Focus on Charles Fillingham
Charles Fillingham has been the executive headmaster of Solihull School in the West Midlands since January. With more than 1,500 pupils and 320 members of staff it is one of the largest UK independent day schools. It was founded in 1560 and has two campuses: the Saint Martin’s campus for the prep school and the Warwick Road campus for the senior school. It is an academic school that has sent more than 20 pupils to Oxbridge in the past couple of years and the co-curricular programme has particular strengths in hockey, rugby and musical theatre, while the chapel choir is notably strong.
Fillingham was born in Nailsea, Somerset in 1972 and was educated Nailsea School, a comprehensive, and was the first in his family to study at a university. His family has deep roots in Bristol and the West Country going back many generations. He is married with two children and a small white dog.
What have been your previous roles, including in other sectors?
I have been a teacher at five schools – all in London – on the path to Solihull School. I taught French and German at Langley Park School in Beckenham, a boys’ comprehensive for four years, which was an excellent school to learn one’s craft as a teacher. I then became head of languages for two years at The Grey Coat Hospital in Westminster, Central London, a comprehensive for girls with a rich history located within sight of the Houses of Parliament. After that I was appointed director of studies at mixed comprehensive Archbishop Tenison’s in Croydon, Surrey for five years, a diverse school with a strong Church of England ethos.
I then became deputy head for eight years at City of London School, an extremely academic independent school for boys, overlooking the Thames and the Millennium Bridge. After that I was headmaster at Francis Holland next to Regent’s Park in London, an independent school for girls in one of the best locations in Zone 1 – the school is often called “The finest school in London” and is where I spent the past seven years.
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool teacher and I still teach, which is relatively unusual for headteachers, especially in large schools. I enjoy beginners German and GCSE/A- level French classes the most.
What has been the biggest challenge in your job so far?
The school is big, but I’ve shaken hands with every pupil at Solihull. I’m also meeting every member of staff to hear about what they love about the school. I have hosted events for every year group of parents to meet them informally and to listen to them. There are a lot of faces and names to get to know, however Solihull School is Britain’s best kept secret and I want to tell the world about this academic powerhouse in the Midlands.
What’s the most useful advice you’ve been given in life?
Two things: don’t give up – the school motto here is ‘Perseverantia’ and this is perfect for me. And keep your eye on the little things – this is classic schoolmastering learnt at my first school, to ensure standards are high as regards courtesy, co-operation and common sense – then the big things will follow.
Who has been the biggest influence on you?
I have been inspired by teachers who have given their whole working life to one school. In each school there has been one figure, often a senior deputy head or a second master, who has known and loved a school for decades. This is inspirational service and that long service and historical memory of the school’s ethos and values is not to be underestimated.
Do you have a funny story about life in school?
In my first assembly at Solihull School, a pupil’s phone rang when I was in full flow about five minutes into my talk – I joked that my time might be up already.
When my little cockerpoo Clementine comes into school she can be quite naughty and sometimes runs into Latin lessons which doesn’t always please the teachers.
What was the best money-making project that you introduced – and how much did it make?
At Francis Holland, hundreds of thousands of pounds were raised for two things. The first was a bursary foundation to transform lives by offering places at an elite independent school to young people who would never otherwise be able to afford such an opportunity.
Strong partnerships were set up with local schools and the pupils were an incredible asset to the school. The second fundraiser was an ‘acceleration project’ which encouraged parents to donate to refurbishment work which could all be programmed in for that summer, but which otherwise would still have happened, but over five consecutive summers instead.
Back in 2005, I led a team of teachers from Archbishop Tenison’s in Croydon on a sponsored cycle ride to Paris. We raised £8,000 for a second-hand school minibus. It took three days and the pedal fell off of my bicycle, but it was an amazing experience and it provided a different dimension to distances – a destination to which it would seem you’d need to fly or take a fast train is actually achievable under your own steam. An important life lesson in what determination can achieve.
What was the best cost-cutting project you introduced – and how much did it save?
At a previous school, I banned the use of plastic document wallets and also threw away the laminating machine. This saved thousands of sheets of plastic each year. My thinking is that most laminated signs don’t need to last a hundred years and serve their purpose just as well by being printed on paper or card; even if they need replacing slightly more often, they are still less damaging to the environment. Ditto for ‘Meat-free Mondays’ – this was a pupil-led initiative to reduce the carbon footprint of the school.
What has been the biggest surprise you’ve had in school?
Once I arrived at work to find that my office door had been locked, which was totally unheard of. Fearing that I had been sacked and locked out for some dark, unknown reason, I went to see the caretaker who opened the door explaining that £5,000 in cash was inside the room. Each pupil was to be given a commemorative £5 coin for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and they had been put inside my office for safe-keeping.
What has been your lasting memory so far?
To work in a three-to-18 school is amazing. To be able to go from assembly with the upper sixth form straight into assembly with the reception class is a real privilege for me. To lead a community of nearly 1,900 adults and children who would all consider Solihull School to be their weekday home is a great honour.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
I have run both the London and the New York marathons and I am an ASA qualified swimming teacher. In 2012, I was a volunteer Games Maker at the London Olympics. In 2019, I cycled to Paris again, this time with my 14-year-old son.
At university, I was president of the French Society; I presented a hospital radio show and I wrote for the college magazine. I hold a TEFL qualification. I used to be able to play the guitar badly and I loosely support Bristol City. I grow vegetables with moderate success and I am interested in the life and works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I am a Freeman of the City of London and a Liveryman with the Worshipful Company of Stationers.
What are your personal future plans?
I used to want to become prime minister – but not anymore!