Roger Moses, the headmaster of Wellington College for the past 22 years, held his last senior prizegiving last November as he prepares to step down in April this year. He spoke to JOHN BISHOP about his values and achievements, and life after running a top-flight boys’ school.
Moses followed Harvey Rees Thomas into the top job in 1995 and got a school ‘in good heart’
‘Harvey had ignited the place with an educational philosophy that focused on academic achievement with extracurricular activities surrounding the core.
‘He left me a good legacy. The boys were proud of their school. Respected it.’
In 2017 the school is different. Bigger: 1,750 boys compared with just 1,200 or so in 1995. More ethnically diverse: Wellington College is 11 % Maori and 6% Pacifica, with many students from various Asian and African communities.
‘The demographics, new technology and the way we teach and the ways young people learn have all changed dramatically in the past 20 years,’ Moses says.
He uses the term ‘headmaster’ rather than ‘principal’, reflecting a conservative approach to change and the management of a school.
Moses cites influences from conservative moral thinkers like GK Chesterton, CS Lewis and Sir
‘Christianity is my moral framework. A school has to have an agreed set of values. Learning takes place in the context of some moral and ethical presuppositions. Values are important; character more so.’
Wellington College students collect more scholarships than any other school in the country, and his speech at annual prizegivings is a catalogue of achievement. So how much of this is his doing?
‘I will claim credit for building a strong team and recruiting very good staff in a diverse range of subject areas. ‘I have been influenced by Jim Collins and his book From Good to Great. Get good people on the bus, he says. That applies to academic staff, sports coaches, the orchestra and right across the school.’
‘If I have a single talent it is recruiting and managing good people. ‘I am not a micromanager. I operate a high trust model. I have been influenced by the people I have worked with.’
He cites the late Sir John Graham, who ran Auckland Grammar; and Colin Prentice from Maclean’s College in Auckland, among others: ‘I have had some great mentors.’
Moses follows Rees Thomas and others in thinking that a school is about turning young boys into goodmen.
‘One of my former teachers said that schools were in the business of liquidating ignorance. Something called knowledge has to be conveyed to students.’
He is uncomfortable about the shifting of responsibility from parents to schools for many aspects of social education.
‘The core business of a teacher is getting rid of ignorance and replacing it with knowledge, but more and more social education roles are also expected of us, as the role of institutions such as the family and the church have changed.’
He’s had some difficult experiences in this area. Earlier this year two Wellington College students bragged online about having sex with drunken girls, and Moses was criticised by some people for failing to respond quickly or firmly enough. Some perceived him as to blame even if, as he points out, he was not in any sense responsible for the conduct in question.
‘I have no jurisdiction over a student from the time they go out of the school gates in an afternoon until they return, but if that student does something odious on Saturday night I am contacted by media and others demanding to know what I am going to do about it.
‘Schools don’t want to own the responsibility for student behaviour, but they have to because the media expect them to do so and parents encourage that. ‘The fundamental issue being missed is individual responsibility. Kids can make the wrong choices, but it is too easy to blame someone else. And the media only make the matter worse with their blame-seeking culture,’ he says.
Moses believes firmly in single-sex schools for both boys and girls.
‘I taught in four co-eds, and I am not for or against them as such. Both can do things well. What is distinctive in New Zealand is that single-sex schools do well academically – whether for boys or girls.
‘Looking at scholarship results over three years 2012-14, it was clear that in every category and in every decile boys in single-sex schools do well. Girls too. A strong extracurricular commitment is also easier in single-sex schools.’
Twenty years in any job is a long time, and while he has always loved the job, the career progression for a top school principal is limited.
‘I never wanted to be some kind of superintendent. I have chosen to remain at Wellington College because I wanted to. I was not driven by any desire to leap into the Ministry and become some kind of policy wonk.
‘I am essentially a teacher, not an edu-crat. I get on well with the Ministry, but I never wanted to become one of them.’
He has more admirers than detractors. One admirer is former Labour Party Minister Marian Hobbs, who was herself principal of Avonside Girls College in Christchurch, and gave up the position of Principal of Wellington Girls’ College to enter Parliament as MP for Wellington Central.
She ‘really rates’ Roger. ‘I loved what I saw of Roger’s leadership. And although we began our educational leadership from two different sides, we both valued each other’s style in single-sex schools.
‘We both celebrated the gender of our students. I loved his assembly greetings “Good morning, gentlemen’, There was pride in being a man, and I loved it, just as I instilled a pride in being a woman with all the choices.’
After 22 years at the helm he was still instilling values. Even in his last address to a school prizegiving, he referred to ‘four timeless features of our heritage at Coll- enduring values, the pursuit of knowledge, a love of the arts and sport, and the imperative of service. It is my profound conviction that such key emphases should continue.’ The challenge is for students to become good men with the right attitudes to work, women, themselves, and society generally.
In a heart -warming moment which still brings a tear to his eye, Moses recalls an Ethiopian refugee student called Terefe Ejigu ‘who came to us from a council flat. He hadn’t seen his mother for six years, and had limited English.
‘He made such an impact on the school, as we did on him. He became a national athletics champion, a school prefect and a top academic scholar. The boys loved him. They chanted “boom, boom Terefe” when he competed on track.
‘One day I called him up to speak to the school assembly. As he walked up the aisle the “boom, boom Terefe” chant started. He spoke, and there was not a dry eye in the house.
‘He talked about how the school had given him everything. He went on to university in the USA, and now works with refugee children in Australia. When I look back, I remember him, because we made such a real difference in that boy’s life.’
So what for Roger Moses now? He turned 63 last November.
‘Not retirement, but I will be spending more time with my five grandchildren than I was able to spend with my own children. I will put family first, and everything else is going to have to work around that’.