An Interview With The Headmaster

We walked into the study of Dr Peterken, freshley painted in a warm oatmeal that seemed to represent his personality well: straight forward and rational. He sat down on his purple armchair in a relaxed open manner and keenly invited us to ‘interrogate him’.

What makes you think going Co-educational is the right move for Charterhouse and why do you think this is the right time for this move for the school?

Co-education for me is fantastic in every way – look at you two sitting next to one another boy, girl, peers, equals, both with a professional outlook, both respecting each others’ views. Why can’t we have this dynamic throughout the school? Of course we should! For me it’s about evolving the school to the full modern education we should offer people. When you leave Charterhouse you go into a co-educational world where men and women work, socialise and learn alongside each other. We want to create an equal environment, a sustaining environment and a mutually respectful environment amongst boys and girls – which is what you need in life to succeed. It will benefit the girls especially as they will have their own houses, house colours, house identities and develop a relationship with house staff. I understand that it may be seen as a big, bold move for Charterhouse to go co-ed but remember almost every public school has done this, it is logical and I genuinely believe it will make us a really exciting school.

How would you respond to someone saying the school traditions will be lost with the introduction of girls?

This is a great school, we have great people, we should be proud of who we are. We are still Charterhouse, we are still going to have the Carthusian spirit, we are still going to have our campus that defines us, we should not hang on to tradition for the sake of it – especially if it involves hierarchy or people being unhappy. I prefer heritage not tradition as a concept. We should always be cognisant of our heritage. We are an ancient school founded in 1611, we have hundreds of years of history in both London and Godalming and we should never forget that. I am extremely lucky to be the custodian of this heritage but I will soon pass that on in due course. When Charterhouse was founded by Thomas Sutton the entire concept of the school was innovative, it was an exciting piece of initiative by an individual to set up a school for 44 scholars. We look different now, but its about evolving for the better. I think there’s nothing to fear.

What are your more short term plans for the school?

Pupil Leadership for me is one of the most significant plans I have for the school. We have got to have more involvement with students in making the school a better place, for example more student committees. I expect students to be involved in concerns about food, the way we educate younger pupils on social media, technology, alcohol, safe night out, relationships between genders and revision. This is because it is more effective from a sixth form pupil for example who may have had a difficult experience with social media that got out of control and can share their knowledge and understanding from this experience than me, with very little experience with social media, telling the younger pupils what they should do. We have such talent, such able 17-18 year olds, let’s tack that potential. It’s good experience for pupils to learn how to run and organise activities. Change is not easy, it’s good experience for students to take initiative and make a difference.

Why do you think student participation was less prevalent before you came?

You have to be a confident school to take on many people’s views. I am an open person, if you said, “I want smoke salmon and fillet steak for lunch on Wednesdays.”  I’d say, “So would I, but it’s going to cost us a lot of money, so let’s be sensible.” I think it will create a positive culture, with a less ‘them and us’ relationship between pupils and teachers. We can all be on the same side.

How do you plan to tackle the issues that many pupils have with the standard and quality of school food?

For food to work in a school you have to have a good system of feedback. It will then get listened to – the food monitors and surveys have to work. We haven’t got that right yet but there is no lack of will to get this right. The members of the catering staff don’t want pupils to dislike the food. The main problem is improving communication; it is not because of staff or money it is because of a failure in communication between what the students want and those who can make this happen, within reason. Personally the food I’ve eaten is really good however. For me in terms of improving the food, it’s not rocket science you can change a menu in a week.

What are your plans for open dining in the approaching years?

I went to an open dining evening last term and a lot of work had gone into it with some excellent food on offer. However, logistically open dining does not create a good atmosphere currently especially with the set up of the CDR. However, you can’t have co-education and girls eating with girls and boys eating with boys. For this reason in summer 2019 the CDR is going to be worked on substantially making a dining room with a staggered timetable where all houses will eat. This will change so much within the school. Socialising happens mainly around meal times so this will increase a relationship between girls and boys. Furthermore, we have plans to develop a central school cafe and the develop Crown as a specialist common room and cafe.

Where do you think the school is particularly strong?

I could list many however I believe that our four main strengths as a school are as follows. We have an inspiring campus – if your not inspired, something’s not right, we are a boarding school and therefore have a strong community, we have a brilliant all-round education; the opportunities offered to pupils are second to none and we have extremely academically able pupils and staff.

What would you say are Charterhouse’s weaknesses?

I wouldn’t call them weaknesses however we need more balance between academic excellence and encouraging development of the whole person.

Why did you choose to leave Cheltenham?

I felt I had taken the school as far as I could. I love Charterhouse, I worked here for 12 years, I want to see the school succeed. I enjoyed working with and teaching Carthusians and I wanted to work with them again. I like a challenge and this is a challenge I am extremely excited about.

What are your reasons for the mobile phone policy?

Pro-active education and the downside of being attracted to your mobile advice. At my previous school we did a mood study between pupils who did and didn’t have their phones for a while and they took mood surveys and the results were clear. People with their phones were more anxious and their moods were deteriorating. When we announced the rules about taking the phones in overnight we had about 60 e-mails from parents within 24 hours that said “Thank goodness for that!” When you’re running a school making any change and getting sixty emails from supportive parents is unheard of! If you have a wonderful device that releases dopamine from the brain you’re going to want to use it, and we have to help our young people one step at a time. We need to take this further across the school. We need to educate people about the addictive nature of social media, are you in control of your phone or is your phone in control of you? It’s a problem everywhere and we need to take a gradual approach; many prep schools do not allow mobiles and then they go straight off into senior school with hardly any mobile phone regulation and guidance, I think this is too much.

People feel there have often been a lot of inconsistencies in school punishments, how would you respond to this?

I cannot comment on the past however, for me consistency, proportionality, and constructive sanction are extremely important. We are going to be looking at housemasters’ consistency across houses and among certain teachers. In terms of rewards we need to not only recognise extremely bright Second Year Specialists but also to reward other people in other year groups with awards such as progress prizes for people who put a large amount of effort in improving in a subject.

Calling over is subjective, how would you tackle this?

Calling over does not make a logical sense and this needs to be improved so I have set Mr Allen up with a pupil group to comment on this.

There’s a lot of house identity but not as much identity as a school how would you tackle this?

I think it’s already changing, there’s more positivity in the school in general. Chapel has become more positive, people sing better and are more proud to be Carthusians. House identity will always be essential house and school identity do not go against one another, school pride matters as much as house pride.

What do you believe makes a Carthusian in one sentence?

“I think the most important thing is the willingness to participate. Whether you love sport, art, drama, physics I’m not fussed. However, there are those that are the most academic who go off the fantastic universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and Harvard but are not nice people; if you can’t contribute to the community by doing good for others I do not believe you will ever be a fulfilled Carthusian. What have you done in your time at this school to make other people’s lives better?”  is a great question to ask.