In his new role as Head of Maida Vale School, Magnus Bashaarat brings with him great experience and a belief that education must evolve to meet the needs of today’s students and tomorrow’s workplace

Magnus Bashaarat may be ‘new boy’ at Maida Vale School, having taken over the reins at the start of the summer term, but he’s an old hand at leadership. This is his third headship in a career notable for its breadth and including senior roles at Eton, Stowe, Milton Abbey and Bedales. He’s also a longstanding ISI school inspector and a Governor of University of Winchester.

With this rounded view of educational settings, he remains convinced that variety and choice are positives. “I’ve got a catholic (small ‘c’) approach to education – I think all sorts of different school settings will suit different students and their parents at different times,” he says. “We’ve got three young-adult children ourselves, and at one stage all three went to different schools because we thought that would be the best for them.” He has seen the best of both traditional and modern, citing Milton Abbey and Bedales as places where he witnessed truly innovative teaching approaches. “That’s one thing that attracted me to Gardener Schools Group and Maida Vale School – it is positioned as a new-thinking, innovative school in London.”

Maida Vale School – in conversation with Magnus Bashaarat
Maida Vale School’s DT suite – Magnus Bashaarat believes young people need to express themselves through making and doing

London still veers towards the traditional – many single-sex independents and with a strong focus on a tough process for senior entry. Bashaarat describes the 11+ selection in the capital as “ruthless” (and many parents and teachers would agree). “There’s a pathway that most students follow that is highly focused on a narrow range of academic outcomes.” He senses a change coming, as we increasingly recognise that GCSEs and A levels are not doing everything needed to prepare young people for their future lives. “Increasingly, parents are realising that there’s a great cost for children from that approach,” he says. “And I keep meeting entrepreneurial 40-somethings, and they don’t want to employ people with A levels and degrees only. Yes, they are very good on paper, but only in a narrow and academic way.”

“The onus is on schools to proliferate sixth-form study options – and lead students on to really fulfilling pathways”

So Maida Vale School arrived in north-west London at a good time to widen families’ choices, even though no school would have chosen to open in the heat of the pandemic. “There’s a real yearning here for a co-ed alternative to the schools that currently exist, and for a school that really does have an honest, holistic focus on pupil development and progress rather than that narrow A* to B top line.” Gardener Schools Group is underpinned by a strong educational philosophy. Having the wider group of four Heads makes it collegiate, and Founder Maria Gardener still contributes as occasional teacher at all four schools. There is also the steady growth approach for MVS, following a trusted model established by sister senior Kew House.

Maida Vale School – in conversation with Magnus Bashaarat
Being a co-ed school in this part of central London widens choices for parents and the open-door policy of MVS is also welcomed

Gardener has a clearly stated pastoral approach across all four schools, with an open door to parents. On the open-door policy, Bashaarat cites his own childhood experience of being dropped off at boarding prep by parents who expected no further educational input until the end-of-term report. Schools are very different now, but there’s still a tendency to have a more visible pastoral and family presence in prep years. Bashaarat believes it’s just as important to keep the open communication in senior schools, and more so post pandemic. “What young people are going through, the world they are growing up in, does seem more arbitrary, scarier and less predictable than five or ten years ago. And there seems to be more at stake, more riding on it, so even more important for that connection – that pastoral support – to be there during adolescence.”

“The world young people are growing up in, does seem more arbitrary, so even more important for that pastoral support to be there during adolescence”

Another big Maida Vale plus for Magnus Bashaarat is the school itself. “It’s an amazing building in an amazing location,” he says. “The building itself was a technical college, so it has the idea of making and doing at its heart. In the basement there’s the DT Suite, which is a phenomenal resource, and on the top floor there’s Art and Drama, and everything in between is part of the creative philosophy.” He taught English before moving into leadership roles and remains a passionate advocate for the power of poetry and drama to open hearts and minds, so no surprise that the new Head sees creative outlets as a vital part of MVS’ remit. “Young people need to be encouraged to express themselves by making and doing and acting and writing and painting. Creative doesn’t mean it has to be done in the art room – it’s the idea of creativity in the broadest sense.

Drama is already a strong suit at the school, with superb theatre and art spaces

“At the moment, in theatre and music on a national scale, there are all sorts of challenges in terms of funding for the creative arts. And yet we know the creative industries are hugely important to the nation’s economy, especially in London. I think that’s something that has to be spelled out to young people – the importance of creativity – and not only for imagination and wellbeing but for the nation’s economy.”

Whether young people are gravitating towards arts, sciences, business or something else, they need good guidance. That starts with the right subject choices. “What we’re keen to develop at Maida Vale is breadth,” he says. “It’s very important that students in Year 12 have got a really interesting choice of subjects, so that their pathway to university and beyond is identifiable and is going to be meaningful for them. And it doesn’t have to be university. If there is, say, a KPMG apprenticeship pathway for someone who is really good at maths and has already decided that the apprenticeship route is for them, then we have to resource that.”

“That’s something that has to be spelled out to young people – the importance of creativity – not only for imagination and wellbeing but for the nation’s economy”

Wearing his other hat – that of Governor of University of Winchester – he sees a shift coming in university approaches that needs to be understood by schools. “School leavers are becoming much more discerning about what they want to do,” he says, pointing out that UCAS recently predicted a million plus degree students by 2030. “You have got to have meaningful degree-course outcomes for those million students who are all going to be paying quite a lot more money.” He thinks the ‘all things’ model of university is set for reform. “I can see universities becoming a lot more specialised because they can’t offer all courses to all people. They simply can’t be those sorts of comprehensive destinations anymore.”

Relating that back to the choices young people at MVS will face, especially as it opens its Sixth Form in September, the new Head says it’s about school advisors being aware of the marketplace and the best options out there – including going beyond that ‘prescribed’ Russell Group list that independents traditionally favour (and then use as a marker of their excellence). “Say the best course in Digital Games Design is at Northumbria University, then if you’re a certain type of student interested in games design you shouldn’t be reading Geography at Newcastle just because that’s what everybody does.”

Maida Vale School – in conversation with Magnus Bashaarat
The school’s food technology room – alongside core sciences, food preparation and nutrition are on the menu for all pupils in Years 7 and 8

In other words, Magnus Bashaarat believes that schools must focus on the individual and their best route to happiness and career success. “The onus is on schools to proliferate sixth-form study options with what is new and innovative and appealing to students – and will lead them on to really fulfilling degree-course pathways,” he says. “So let’s be bold, but also let’s see the reality of the educational marketplace. It’s a really exciting and varied place and it’s all about understanding how to get on the right course at the right place – and with the right school subject choices.”

Maida Vale School

Further reading: Capital gains – the benefits of going to school in London