Q&A with the new Headmaster of St Benedict's School, Ealing

By Cesar Medina

19th Sep 2023 | Local Features

Joe Smith, Headmaster at St Benedict's School, Ealing (credit: St Benedict's School).
Joe Smith, Headmaster at St Benedict's School, Ealing (credit: St Benedict's School).

As St Benedict's School welcomes its newly appointed Headmaster, Joe Smith, we speak to him about his vision for the school and the challenges he faces. Here, our Q&A offers readers a fascinating insight into the remarkable journey that drew him to this leading Ealing-based school. 

1. Do you want to start off by first introducing yourself and telling me a bit about yourself?  

My name is Joe Smith, and I've just taken up the post of Headmaster of St Benedict's School in Ealing.  

I was born and brought up in Norfolk, where my dad was a farm manager and my mum a primary school teacher. I read English at Liverpool University, where I got a First, then did a PGCE in London.

My first job was at Colfe's School in South East London, where I stayed for three years (a few of my cohort are now Heads), when we moved to the West Country.

I spent 12 happy years at Monkton Combe School in Bath, where I was Head of English then ran a boys' boarding house as a housemaster.

I was appointed Head of the Oratory Prep School (2-13) near Reading in 2010 and moved from there to become Head of the senior Oratory School (11-18) in 2016. I oversaw the school's successful transition from a boys' school to co-education.   

I'm married to Debbie, whose professional background is in market research, and we have three children: Seb (22) who has just finished a Computer Science degree and is working in London while living at home; Imogen (20), who is in her second year reading English at Southampton University, and Tom (16), who has just joined the Lower Sixth at St Benedict's (so once again has his dad as his headteacher, poor lad!)   

2. Aside from schooling and education, what other things are you passionate about?  

I love cooking, and enjoy cooking for family and friends at the weekends and in the school holidays: if I hadn't been a teacher, I'd have liked to have been a chef or food writer.

I'm a big sports fan: cricket (member of MCC), rugby and football (West Ham) primarily, but I'll happily watch pretty much any sport (apart from F1, which my elder son hasn't managed to convert me to yet).

I also love music (especially folk, although we made it to a Prom this summer) and theatre and am looking forward to being closer to the heart of the action. And literature, primarily poetry, which can "blow your heart open" (Seamus Heaney).   

3. In three words, how would your friends and family best describe you, Mr Smith?  

Probably unprintable! Do have I have to answer this? People have kindly said I'm confident, warm and articulate. I'll leave others to judge! 

4. What made you decide to become a teacher?  

I fell into it, really. After university I didn't know what I wanted to do, and needed to pay off my student loans, so thought I'd do a PGCE and see what happened.

I discovered that I enjoyed teaching English and seemed to be quite good at it, and it went on from there. Being able also to coach sport was a bonus.

That said, there are lots of teachers and academics in my family: my grandfather was a headteacher, as was his brother: I think he was the founding head of the first Catholic secondary modern in London.   

5. You spent nearly eight years with The Oratory School – which is a long time – so what was it about St Benedict's School which convinced you to leave your previous post?  

Good question. I'm 51 (ye Gods!) and it just felt the right time to move on and seek a new challenge, and after 25 years in the country we were keen to return to city life, not least with the children now older.

And St Benedict's itself was of course a huge draw: a highly successful, high performing school which was also Catholic, an aspect which means a lot to me personally.     

6. I understand that you have recently moved from Reading to Ealing. What do you think about the local community?  

We're loving it. Everyone's been really friendly and we're enjoying exploring the local area. We have two dogs, so have discovered the local parks – Pitshanger, Hanger Hill, Montpelier.

My sister lives in West Ealing, so she's been brilliant at showing us the ropes – we've even benefited from the glut of produce from her allotment at Pitshanger!

I've been tapped up for the Ealing Half Marathon, but don't hold your breath: not sure my knees would manage it. My daughter loves the Chinese supermarket in Dickens Yard, and I'm enjoying visiting the local food shops.

I've enjoyed watching school matches at Perivale and am looking forward to getting to Trailfinders.  

7. You are an individual who has been involved with education for most of your life. What is it about education that resonates with you so much?  

Great question. It's all about growth. Seeing young people change and grow is an immense privilege.

Those moments when something happens – Wordsworth calls them "spots of time" - and you see it in a young person's eyes, make all the less exciting bits of the role worthwhile.

To be honest too, I was a bit lazy at school and probably underachieved: it wasn't until I got to university that I grew up and the penny dropped.

So, I do have a real passion for young people making the most of their talents and the opportunities that school presents them with. And I love teaching literature.  

St Benedict's have Open Day events for all year groups next month (credit: St Benedict's School).

8. What are the greatest challenges facing Headteachers today?  

Mental wellbeing. I don't think we will know for a long time – if ever - the long-term effect of the pandemic on young people.

So many of those unquestioned tenets of society – such as when you're young you go to school, even if you grumble about it at times – were wrenched away from our children.

It is a great worry, as a parent as well as a headteacher.   

"I do want people to feel empowered to make decisions and act on them."

9. Not to put you too much on the spot, but what can you bring to St Benedict's that previous headmasters haven't?  

I'm sure that previous Heads have, between them, brought all the things I can, but none of them was me, so that's something! I don't know: I will be me, and hopefully that will be enough.  

10. Can you tell us a little bit about your leadership style?  

You'd have to ask others. However, I do want people to feel empowered to make decisions and act on them.

I can't stand being treated in an overly deferential way – "Headmaster this, Headmaster that": we're all professionals and all in the same business of educating young people, and my role just happens to be Headmaster, whereas yours is something else.

Appoint and promote great people and let them get on with their job, in a nutshell.   

11. Aside from a fantastic schooling experience, what do you hope students who attend St Benedict's during your tenure leave the school with?  

What another Benedictine school refers to as a "compass for life": a set of personal skills and values which enables them to negotiate the complex world out there.

Integrity is a very important value for young people, I think. I could go on about this for hours!   

12. And from your experience what makes a good school fundamentally?  

Passionate and committed staff, who genuinely care about the young people they work with (we probably all had teachers who didn't actually seem to like children).

A healthy, kind culture. Skilled and supportive governors. Good, courageous leaders.   

13. Ultimately, during your time at St Benedict's, what do you hope to achieve alongside staff to provide the best possible education to students?  

I want St Benedict's to become an even happier (it is this already) school.

This may sound unambitious, but I don't think it is: I mean "happy" in the deeper sense of the word: truly fulfilled young people, with a clear sense of who they are, but with a profound humility about them.  And of course, having gained the outstanding exam results which we are so proud of continually achieving!  

Find out more about St Benedict's School at their upcoming events:  

  • Whole School Open Morning on Saturday 7 October 2023 
  • Sixth Form Open Evening on Thursday 12 October 2023 
  • Senior School Open Morning on Thursday 19 October 2023. 

St Benedict's offers a wide range of scholarships and bursaries for students joining at 11+ and Sixth Form. For further information and to book onto one of the Open Events, please visit: www.stbenedicts.org.uk 


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