The Master of Dulwich College tells Absolutely Education that his school’s 400th anniversary celebrations this year are not just about past glories. He has his sights set on new horizons

In 2009, when Dr Joe Spence arrived at Dulwich College as the prospective new head, he spotted an opportunity. “I saw we were 10 years from a milestone anniversary,” he now says. As part of his pitch to the governors he said, “I’m here for the long game, I’m sticking around.’ I promised I would have a clearly defined message as to what a Dulwich College education is by 2019.”

“And so what you will see this year is the work of a decade which we are now harvesting,” he says. Spence is referring to Dulwich College’s impressive 400th Anniversary Programme, a blistering roll call of events throughout 2019 that involves and includes past and present pupils and staff, international pupils and the wider community. Highlights include the Dulwich Olympiad in March, the Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral in June,    and the unveiling of two newly commissioned artworks, Gerard Stamp’s Dulwich College – which will sit alongside Camille Pissarro’s 1871 painting of the school and Helen Whittaker’s commemorative stained glass window which will be installed in the Lower Hall.                            

While the huge array of events on offer has clearly been the work of the whole school community, Spence has been the engine behind it. “It has been very personal,” he admits. “This is what I promised on arrival.”

But he is at pains to point out that the school’s 400th birthday will not just be about looking back over past glories.

‘What I want from this very special year is that balance of celebrating the best moments from our history but also looking forward, not missing the chance to think about where we go next – for me it’s about what the 2020s are going to look like.”

This year will be the work of a decade which we are now harvesting

The event that Spence thinks most symbolises this coming together of the past and present is Old Alleynians day in Founders Week (June).

‘It might not be the most ‘Wow’ day, but it’s right at the heart of the year. The College is in touch with more than 3,000 alumni, and leaders from every vocation imaginable will come back to their old school and give masterclasses to boys. They will reflect on the past but they will also look to the future with our current students.”

Spence is not a man to stand still. Arriving at Dulwich via a first headship at Oakham and ten years as a History and Politics teacher and housemaster to the King’s Scholars at Eton, he fizzes with intellectual energy.  And a palpable sense of moral duty; he clearly feels he must continue the remarkable legacy of the school’s founder Edward Alleyn.

Alleyn – allegedly known as Ned to his friends – was  one of the first celebrity actors, playing leading roles on the late Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. A darling of the Elizabethan theatre world, it is said that when he retired at the height of his fame circa 1598, Queen Elizabeth I personally requested his return to the stage. Through a good marriage and sound business sense, Alleyn amassed a small fortune and in 1619 he founded the College of God’s Gift in Dulwich village for ‘12 poor scholar’s with letters patent of King James I.

From those small beginnings grew a successful independent school for boys aged 11-18. Nowadays Dulwich College is an international global brand. There are now 1,800 pupils in London at Dulwich College and James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS). And 11 partner schools with some 7,000 pupils overseas. The roll call of starry alumni is long and impressive:  the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, artist Jeremy Deller, the authors Graham Swift, Michael Ondaatje, Tom Rob Smith and Tom McCarthy; TV executive Sir Peter Bazalgette and further back in history, writer PG Wodehouse and explorer Ernest Shackleton.

Starry indeed but the school still has the same social mission at its heart as it did 400 years ago: to provide access to an outstanding education to pupils regardless of their ability to pay. Spence is positively evangelical about the need for fee relief in the form of scholarships and means-tested bursaries. Thirty five percent of boys from age 11 to 18 are currently in receipt of some form of financial assistance at Dulwich and Spence wants this to grow to 50%. Even this ambition doesn’t match that of Christopher Gilkes, Master during the 1940s and 50s. During his tenure the academic standing of the College not only grew but it also took in large numbers of boys whose fees were funded by the London County Council (LCC) – this was known as the Dulwich Experiment and at its peak some 85% of the boys entering Dulwich College were in receipt of fee assistance and the College roll rose from 700 to 1,000 boys.

The Olympiad is a way of bringing us together. We are a community, not just a franchise

Another of Dr Spence’s predecessors, Master, Canon Carver (1858-1882) resented  the prescriptive public examinations of the age and instead aimed to identify the right subjects for a boy rather than a syllabus of shallow breadth.  Dulwich College today has Free Learning at its core, the second tenet of a College education about which Spence is, well, evangelical.

“When I first coined that term half the Common Room would have said, “Nice Blairite soundbite’, and looked doubtful – now those very same staff are coming to me with ideas,” says Spence.

