An interview with Mr Henry Knight
Our new headmaster has now been here almost a year so the Eagle’s Eye (EE) asked the current pupils for a list of questions that they would like to ask him. Some of them were clever and interesting, some were journalistic and investigative, some were downright devious others were wildly inappropriate. All of the questions were asked, (some of) the answers are below. Questions with asterisks are those sent in by the children.
EE: What did you want to be when you grew up?
HK: Initially I wanted to be an army officer.
EE: Were you in the army??
HK: Nearly! I passed my RCB exams, I had a place at Sandhurst, then went to University and decided that the army wasn’t for me after all. That was when I decided I wanted to teach, but I then fell into the wine trade first, sort of by accident. My mother was a teacher, and I realised at University I wanted to teach, and I wanted to teach Prep School aged children. When I graduated I went back to my old prep school and asked for a job, but they didn’t have anything so I went to Fortnum and Mason and took a job there in the wine department just for the Christmas period. They offered me a full time job in January and as I had nothing else to do, I took it. They paid for me to do my wine exams, and I ended up staying with them for a year, which was an extraordinary experience! I then moved on to work with Berry Bros, starting off in their warehouse in Basingstoke, and then in the shop in St James’ street for a couple of years. At that time they set up their corporate hospitality business, in the cellars in St James’. That ticked all the boxes for me, because not only was it about a subject that I had begun to acquire a fairly good knowledge, but it was the teaching aspect that I really loved. Standing up in the evening in front of about forty guests, talking to them about the history of Berry Bros, about the wines they had chosen for their tasting and for their dinner, was really what I wanted. I then went onto another company and worked as a salesman and hated it; I missed the teaching. From there, there was a very quick move from sales into teaching, which took about 8 days. At the suggestion of a friend I looked online at TES, and there was a job for a junior English teacher at Woodcote House – a school that I knew from playing against at matches when I was a boy. I wrote that evening to the headmaster, who I’d met a couple of times on the racecourse and he wrote back and invited me to come and visit on the Saturday, and they offered me the job the following Wednesday.
EE: *What was the naughtiest thing you did at school, and did you get caught?
HK: Um…(at Marlborough) I got caught, every time I lit a cigarette. I think I got busted 9 times in my first year for smoking. It got to the point that my housemaster was so beside himself that he couldn’t think of anything to do, so he gave me a pack of cigarettes and said ‘I want you to go up to my bathroom, and smoke the entire packet with the windows shut.’ So I did. I came out afterwards able to blow the most perfect smoke rings. I don’t think anything much more naughty than that, I guess I was a sort of scallywag I suppose, but I didn’t get up to too much trouble. I was just saying to my sisters at the weekend, that Lower Sixth was the best year of my life. I shared a study with one other boy – this was 1989. We didn’t have much work to do - there were no A/S exams then - and the housemaster never came anywhere near us. My friend climbed out of the window and went to Glastonbury for three days (I was too scared to go) – when he came back, no body had missed him. No one. The housemaster didn’t know he was gone, none of the teachers. School was very different then!
EE: What would your peers at school think if they knew you were a headmaster now?
HK: I think they would be horrified. But not has horrified as the teachers. I went to a conference at Marlborough, wearing a badge saying ‘Henry Knight, Headmaster, Woodcote House School’ and people who had taught me came up to me one after the other and said, ‘Please say you’re not here in a professional capacity.’ Then they looked at the badge and said, ‘Oh God…’ and we’d have that whole poacher-turned-gamekeeper chat.
EE: How do you feel about being at a co-ed school, having come from Woodcote House which is boys only?
HK: I’ve spent the last 13 years propounding the benefits of single sex education at prep school, to then, within two months, having to talk to parents about the benefits of a co-educational one. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think I got this from Emily (my older daughter) who would come back from her prep school, which was co-ed, and we’d ask her about her day, week and there would be no information about the boys at all. No interest. It was almost as if they didn’t exist. Equally, I remember taking the [Woodcote] boys over to St Mary’s Ascot for dances etc and it was teeth jarringly awkward. Just awful.
One of the most obvious differences between Woodcote and Belhaven is that there is a much softer atmosphere in a co-ed school.
EE: Do you mean less competitive?
