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    Harry Stewart-Dilley (OK23) Interviews Jonathan Belbin

    Imagine, dear reader, you are on your Cross-Country run. Your last of seven. The final push. Making it to the hill, blissfully hard soiled this year, you are regretting your overzealous start. A year prioritising Chaucer over Calisthenics, angular velocity over aerobic vitality, is really catching up to you (like most of the other runners) and the paracetamol you took beforehand – a feeble doping attempt to make the stitch you knew was forthcoming slightly less painful - has not worked. Therefore, as the hill rises before you, the farm at the top looking increasingly like the Pearly Gates and the surrounding terrain looking worryingly unsuitable for an air ambulance, the presence of The Headmaster, unsweaty, light of foot and talking as he runs does not register with you at first. But then, after what I now recognise was an embarrassingly long wait, you realise he is talking to you. What’s more, he’s asking you to write his leaving article for the Kimboltonian. I must say Headmaster, what a time to ask... 

    This was an offer I could not turn down. Yet, as I stand outside his office, one cold Thursday afternoon, I realise it also presents a problem. How to condense a teaching career spanning 38 years into two-thousand words or so? – that is 54 words a year for those numerically minded. This is a daunting prospect as I enter the imposing, carpeted office; the crunch of gravel outside signalling that 1620 has come and gone. Yet, an invitation to the green sofa - comfortingly similar to the one I watched in Top Gear for a decade - is quick to put me at ease. The voice recorder goes on the sofa, my shoulders drop and we go straight to the beginning, talking of his childhood.  

    Born in Dorset, “Thomas Hardy country” he says, a smile crossing his face as he does so, Mr Belbin enjoyed a childhood characterised by a twin love of sport and history. Attending the state grammar school, he describes how he was nurtured by passionate and dedicated teachers and how it was the influence of these figures which pushed him to University. As the first person in his extended family to go to University, Belbin tells me how in those days it was a “no brainer”: if you were good enough you got your loan and off you went. In context of Richard Adams’ cutting Guardian article detailing how one in four university students are regularly skipping meals to get by this year, this is a sentiment one longs to return to – where intelligent kids weren’t discouraged from realising their potential due the exigencies of the financial climate. When I ask him about how the nature of the school has changed since he arrived, Belbin echoes this sentiment: “we issue bursaries, not as many as one would like, but there are some.”  This speaks to a man who recognises the power of an inspiring education, like that granted to him, a reference to the “sacrifices” made by Kimbolton parents illustrating his feeling of responsibility to make those sacrifices worthwhile.  

    Having read History at Bristol University, Belbin entered the Education Sector at a time of tribulation. Widespread strikes and the policy of ‘working to rule’ made the State Sector difficult for one entering teaching; especially for a teacher like Belbin who sought the profession in part as a vehicle to enjoy his passion of sport and camaraderie. As a result, a spell at Kelly College on Dartmoor followed where he taught history, becoming Head of Department after just two years. Belbin plays down this accolade, attributing it to “simply having the right profile at the right time” – a deep seated humility that pervaded our conversation. Despite his success (if he won’t recognise it, I will) on Dartmoor, this was not Belbin’s destination, merely his starting line. Therefore, he applied for Head of History at Monmouth School. Having been successful in his application, after only six weeks he was called to the Headmaster’s office. Belbin tells me how those 6 weeks were some of the most enjoyable he has had in teaching, some really bright kids “testing (his) mettle every day”. This evidences a true passion for his subject and reminded me that the Headmaster had earnt his stripes in the classroom, something I am guilty of forgetting sometimes: it is easy to see someone in their current role and forget the groundwork and hard graft that went into it.  