Free Learning, explains Spence, is learning that is free from a syllabus, free from teaching to the test, and free to challenge pupils to thinking for its own sake. It is fed by intellectual curiosity, often supported by the interest and enthusiasm of a teacher, and takes place both within subject lessons and without. Examples of Free Learning at Dulwich are Creative Weeks’ (an entire week off timetable e.g. Political Week, Linguistics Week) and the Upper and Junior School Symposia.

“We’re not all about Oxbridge here,” says Dr Spence, “ we’re not all about attainment. Yes your sons will do well in public exams but if you send them here they won’t strain every sinew to get every grade.”

And just as the College archives show many 18th century OAs heading into the recognisable trades of the time – tailors, carpenters, wheelwrights, drapers, dyers and stationers – so today Dulwich College supports the many and varied routes for pupils after school, including apprenticeships.

“We don’t have a crystal ball, we don’t know what the future holds but we aim to prepare our students for the world of work in the 2030s,” says Dr Spence.  He believes developing students empathy and orginal thinking, their IT competency, leadership and communication skills are paramount. “This will become even more the case with the death of the passive CV,” (when the listing of top exam grades will not be sufficient to secure a top job), he says.

And, he adds, the school isn’t afraid to back a boy who has chosen an alternative route. “We’ll encourage the boy who wants to do a Foundation Course even if his parents are still wanting him to choose STEM,” he says.

For Dr Spence, it was important that the same core ethos of a Dulwich Education – the Social Mission and Free Learning – runs through the 400th Anniversary Programme.  “I’d like to think it isn’t too rah rah,” says Spence. “This isn’t us saying how fabulous we are.”

The grandest of all the events will be the Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral, at the beginning of Founders Week in June. More than 2,000 people, including all pupils aged 11 and above, will gather at St Paul’s. But the day will begin somewhat earlier for 18 Dulwich rowers from the school who will deliver a letter of congratulation from the Queen, rowing the Queen’s rowbarge, Gloriana, from Putney to Westminster, before entering the Cathedral and processing down the aisle with blades.

“That will be our moment of pomp and circumstance, our coming together,” says Dr Spence. But he likes to think that the Friday before, Community Service Day, “is more emblematic of what the school is,” he says. Every pupil will be involved in a project that “looks outwards and serves others. We are not about looking inwards and gazing at the collective naval,” he says.

Perhaps the event that most typifies this is the Dulwich Olympiad 2019. Taking place in March it is a celebration of sport, music, drama and art that brings together students from the Commonwealth Of Dulwich College International (DCI) Schools to participate in workshops and events and showcase their talents in competitions and performances.

The first Olympiad took place in 2015 when Dr Spence took 110 London pupils to Beijing. This time 600 pupils from the international schools will travel to London and it is hoped that the Olympiad will continue every four years. “It’s a way of bringing us together,” says Dr Spence. “We really are a community not just a franchise.”

There are many events planned for this year but two of which Dr Spence is especially proud are the unveiling of a newly commissioned artwork of the school by architectural portraitist Gerard Stamp and the Quartercenternary Series, four newly published books concerned with, and inspired by, Alleynians.

Stamp’s work, which Dr Spence personally commissioned, will be unveiled alongside Camille Pissarro’s 1871 watercolour of the Barry Building, the neo-Classical, neo Gothic New College built by Charles Barry Junior (son of the architect of the Housese of Parliament) in the mid-19th century. Stamp, an architectural portraitist, “plays off Pissarro’s watercolour,” says Dr Spence, but has included the Laboratory , the College’s newest building, thus “brilliantly capturing both the old and the new,” says Dr Spence.

This year will see the last two books of the Quartercentenary Series published: a collection of 11 short stories from OAs, staff and pupils (Dr Spence is writing one) and a book about five of the best known Alleynian authors by Patrick Humphries to which Dr Spence is adding an afterword. “The idea of Dulwich as a cradle of writers is very important to me,” he says.

This year will be a chance for Dulwich College to spread the message about what it is and what it stands for. “We have a very historic sense at this school, a tribal loyalty which perhaps my predecessors had trouble articulating. I think we have got better at that,” says Dr Spence. And while he isn’t one to blow any sort of trumpet, he will admit to, “some pride in getting to this point,” before hastily adding the proviso, “ there is still much to do.”

Dr Joe Spence

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