Meet the head of Ashford School

Mike Buchanan, Ashford School

Mike Buchanan, Ashford School - Credit: Archant

The physicist Mike Buchanan, head of Ashford School, on an Australian upbringing, sport, inspirational music and Adventurous Learning

Ashford School

Ashford School - Credit: Archant

Tell us a bit about you

The youngest of six children, I was born in Brisbane and moved from there to Sydney, Melbourne, back to Sydney and then to Madrid at the age of 14 as a result of my father’s work.

This was just as General Franco died, so it was a fascinating time. There were no schools deemed suitable for my brother and me in Madrid (all other siblings stayed in Australia) so we were sent to board at Downside School in Somerset. It was disastrous for my brother as he arrived months before O-levels and not much better for me.

Despite achieving academic mediocrity, it was a superb, liberal education which cemented in me a desire to work for the benefit of others. The values of service, humility and hospitality stick with me forever and underline for me the permanence of a great education.

After a physics degree and teacher training, I taught at the Royal Grammar School, Guildford and Highgate School in London. In 2005 we moved to Kent and we now live on a beautiful farm not far from Pluckley.

Tell us about Ashford School

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In 2005, Ashford School was a very different place from the thriving, popular school for boys and girls it is now. Back then, it was a failing school with poor facilities and falling numbers. My job, alongside others, was to revive it.

Since 2005, the school has doubled in size to just over 1,000. Its academic performance routinely puts it within the top UK schools, even given our broad academic intake, with 20 per cent of A-level students going on to a World Top 10 university and 40 per cent to a UK Top 10.

Our students outperform their grammar school peers by some way, as do most of those who might not have got into a grammar. We were Independent School of the Year in 2010/11 and have reached the final three times since.

It is a National Teaching School (one of only four in the country from the independent sector) and now boosts fantastic facilities including our extensive new playing fields, Astroturf and sports hall.

In my view, good schools concentrate on only two things: maximising the achievements of their pupils and developing them as people. They do this through fantastic teaching and by giving the pupils as many opportunities as possible. That’s encapsulated in our strapline, Adventurous Learning.

If you hadn’t become a teacher, what would you have done?

I recently surveyed more than 100 people to ask them to describe work. Sixteen per cent said they had a job, 44 per cent said they had a career and 40 per cent said they had a calling. I’m firmly in the calling category. My calling is to enable others to thrive and I get a huge buzz from it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Your favourite lessons as a child?

What is the case now, and was for me as a child, is that inspirational teaching is the key factor in favourite lessons. By this I mean teaching which is delivered by experts and is really stretching; not easy and not always fun but challenging. So, for me, history, Spanish and maths stand out, together with rugby.

Any music that has changed your life?

A piece of music opened my eyes to the creative and spiritual world out there. Faure’s Requiem performed in the cathedral-like setting of Downside Abbey, remains the most beautiful and uplifting work for me still. As a 16-year-old boy searching for meaning it provided the light I needed. Go and listen to In Paradisum now!

How do you relax?

With a cup of the finest black coffee I can get, reading in a hammock in the dappled sunlight produced by a maple tree in our peaceful, silent, remote garden. I am constantly teased by my family about the books I read, mostly to do with education, psychology and biographies. Do let me know your recommendations @Ashfordhead

What makes you most proud of the school?

I take huge pride in the people I work with and the impact they have on students. There are nearly 400 employees at the school of whom fewer than 100 are teachers. Every one of them is a star in my eyes.

If you could be Prime Minister for a day?

There is a tendency to value what we can measure rather than measure what we value. At present, academic achievement is valued above all else. I’d set academic achievement alongside the development of the person as essential in our quest to produce a society that works for everyone. There is plenty of evidence from across the world that doing so brings significant benefits.

Quick-fire questions:

Maths or English?

Mastery of both is essential.

School dinners or packed lunches?

Definitely school food as it’s superb. You are invited to come to Ashford School to try it out.

Newsletter or Twitter?

Twitter is a great source of information, opinion and comedy. It’s also a highly effective way of making direct contact with people across the world.

Get in touch

Ashford School, East Hill, Ashford TN24 8PB. 01233 625171.

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