As former High Master of St Paul’s and Head of Leeds Grammar, Professor Mark Bailey brings top-flight experience to his new role. Absolutely Education finds out why he joined the Dukes Education family

Words: Libby Norman

Professor Mark Bailey became Managing Director at Dukes Education last November, tasked with day-to-day running of a number of its schools. Here was interesting news for anyone with more than a passing interest in the world of independent education. As High Master of St Paul’s from 2011-2020, Bailey held one of the top ‘premiership’ roles. Prior to that, and also for around a decade, he successfully steered hallowed Leeds Grammar through the choppy waters of a merger with the city’s beloved girls’ high to create The Grammar School at Leeds.

Throughout a top-flight career in independent schools, he stayed true to his first love – medieval history – and he’s no dabbler. Having found his muse during his schooldays he went on to obtain a First in Economic History at Durham and then a PhD at Cambridge, where he stayed on as a lecturer and Fellow of two colleges (Caius and Corpus Christi) before heading to Leeds Grammar. He joined UEA in 2010 and, unusually, stayed in post throughout his tenure at St Paul’s – he remains there still as Visiting Professor of Later Medieval History. In 2018-19, Bailey was James Ford Lecturer in British History at the University of Oxford (previous incumbents have included V.S. Galbraith and A.J.P Taylor) and he’s just published a book on the Black Death.

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Pupils at Knightsbridge School, which is ranked among the top preps in the country

With all of that, Bailey’s Wikipedia page leads on the rugby. He was capped seven times and played for the Barbarians. He could have been a cricketer, having played both sports exceptionally well during his time at Ipswich School and beyond. So, the CV has everything you could want from an inspiring educator and school leader. What it doesn’t reveal is Bailey’s dry Yorkshire humour and self-deprecating spin. He really doesn’t warm to my summation that he’s a heavy hitter, preferring to describe his career as: “stumbling my way through”.

“With Dukes’ approach, there’s always the question: ‘what can we add?’ “

At Dukes Education, as one of four managing directors, he’s bringing all this experience to an innovative group stewarding some of the most distinctive independent schools in Britain. His appointment grew out of a conversation with Dukes’ founder and chairman Aatif Hassan while he was at St Paul’s. School governor roles followed and then he joined as Chair of the Dukes Advisory Board in 2018. He becomes an MD at an interesting time because the Dukes family is expanding – now numbering 12 schools in London and five outside the capital. Three London schools joined the fold in March. Then there are the nurseries under the ‘Little Dukes’ umbrella and the summer schools and consultancies offering guidance with university applications and career pathways.

Inevitably, the big question is what attracted him to this new leadership role. “Dukes is really interesting,” he says. First up, he finds the story behind Dukes “compelling”. It was started by Aatif Hassan after he founded Cavendish Education (separate, and now numbering 11 schools for young people with dyslexia and autism). Bailey likes the flat structure of Dukes, the warmth of the team but – most of all – he likes the ambition of what they are doing. “Dukes is in it for the long term. It is backed by private investors, and there are a number of stereotypes associated with that, but the reality is that Aatif has an unusually eclectic background. He’s a former British Army Paratrooper. He is also dyslexic and he started Cavendish Education with a particular purpose. It is values led and quality led and he wanted to bring the same things into mainstream education through Dukes.”

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Sancton Wood School in Cambridge caters for pupils from pre-prep years up to age 16

There are other points of difference about Dukes, he says, not least that it is underpinned by the pensions might of USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme). “USS looks for long-term growth and believes in education, so Dukes’ institutional backers are not that conventional and they are in it for the long term,” says Bailey. “Dukes are also in it for the long term. What they do is identify a great brand, a school that has earned a really good reputation.”

This has been central to the whole approach. At first glance, the schools appear disparate geographically and culturally – from Sancton Wood in Cambridge to Knightsbridge School to Cardiff Sixth Form College. Look again and you see a linking thread. For instance, Knightsbridge is ranked among the top preps in the country, Cardiff ‘s exceptional results make it a ‘destination school’ for overseas students and locals alike. Then consider Hampstead Fine Arts College’s reputation for fostering  creativity and Eaton Square’s success in growing from a small prep into a highly regarded all-through school for over 600 pupils.

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Knightsbridge School pupil – the popular central-London independent was established in 2006

“With Dukes’ approach, there’s always the question: ‘what can we add?’ ” says Bailey. “We have a very strong leadership programme, also expertise in getting the back and middle office support services absolutely right. We bring skills in marketing, skills in safeguarding – all that slightly hidden but important stuff that takes up increasing amounts of time and specialist knowledge for all independent schools.”

Bailey sees the back office “stuff” as a key issue for the whole education sector. “The pressures of being a headteacher have increased dramatically over the past 20 years,” he says. “You are increasingly the CEO of a very complex organisation.” It’s something Bailey understands from experience. His own respite was to down his (virtual) mortar board and put on his historian hat. “When I had time for me in the holidays it was just straight into medieval history,” he says.

“What parents want from a school has remained constant – values, results, culture”

For parents questioning the well-documented school fee inflation of recent decades, compliance is one huge factor. But Bailey says there are other drivers – notably swelling pensions obligations. Also, salaries come into play because schools compete on the open market for talent. “If you want a top mathematician or physicist to put in front of really bright kids you go to top universities or to the City and you pay attractive salaries.”

Compliance, pensions obligations, salary inflation, and now Covid. Unsurprisingly, the medieval historian has the long view on this. “Pandemics accelerate or intensify existing tendencies,” says Bailey. “The independent sector in terms of pupil numbers hasn’t changed very much, but the tendency is towards fewer bigger schools – they can control costs because there’s an economy of scale.” This, of course, has parallels to what Dukes Education is able to do for its family of schools. “At Dukes, we’re all working for the same thing – to take some of that back-office load and enable our schools to do what they do best,” says Bailey.

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Sancton Wood pupils – the school was established in 1976 with a principle of small class sizes

He is extremely optimistic about the long-term future of UK independent schools and says the international appeal is clear – temperate climate, transport links, stability, culture and the ability to buy into high-quality education. “London and the south-east have always been attractive for people globally who can work in any number of cities”. So what about the many parents up and down the land who want the best for their child? During his years at the helm, Bailey says what parents want has remained constant. He says it comes down to three core elements: “values, results, culture”.

Timing is all and Bailey’s book reappraising the Black Death, published in February and based on his Ford lectures, has attracted – if not a groundswell – significantly more interest than he expected. Back to the self-deprecating humour: “There would normally be zero interest in it outside of about ten university departments. Because of this there is zero plus one”. That plus one included a guest spot on the Knickerbocker Club’s ‘author of the month’ slot. When the call came it was not, as he originally suspected, a mate pulling his leg but an invitation from one of New York’s most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. “Before Covid, telling people you were writing about the Black Death was a conversation killer. But now people are curious and ask about parallels. Thankfully, I can tell them there are very few,” he says.

* After the Black Death: Economy, society, and the law in fourteenth-century England, by Mark Bailey, is published by Oxford University Press.

Dukes Education,

Further reading: Aatif Hassan discusses how dyslexic thinking shaped Cavendish Education