HK: I mean less boisterous. Coming from a boys only school, which is quite ‘high velocity’ and there’s a lot of rough and tumble, and I’m not saying the girls are softer because they can be equally loud, and equally boisterous, often they’re worse, but having both sexes together, each acts as a moderator to the other. I’ve noticed in the time I’ve been here, in the past few months, watching the children grow up with an ease, together. There is a much more moderate, gentler atmosphere, and having experienced it, I’d never go back to a single sex school. It’s interesting, if you go to places like Rock in Cornwall, or Aldeburgh or any of the public school holiday hangouts, you can tell by watching the young, which ones had been to co educational boarding schools and which hadn’t just by observing the groups' behaviour.
EE: Do you think that having both sexes together has more ability to create a family atmosphere, or do you think that has to do with the parents’ attitude to the school and staff?
HK: That’s an interesting one. Woodcote’s family atmosphere was sold on the fact that it was family owned, and family run, but I always said it was not about family, but that it was ‘familiar’. I think that ‘familiar’ attitude doesn’t come from being just boys, or girls, or even the parent body, it becomes familiar due to its size. For me that is what was absolutely key on leaving Woodcote and looking for another school. There were four very simple criteria for me:
It needed to be predominantly boarding
It needed to be co educational
It needed not to be proprietorial, i.e. I wanted somewhere with a board of governors.
And it needed to be small.
EE: Well there aren’t many left! You were lucky to find one with a vacant headship.
HK: When Belhaven came up it was a no-brainer. This is the school we were looking for.
EE: Even though it was miles away from home for you both?
HK: It really couldn’t matter less. Geographical location was simply not important. When you work in a boarding school, it becomes home, and the surrounding area is less relevant. You don’t get out much! If we’re not at school, we’re at our house in Cornwall, and that’s home in the holidays. And as we have a house in Cornwall, the lure of being by the sea was very strong, and Belhaven, in the situation where it is, ticks every box possible. However, having taken Susi to the West Coast of Scotland by mistake once, and we sat in the rain, being eaten alive by midges for two weeks, she vowed never to go to Scotland again. So when the job came up, and we came to look, I wondered how Susi was going to react, but actually there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. And now that we’ve been here nearly a year, we sometimes talk about it and neither of us miss the south. It’s infinitely more beautiful and infinitely more peaceful than the Home Counties and we wouldn’t go back.
EE: *What do you do at the weekends when we’re not here?
HK: Lots of walking, lots of eating and lots of sleeping. Golf if there’s time. Racing at Kelso.
EE: *What makes you cross?
HK: That’s a really good question. Um…traffic. Bad manners, in the children, that makes me cross.
HK: (laughing) Double standards, rather than parents, I think that would be fair.
EE: * Is it true that you’d like to star in a pantomime?
HK: I’ve been in a panto, several actually! Not public ones, but at schools. Staff pantomimes.
EE: Might there be a Belhaven staff pantomime?
HK: Oh yes, I’d love to start that. One of the things we did at Woodcote was a staff pantomime, or musical or karaoke or something, at the end of the Christmas term. We’d meet at 5pm, the children would go into supper at six, and we’d put a performance on at 7.
EE: …and it lasted, what, half an hour?
HK: Oh no, it went on for about two and a half. We’d ask the staff to prepare sketches, and then put it all together. It was chaotic, and full of fun and the children absolutely loved it. In my final year we put on a ‘Murder Mystery’. We bought one of those kits, and sat on stage, eating and drinking as you would at a dinner party, with our lines and then the children had to work out who the murderer was. They loved it, and we did too, lots of drink and plenty to eat, it was tremendous! It’s important for the children to see the staff letting their hair down, and see that we’re all human beings.
One of the best moments, was when I was asked at Woodcote to join the senior management team. They approached me and said we’d like you to join, but we’ve got a director of Music, a director of Sport, and a director of Studies, but we’re not sure what we’re going to call you. Anyway I turned up at the first meeting and they said ‘We’ve made a title for you, you’re going to be Head of Fun.’ Absolutely perfect! I was delighted! The thing is, it doesn’t matter what you teach, just make sure it’s fun. You can’t teach unhappy children. Equally, if I wake up and find I don’t want to go into the study, then I know I’m in the wrong job.
EE: *What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?