    The result of the Headmaster’s meeting with the Head of Monmouth School exemplifies his unseen layers, as after only six weeks in the job Belbin was made head of a Boarding House. Newly married and with his first daughter, Natalie, on the way, Belbin tells me how he thought: “Crikey, you don’t turn these down!”. Alan Bennett writes that “One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.” It was in his description of his time at Monmouth that the Headmaster really came alive for me. 55 boys between 13-18 and twenty pubs within a ten-minute walk of the boarding house made his time at Monmouth a busy one; I must confess images of Filch and Professor McGonagall catching students tripping home from Hogsmeade came to mind. Belbin’s time was busy not least because this new role was teamed with being Head of History and running both rugby and cricket teams. When I ask how he managed under this burden, Belbin smiles and points to the voice recorder. “Make sure you get this in” – he says, continuing to gesture at the phone on the sofa. “It was down to my wife.” “There is no way I could have done anything, any of this, without Heather” (who was also Matron while at Monmouth). They say that “no man is an island” and Mr Belbin clearly builds himself from this base of togetherness and family spirit, whether family by blood or his school family. To illustrate this, he offers me a story. When at Monmouth, where he was head of a Boarding House, there used to be a Rugby competition. The four Boarding Houses and the six Day Houses all competed against each other. The Day Houses were roughly double the size of the Boarding Houses and in most years had at least half of the first team. Yet, the final every year would be between two of the Boarding Houses, “because it mattered”. Belbin recalls how he would go around his Boarding House the night before the matches, giving “extra rations” and discussing game plans; and how, on the day, he, Heather, and the kids in their prams would come out and shout until their voices went hoarse.  

    It was this love of camaraderie that brought the Headmaster to Kimbolton, the fact the school had a boarding contingent being one of the deciding factors in his coming here. He describes how boarding within a school “gives the place a heart”. Pointing out of the window, he says, while it is quiet now, in half an hour, forty minutes, the hush will be broken by laughing, yelping and shouting as the boarders come to eat; “the place is alive” he says, I could almost see his eyes glinting as he said so. This is a relatively unique aspect of Kimbolton, accentuated by the number of teachers that live in such a small radius of the school, and it illustrates the more romantic, or maybe Belbin would prefer me to use idealistic, view of education that he holds: the idea of a school as not just an entity, or even ‘just’ a community, but a living organism that needs to be nurtured. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves with the present, because before Kimbolton, and after Monmouth, Belbin worked at Kent College in Canterbury.  

    The move from Monmouth to Kent was in fact brought about by a colleague, Belbin saying that the idea of a so called ‘career trajectory’ had not been predominant in his thinking up to that point. Yet, when they said: “you should start consider applying for deputy headships” he thought, “Okay then!”. In Canterbury, he and Heather arrived for his interview with James as a ‘babe in arms’ and, after meeting the board, he got the job as Deputy Head Academic. Despite his fond memories for Monmouth, Belbin recounts how he looked forward to the fact that as a Deputy Head, home-time meant home-time: when he shut his front door at eight o’clock that truly meant he was done for the day. This was powerful in an age where an increasing amount is demanded from teachers outside the classroom, the era of technologization, increased bureaucracy and the relentlessness of email making the boundary between home and work increasingly permeable. Belbin considers this boundary one of the foundations of his life: the fact that, “today, after I have finished talking to you, and after parents evening, I can go home, shut the door, and have a hot chocolate with my wife, and the dog” (or dogs plural now!) a fundamental part of his daily balance. While at Kent, still only in his early thirties, Belbin enjoyed urban life for the first time and reconnected with playing football; but eventually it came time to move on and Kimbolton beaconed.  

    When he arrived for his interview, it wasn’t the first time The Headmaster had been to ‘The Castle’. He had visited five years prior with Monmouth School’s cricket team and remembers having a beer in The Sun with the other staff. Having been there myself for my ‘first pint’ ritual just the day before our interview, the ‘Kimbolton bubble’ had rarely felt so prominent for me. During his tenure, the school has clearly changed drastically, legitimising the laugh that received my rather uninspiring question: “Has the place changed since you first arrived?”. Sparing my blushes, the Headmaster refrained from the response: “Well…. Obviously” - which would have been a fair retort. Instead, he said “On one level yes: we have increased our intake from 75-110 pupils in the First Form, and learning 110 names is harder than learning 75. But what has not changed is the school’s heart, and that comes from the presence of a brilliant staffroom who share a passion for learning”. A very good answer from a thoroughly mediocre question.  

