Wendy Challen: 'I don’t want programmed robots - I want children with a zest for life'

After four decades as a teacher, Wendy Challen, the retiring head of Chelsea's Garden School House, on why tutoring is a waste of money, the trouble with education ministers, and banning social media from the playground. Wendy Challen has just a fortnight left in charge of the junior girls in Garden House School, Chelsea. 

But when she looks back at her 40 years as a teacher, her fondest memories won’t be just of successes – pupils winning scholarships to our most prestigious boarding schools or the choir singing evensong at Emmanuel College, Cambridge - but of some of the more entertaining slip-ups. 

“I’ll always remember when the children are on the stage at the Royal Court (the prestigious theatre is just round the corner and used for school performances) and they’ve planned this play that should go just right and some child will do something totally off the wall,” she says. 

“Or the scenery will fall down or the lights won’t come on, or a child will decide they don’t want to wear their costume and pull the T-shirt up. But the show must go on.” 

“I love greeting the children at the front door in the morning,” she says. “Their stories! What on earth are they going to come up with next?” 

Smiling, glamorous in a green jacket and dress, exuding wisdom and merriment, Mrs Challen is exactly the kind of headteacher every child – and parent – dreams of. 

“One said I could be tough, but they know I love their children,” she says, a twinkle in her eye. 

Located in an imposing building, formerly part of the Duke of York’s barracks, Garden House is just yards from Sloane Square but it feels thousands of miles from its clamour and bustle. A rocking horse stands in the freshly painted lobby, the walls are decorated with original artworks and classical music is piped through speakers.

Little girls in blue striped pinafores over white blouses (accessorised by blue-ribboned Panama hats when they leave the premises) beam at me as they stand back to let me pass. 

The school, which opened in 1951, has educated members of Winston Churchill's family, as well as Alec Douglas-Hume's, then more recently the daughters of Princess Marie-Chantal and Prince Pavlos of Greece and the Queen’s granddaughter Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones. Mrs Challen has been here for 37 years, 25 of them as head of the girls’ school. Garden House’s atmosphere is appealingly old-fashioned, but Mrs Challen assures me that, on her watch, she’s witnessed enormous upheaval. 

“London has changed amazingly,” she says. “The pace of life, the people who live here, this borough now has – what? - 100 nationalities living here and family life has changed: people today lead more complicated lives.” 

She ushers me into a Preparatory – or Reception - class where a dozen picture-perfect girls (the school’s 500 girls and boys are educated separately, coming together for lunch and extracurricular clubs) quietly study story books. 

“I came here from a south London comprehensive, and when I arrived I did think ‘Will this be challenging enough?’, but it certainly has been.” 

Is the world a harder place for children to navigate now than when Mrs Challen’s daughter, now 24, attended the school? Sitting in her small office, she nods fervently. 

“Social media a very serious issue and it’s not going to go away, so we have to educate children to manage the situation.” 

From September, parents of children in the Upper School (seven to 11-year-olds) will have to sign a charter, saying their offspring will not join any social media. 

Teachers’ roles have also changed since Mrs Challen did her training in the 1970s. “Then you were expected to do everything, French, music, drama, take the children swimming, go in the pool, come back and give them their lunch. 

“Today, we have specialist teachers for most of subjects, but our teachers have a very demanding role: there’s a lot more paperwork than they’re used to be and they’re always answering emails and having to deal with parents, who expect us to be there for them. We like to think we are, but we can’t be answering their emails at two in the morning. 

“Still, I know my staff will drop everything to make sure our children are looked after, and it’s been an honour and a privilege to look after them.” 

From Leigh on Sea, Essex, Mrs Challen boarded at Roedean where she chafed against “the petty rules. You were only allowed six ornaments on your dressing table – where did that come from? If you were slightly mischievous you had responsibility stripped from you, so where was I? I think that’s why I wanted to become a teacher.” 