HK: The year before I became headmaster at Woodcote, we put on a school play. A whole school play, cast of thousands, it was Animal Farm and I was cast as the Drunken Farmer. We decided to perform it outside, which was fine on the Saturday, but on Sunday it started to rain. As we were so close to Sandhurst and we had a lot of army parents, we borrowed a huge canvas, which we put up with various poles etc, but of course as it continued to rain, it began to collect water, and then inevitably leaked, and people got covered in gallons of water. Eventually the director cancelled it and suggested we perform it again on the following Tuesday. I mentioned that Tuesday, being my day off, I was due to go to a lunch at the Fishmongers’ Guild, and that I wouldn’t be back until 6.30 and I almost certainly wouldn’t be sober, or much use to them. The director said ‘That won’t matter, you’re playing a drunken farmer, it’ll be fine.’ So true to my word, I arrived back steaming, staggered through the whole thing, and parents came up to me and said ‘You were brilliant, you played a drunk so well!’
EE: I can hear everyone lining up for lunch in the hall, so I’m going to race through the rest of the questions;
*‘Can we have a day of misrule?’
HK: Well, we can have a day where someone else is the headmaster…!
EE Are you serious?
H:K Yes, why not!
EE: *‘What would you do if you found that someone had been keeping a mouse in their pocket but lost it in the classroom?’ I think this is one that comes from actual experience.
HK: Err..help them find it!
EE *‘Would you sponsor a horse in the Girls House Grand National when we find the keys to the window locks?’ (Girls have to jump out of the window run around the astro and get back in without being caught)
HK: Of course. Definitely.
EE *‘Have you always had ginger hair?’
HK: I didn’t know I had ginger hair until I grew a beard!
EE: *‘Who was your crush when you were younger?’
HK: Tatum O’Neal. International Velvet.
EE: That’s showing your age …
*‘How many girlfriends have you had?’ You don’t have to answer that. Next question, *‘What’s your favourite type of cake?’
HK: Viccy Sponge
EE: *‘What’s your most romantic moment EVER??’ It’s written here in block capitals. You don’t have to answer that! *‘What’s your favourite sweet?’
HK: Fox’s Glacier Mint or Double Decker
EE: *‘What colour are your pants?’ Don’t answer that! *‘Have you ever worn a dress?’ You don’t have to answer that either.
HK: Have I ever worn a dress? No I don’t think I have.
EE: *‘What’s the silliest thing you’ve ever done drunk?’ I think you’ve already answered that. *‘What’s your most embarrassing habit?’ – you DO have to answer that one.
HK: (long pause, heavy sigh)
EE: Ok, we’ll come back to that. *‘Who’s your favourite Disney character?’
EE: *‘If you were playing Hide and Seek in the school grounds, where would you hide?’ Maybe it’s better not to say!
HK: In the grounds…I would hide in the….(long thoughtful pause)..Oh! I’d hide in the Quail pen.
EE: Can you get in there?
HK: Oh yes, you can stand in it. It’s a palace.
EE: *‘If you’d been a girl, what would your name be?’
EE: *‘If you were an animal, what animal would you want to be, and what animal would you actually be judging by your personality?’ That’s a Form 2 question.
HK: Oh good question, I like that! I think I would probably be a dog.
EE: What sort of dog?
HK: Oh, a biddable, trainable dog.
EE: Really?! After all you’ve confessed?
HK: I might have been a Weimeraner when I was younger, or a nutty Red Setter. Just put Red Setter.
EE: *‘Do you like Banana Custard?’ I should warn you that’s a heavily loaded question.
HK: I haven’t eaten Banana Custard since I was a boy.
EE: Good answer. *‘In any competition, what would you always win at?’
EE: You answered that far too quickly. Those last few were Form two questions, the following are from the Form Ones. *‘Can you name three ‘You Tubers?’
EE: *‘How old were you when you had your first kiss?’ You don’t have to answer that. *‘How many Kardashians can you name without help, if so who?’
EE: Pleased to hear it. *’What is your favourite combination of food?’
HK: Digestives with Cheddar.
EE: That’s it! Thankyou very much.
HK: I’m still trying to think of my most embarrassing habit. If I think of one, I’ll send you an email.
Later, by email, he confessed that his children are mortified by his eating spaghetti with a spoon …
EE left Mr Knight to get ready to take the 2nd XI to play against Fettes, after walking his trusty (well-behaved and biddable) Labrador, Nellie, along the beach. Not only has Belhaven got a new Headmaster with his family of three children and a dog, but the animal population has significantly expanded since the start of the year. At the last count there were nine dogs on campus, a number of quail in the walled garden, and a pen full of runner ducks near the Cricket nets by the Girls' House. More to come too, we’re told!