Anthony Sheldon: Historian and Wife Shun Academia For School Life

Historians in the News

He's written a string of biographies, with prime ministers Tony Blair, John Major and Winston Churchill among his subjects and Margaret Thatcher next on his agenda. He directs plays with actresses such as Greta Scacchi, appears on television as a political commentator and writes profusely in the media.

Anthony Seldon, the master-elect of Britain's infamous Wellington College, is more than a principal. He is a personality who has no qualms about his high profile - he believes his outside interests, and those of the staff he likes to recruit, provide inspiration to the young people in their charge.

His students at Brighton College, the school he has led for eight years, have had the chance to join audiences in current affairs TV shows while a team of former students help him research his books.

"I encourage all our teachers to have outside interests. It is terribly important," he said, adding that he had appointed a former England international women's cricket player to be Wellington's deputy headmistress. "There is no doubt my writing and the profile it has given has helped Brighton College, and brought top people into the college," he said recently in Hong Kong.

Dr Sheldon, co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary British History, is unusual for such a prolific historian, shunning academia for school life. He met his wife Joanna at Oxford University - both were involved in the theatre there, as director and actress. Despite going on to do research, they decided they were not satisfied with academic life and instead wanted to work with adolescents. And in school, they could be involved in everything, from drama to sport.

"It has got to be an incredible privilege to be given the responsibility to lead young people: to inspire people to be extraordinary, not just ordinary. You have got to know children. To me that is what being a head is about," he said.

As such, teaching is part of the job and Dr Seldon's current subjects are philosophy, religion and history. He claims to not understand philosophy, even though he studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford in the 1970s, and challenged his students to beat him in this year's AS-level exam. They did - he got a low B. Dr Seldon, 52, is leaving Brighton to take on the challenge of "reengineering" Wellington for the 21st century. The latter has, in recent years, been no stranger to publicity - much of it negative. It has been rocked by various sex, bullying and drug-related scandals and sliding academic performance. The worst was in 2003 when a boy filmed himself in flagrante with his unsuspecting girlfriend.

Even before he takes over as head in January, Dr Seldon has thrown himself into reforms aimed at restoring it to its former greatness. He is not shying away from radical change which he insists is in the spirit of the pioneering founders. The all-boys Wellington, granted its Royal Charter in 1853 as a national memorial to the Duke of Wellington, faces a revolution by admitting girls in all years from next September and dropping British A-levels in favour of the International Baccalaureate soon after.

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