In contrast, Garden House has minimal rules. “You just don’t need reams. That’s one of the things that’s really changed, today we really respect our children’s views and take into account their thoughts and feelings.” 

Perhaps we respect them too much? Last week, a report outlined how teachers, who’d grown up afraid of asserting authority over children, had lost control over classes. At Garden House, with an average of around 15 children per class, discipline’s clearly not a huge issue, yet Mrs Challen is still occasionally called upon to intervene. 

“My staff is very grateful that I can help out because they have to deal with nannies, they have to deal with housekeepers and not always directly with the parents.” 

One issue, in particular, does rile her. “I really could do with families not travelling back to visit family and friends in term time,” she says meaningfully. 

The school is oversubscribed, so to pick the “right fit”, Mrs Challen interviews all prospective parents, while their children play nearby with a teacher. At rival preps, I say, I’ve witnessed parents falling on their knees and begging the head for a place. 

“We do get those kind of parents but then often ultimately they send their children elsewhere,” Mrs Challen smiles. 

She’s suspicious of children whose every spare second is crammed with extra violin classes and Mandarin lessons," she adds. “I don’t want a little programmed robot, I want children with a zest for life.” 

“The anxiety over choosing a first school is huge and seems to be increasing,” she continues. “But there’s a school for everyone. As a headmaster once said, you never see a child with a placard round its neck saying ‘I have no school to go to’.” 

Yet once in the school, increasingly parents feel they need to supplement their children’s education with tutoring. 

“We don’t want them to have tutors, but we know they do. It’s panic on behalf of the parents, they all talk and get worried and think tutoring is the way forward when it really isn’t. 

“The children are well taught at school and when they go to their next school, they’re going to be much more self-motivated. 

“They’re not going to have Mummy saying: ‘Come on, you have to open your book now.’ When they go to university or a job interview, how are they going to handle that?” 

So how does Mrs Challen advise parents to approach the mania surrounding secondary-school transfers? 

“Remain calm. Among parents, there can be a feeling of ‘Am I going to get what I want?’ For the first time in their lives they might not and they are going to have to take alternatives which might suit their child better. In the long term, I really do think these things are meant to be, children end up where they should and they all end up at the same universities anyway.” 

Having witnessed several generations grow up and have their own children, Mrs Challen takes the long view. 

“I feel increasingly proud - they’re doctors, lawyers, working in service industries, several of them come back to teach here, which is a huge compliment.” 

Despite her generally gentle approach, she disagrees with the head of Cheltenham Ladies’ College recent announcement that she was considering banning homework, as it caused pupils too much stress. 

“You need to learn to study at home, though I wouldn’t give more than an hour’s homework a night at 11. They all have to read every night, we’re sticklers for that and parents should read to children, that’s so important. 

“Poetry, too, thank goodness that’s now back on the curriculum. When I started it was all about grammar and comprehension, then we were told we shouldn’t be teaching it, now it’s all come full circle.” 

Government education ministers, she believes, have generally created too much paperwork. 

“Why don’t they come and visit us? They attend our conferences, but why don’t they visit our schools?” 

She’s highly aware that it’s becoming harder and harder for the British middle-classes to afford private education, Garden House’s fees are £6,800 a term for seven to 11-year-olds. “I appreciate it costs a lot of money, it really does. I haven’t got a crystal ball, but I will watch this space avidly, I think a lot more bursaries are going to become available and people must look into those.” 

So what lies next for Mrs Challen, who lives in nearby Fulham and whose husband is eager for her to join him in retirement. 

“I want to enjoy London, go to exhibitions, walks; I’ve told the girls I want to go on a lot more playdates, like you do!” 

The school, she promises, is being left in good hands. So all that remains are various farewell ceremonies. Will there be tears? 

“I don’t believe in burdening children with emotions,” Mrs Challen says firmly. “They’re very young, they’ll make the transition seamlessly.” 

Perhaps, but a lot of parents, I suspect, will be inconsolable.