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News > Staff News > Mike Higham's Reflections on 20 Years as Headmaster

Mike Higham's Reflections on 20 Years as Headmaster

In conversation with Headmaster Mike Higham (1994-2014), credited with turning Moulsford around and taking it on a new path.
7 Jul 2022
Staff News

It was a privilege to be asked to put down some memories of my time at Moulsford and give some indication of what I have been doing since. It has proved quite a challenging task!

I remember the day well, December 7th 1993, when a letter arrived in the post telling me my life and that of my family was going to change in a way that I couldn’t begin to imagine. It didn’t actually say that, but that would be the outcome! The letter was from General Sir Anthony Farrah Hockley, the most decorated man in the British Army and also the Chairman of Governors at Moulsford, and informed me I would become the next Headmaster. No contracts in those days, rather a firm handshake and, as the General said, a handshake was worth more than any appointment letter and one didn’t argue with him! 20 years later I was playing golf with the then Chairman Bill Lazarus and I suspect he knew what was coming. As we completed our round (not sure who won) we shook hands, and I informed Bill that I had decided that the time was right for me to retire.

Taking on the challenge

What happened in my 20 years of headship? To precis it without writing a book with umpteen chapters is impossible and what would be the titles of the chapters? Fondest memories, how did it evolve during my time, most rewarding moments, pupils, staff, parents, governors would certainly be some. I’m sure all new heads would agree, nothing truly prepares for the challenge of headship but it is, without doubt, one of the greatest and most rewarding jobs there is. To have responsibility for the future of young minds, the welfare and development of staff, the responsibility to parents and accountability to governors is a privilege second to none.  

Moulsford in 2014 looked massively different from Moulsford in 1994. 20 years in one school is quite a time to have been a Head but Moulsford changed so much in that time and I always felt the motivation to do more.

Proudest and most rewarding moments

Something exciting happened almost every day and how does one rank them - impossible. How does one compare telling a boy he has won a scholarship, announcing every year the CE successes, seeing one of your pupils perform on the West End stage or at the Royal Ballet, being present when a team has won a sporting tournament, presenting prizes to Pre-Prep children, following Old Boys as they win at Henley Regatta, play sport at Lords or Twickenham, or seeing staff go on to headships and other senior appointments? I was lucky to witness all of those things. They are all of equal importance to each individual at the time but, to the Headmaster, moments to be proud of and cherish.

In what ways do you think the school evolved during your time?

Times of course change and Moulsford certainly did during those 20 years. As Anthony Clements and Steve Dismorr said in an article for the Moulsford magazine in 2014 after my retirement, Moulsford was floundering and on the verge of sinking in 1994. Pupil numbers were just 160, and its reputation for a variety of reasons was rock bottom. Had I been quite so aware of the circumstances, I’m not sure I would have accepted the post but how could one not be excited about the setting, arguably the best in the country, and the obvious potential the school had. Gradually numbers picked up and a variety of improvements began to take shape. One early decision was to establish a Pre-Prep from Reception to Year 2 and that laid the foundation for a more secure entry to Year 3.  

Money was incredibly tight and any investment in improved facilities was almost out of the question. What to do? Two events stick in my mind. We needed to be seen to do something! The concrete cricket nets by the river were not fit for purpose. If we could improve those, every visitor would see what we were doing. A group of parents, one who owned a building company, a local GP and Tom Wigley with his JCB volunteered to dig and relay them just for the price of the concrete. It was a bit like Dad’s Army as we shoveled and raked with little expertise, but we did it and learned some new skills! The second important step involved computers, as we had just a few ancient BBC machines. Anthony Clements and I met an ex-pupil, who was working for a computer company, to seek help. After careful negotiations over a few pints at the local pub, we secured a dozen machines and so started our investment in modern technology! 

By 1998 confidence restored, I floated the idea of a rugby tour to South Africa. Needless to say, it wasn’t met with universal support, but it made a statement of the ambition of the school. Again, with the wonderful backing of a small group of parents the tour came to fruition with 17 Moulsford boys and one guest from another school (we didn’t have enough players!), we set off in the summer of 1999 with three members of staff including Andy Southgate, who had joined the staff straight from university the previous September. Little did we know then that it would become a tradition with the school embarking on its 11th Tour next year.

With the school over 200 in the late 1990s, it was right to have four Houses rather than two to give more boys the opportunity to feel an even more important part of a community. Keeping the explorer's theme of the existing Amundsen and Bering Houses, Cabot and Drake were chosen and it was very convenient that the initials were A, B, C and D!

A new music teaching room and practice rooms were built which was really the first major development the Governors allowed. It was great to hear musicians practicing in every nook and cranny in the school, but they desperately needed dedicated facilities and Trevor Bissell has certainly made the very best use of them with the outstanding music the boys produce year on year.