    As Headmaster, Belbin has continued teaching history, something he has now done for 38 years. When I ask about how teaching has changed, he smiles again, reminding me that while I have seen him only as a Headmaster, that is built from the foundation of a passionate history teacher. “You are more of an actor now” he says in answer, shorter attention spans and the end of ‘chalk and talk’ having changed the act of teaching. Yet, pleasingly for a fellow lover of history, he says, “but the stories are still the same”. This reflection on the personal and social nature of his subject illustrates a parallel between Belbin and the subject he loves. While there is ‘big History’ – the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066; more powerful and more personal is ‘small history’ – the history of individuals and of stories, for example the people that endured the Battle of Hastings. Similarly, there is Headmaster Belbin, who stands up at the front of assembly and gives speeches on speech day, but there is also the individual: the one who recalls his time consoling a boy who had learnt of his parents’ divorce at eleven O’clock in the evening or the individual who teaches PSHE, or the individual who loves walking the dogs and says hello in the corridor. Often, a Headmaster finds themselves pushed into the role of ‘big History’ as people only see the public, conspicuous things, yet in our conversation it became clear that Belbin’s passion is for the small and for the individual.  

    This is symbolised as I ask about his values, and how they translate to the school. He says: “I don’t have a magical potion of ‘the Belbin way of doing things’. I think that would be very arrogant of me. I know that people not being kind to each other irritates me, that definitely gets under my skin; but most of all, I just want people to give their best – I can’t ask for more than that. On results day, someone who has worked and worked to get their three C’s deserves just as much praise as someone who has worked to get three A*s. That is what Kimbolton is about.” This humility, the rejection of a “Belbin way” of doing things is a trait that, listening back to our interview, seems to characterise our conversation. When I ask, possibly a little grandiosely, what he would like his legacy to be, I get a similarly self-effacing reply: “I think maybe it would be arrogant of me to want a legacy, it will be what it will be.” As a history student whose reading is dominated by Revisionist historians, this comic rejection of Great Man Theory earnt a smile, but even more pleasing was what came next: “I want students to look back on their career at Kimbolton and think, I was happy.” With exams now visible on the horizon, this was distinctly comforting; suggesting that while the passion of teaching is so often subjugated to the utilitarian ends of specifications and exam boards, it is not the teachers who are doing so.  

    As our conversation comes to an end, we look at his time at Kimbolton more holistically. “What would you tell yourself starting out as a Headmaster?” I say – a trite question I know, but it is popular for a reason. “To have a thicker skin” is the reply. “It is part of a leader’s role to take barbs and brush them off, to say they don’t affect you, but they do.” For me, this placed the assemblies emphasising kindness and accountability into a new light, the message becoming more deeply personal. As the crunch of gravel completely subsides, announcing 1730 is around the corner, I direct things to the future. Belbin’s plan, echoing Mr Eddon, his colleague of Eighteen years, “is to have no plan.” It is telling that both of these Kimbolton stalwarts leave with a desire to relax after a long time in service. Belbin says: “I’ve spent an entire lifetime of work adhering to a very organised plan which entirely orbits the school year, the last thing I want to do is fill my diary and find myself in the same position!”  

    With the end of my Kimbolton tenure paralleling the Headmaster’s, I ask how he is feeling about the end of his time here, a place that has characterised over a third of his life. There is a pause as he thinks. “I don’t know yet” is the reply, “I know there are certain things I will miss”. “I’ll miss the camaraderie, the direction and the rudder that the school gives me: I have had the privilege to steer quite a big ship for many years.” Yet he tells me that this is not something that worries him, that having that degree of power does by no means define him. Most of all he says it is the being a “part of a bigger whole”; however, as he illustrated repeatedly in our conversation, the Kimbolton School family is not all that different from a home family and as such he assures me that he is hugely exited to spend more time with his home family: with Heather, his three children and the dogs.  

    Therefore, for a man characterised by togetherness, it is fitting that in his retirement from Kimbolton School he is moving from one family, to spend more time with his own. As we stand up to leave, I ask him if there is any part of our conversation he would particularly like emphasising, any parts that are ‘shoe-ins’. He tells me: “I would hate for anyone to think that any of the successes of Kimbolton school in these 21 years were down to me. It is down to teamwork, good governors and a really good staffroom. I would hate for it to come across as me-me-me.” Ordinarily I would interweave this sentiment into the body of the article; however, as a way to culminate a career spent with the goal of sharing his passions for history, for sport, for hard work and for kindness: to culminate 21 years in which teamwork was the end not the means to achieve an end, I think there are few better ways to do it.  

    Thank you, Headmaster, for 21 years of passion, hard-work and kindness. From everyone in the Kimbolton family, we wish you all the best, and hope you enjoy some well earnt quality time with the Belbin family.