, of course, hope they all get A*s, but only because this will “make them happy”, he says.
This refreshing philosophy of personal rather than institutional success forms the bedrock of how the school is run and when the school is oversubscribed, pupils who meet the entry criteria are accepted on the basis of application date alone.
“I have an aggressive lack of interest in statistical outcomes.”
Wignall, whose two children were both educated at the school, says: “I have turned down A* candidates for sixth form in favour of people with Cs and Ds because they applied earlier. For me it’s a huge moral principle and it is the reason why I have been here such a long time because I don’t think anywhere else would let me do this.
“The minute I start saying ‘that one’s an A student, that one’s a C student, so I prefer the A student,’ I’ve crossed a line…that’s not how I’d want my own children to be treated.”
Despite this inclusive credo, the headmaster is no stranger to academic excellence, although he is aware of its limitations.
He says: “I don’t want to produce people who are like me. I want them to be better than me. I have five A-levels, two degrees in philosophy but I can tell you putting diesel in a petrol engine is not the greatest idea.
“If you’re going to go travelling I can recommend Emirates because they’re lovely and charming when you try to check in with your son’s passport, but they still send you home.
“I am aware of the limits of the academic because I have suffered from those limits and that informs my perspective.”
“I have five A-levels, two degrees in philosophy but I can tell you putting diesel in a petrol engine is not the greatest idea.”
The school therefore ensures that all students are involved in a wide range of extra-curricular activities especially in sport and the arts, that develop skills and build resilience.
Wignall himself is a huge Liverpool Football Club supporter and attends all the home games with his son.
He reflects on his own education at a very academic state grammar school in Preston, Lancashire, where the focus on academic performance was intense.
For some of his classmates, life had turned out “a bit unsatisfactory after school”, he says, because the school “did that toxic thing of telling them that they were the best.”
“If you only have one measure of success you create a culture of unhappiness in many ways,” he says.
Looking for freedom from this, he left his school at 16 and went on to take five A-levels at an FE college, which he enjoyed far more than school life.
“The lack of expectation was liberating. For me the lack of structure and the freedom to do nothing if I felt like it actually worked well for me,” he says.
An enjoyment of freedom and the desire to make an impact are key traits for independent school heads, and Wignall became the youngest HMC head at 35 at the time he joined Ellesmere in 1996. He is now the HMC’s treasurer.
“People flourish when they feel they have a lot of autonomy and that they can be responsible and own their own decisions.”
He is now believed to be the longest-serving HMC head at a single school.
He believes this consistency has been to the school’s benefit as it can take 8-10 years to create a culture within a school, he says.
His long tenure has given him the confidence to become involved in other projects too and is now chair of the state-funded North West Academies Trust of nine primaries and one secondary.
“It’s definitely got a bit of social mission – we have some schools that we have taken over that are successful but we’ve taken over some really weak schools and deliberately so.
“There was one school where the local authority had thrown up their hands and said ‘what can you do with families like this?’ We turned that school around. It will always have its challenges but you can’t give up on people.
“It’s also just really interesting and that’s the best reason for doing anything really.”
Clearly an independent-minded soul, Wignall speaks highly of the value of independence to free schools and academies in the state system.
“I genuinely assume that people want to do a good job and can be trusted.”
He says: “We’re not going to dictate to a school in Ellesmere the same curriculum as a school in Northwich, as a school in Chester, schools run best when the people running them are running them.
“That’s been great for me to be involved in…as headmaster I would claim to be the world’s best delegator and if you’re really pushing me I might only be in the top five.
“I’m a great believer in giving people authority and power and they flourish. The same is true for schools if they are given proper responsibility and accountability.
“People flourish when they feel they have a lot of autonomy and that they can be responsible and own their own decisions…some academy trusts are almost ‘we must assume that people can’t be trusted then we’ll tell them what to do.’
“I generally assume that people want to do a good job and can be trusted.”