If there was one thing that had a major impact on every aspect of the school, it was the acquisition of a further 15 acres of land in 2004 and the development of the land into playing fields which now run down to the railway bridge. I remember standing with John Wilder after the land had been destoned and seeded and we both wondered if the grass would ever germinate and would the boys ever be able to play sport on it. We needn’t have worried! It released so much extra space which allowed the school to expand and improve facilities in a fairly short space of time. With the Sports Hall built, it allowed the development of the old gym into a state-of-the-art Theatre. Some extra funds were needed for this venture and the Sports Hall was the venue of an extraordinary fundraising event titled ‘Moulsford meets Broadway’. With current and former Moulsford musicians entertaining a packed audience of 350, joined by Liz Robertson a major West End star, Sir Tim Rice as the guest speaker and Sir Christopher Biggins as our auctioneer it was another statement of Moulsford’s ambitions. An Astroturf, swimming pool, new Art, ICT, Science and DT facilities soon followed. Scholarships and CE success were nearly taken for granted and without doubt, the school had become the envy of many in the Prep School world. 

Above are the bare bones of how the school evolved in those 20 years but really only scratches the surface, one thing didn’t change and that was the traditions and quality that Moulsford has always stood for. The school more than doubled in size and gave the Bursar sleepless nights on how all the cars could get in and out smoothly, a challenge I suspect is even greater now! We embraced technology, we were ambitious, we worked hard and hopefully had plenty of fun on the journey.

What were the secrets of your success and long tenure at Moulsford?

There aren’t really any secrets, but one thing is of paramount importance and that is having an outstanding staff. All pupils are inspired and influenced by great teaching. From the teachers to the backroom staff, I was lucky somehow to create a phenomenal group of people who delivered on every front. They had the drive to deliver an outstanding education both in and outside the classroom. They were ambitious and embraced new ideas with a vigor that nearly matched their ability to party! So if there was one secret, but it shouldn’t be a secret, great staff is key.

Are there any aspects that you miss about being at school?

When you spend your day talking to literally hundreds of people either in assembly, teaching, chatting to the kitchen, maintenance and teaching staff you miss those interactions immensely. Watching the boys perform whether on the stage, on the sports field or in the classroom all of which gave me so many wonderful memories and good times. I talked about parties and we always enjoyed a good one at Christmas and as they say about various tours, what goes on tour stays on tour so I would say the same about our staff parties!

What was it like meeting former pupils at the recent Old Moles reunion?

One thing that has always impressed me is the camaraderie that all the boys have for each other long after they have left their Prep School. It was one of the main reasons many years ago I asked Kate Johnstone, after she retired, to start up the ‘Old Moles’. The response then was phenomenal and to meet up with some of those Old Moles in London a few weeks ago was a real pleasure. Their affection for Moulsford was in abundance and so many stories and reflections of their time at the school. There is always a feeling of immense pride when you hear how their lives have moved on in such a successful and varied way. In 2012 the school celebrated a Golden Jubilee with a large number of Old Boys and I’m sure that the 60th in September will be a memorable occasion and I certainly look forward to meeting many more of them then.

What have you been doing since retirement?

Not quite knowing what retirement brings, as one has no experience to fall back on, so it has been interesting. Having lived in school accommodation for the best part of 25 years, though Joanna and I always owned our own property, we bought a bungalow in West Sussex and spent the first year rebuilding it, adding a second story, and completely refurbishing it. A new extension has been added in the last 12 months as we have been blessed with two grandchildren, though it is an expensive way to provide them with more floor space for their Lego! We have been lucky enough to have some wonderful holidays including a memorable trip to South Africa. Joanna never did join our rugby tours, but I promised her that once retired we would go so she could see first-hand what I had experienced since the first one in 1999. Six weeks following the scenic Garden Route without 40 odd children was a whole new experience! We have also been to Australia to meet up with ex-colleagues who I taught within the 1980s and extended our stay to include New Zealand where we were lucky enough to stay with Richard Kirk an ex-Moulsford colleague.

I have kept involved in education to a degree. I appraise Headmasters and am now Chairman of Governors at Dorset House Prep School. Matt Thomas, who was one of the Deputy Heads at Moulsford is now the Headmaster so hopefully, we make a good team! Golf and gardening feature regularly but to describe my life as busy would be ridiculous compared to what I used to do. Mind you, with our two grandchildren, life is starting to hot up again!  We love entertaining so are always open for visitors whatever their connection with Moulsford.  

Any final thoughts looking back on your Moulsford years?

That letter from the General was responsible for so much of my life and my family's too. We wouldn’t have changed a thing. All three of my daughters are in the teaching profession after cutting their teeth as Gap Year students in the Pre-Prep. Lizzie, head of PE at Downe House, Becca the Academic Deputy Head at The Pilgrims School in Winchester and Pippa a Year 4 teacher and Head of Pastoral Care at Twyford. Joanna continues to be busy, particularly on the sewing machine, as requests for costumes for plays at Twyford and The Pilgrims are a regular occurrence!

Memories fill my study here at Thakeham with the school photograph of 1994 and 2014 on one wall and the school and river on another. Magazines from all years on the bookshelf to remind me of all the people it was a privilege to meet on the 20-year journey. Hopefully, I will see many in September for the 60th reunion.

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