Interview: Dr Jon Cox, RGS Guildford meets Dr Jon Cox, the headmaster of Royal Grammar School, Guildford, to talk the future of GCSEs, single-sex education, what makes an outstanding school… and chess.
Interview: Dr Jon Cox, RGS Guildford
By Carli Allan
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Dr Jon Cox never intended to be a teacher – in fact, his ambition was to become a professional musician. However, after rising through the ranks at Whitgift School, he is now headmaster at one of the UK’s leading all-boys’ schools, Royal Grammar School, Guildford. It’s a career he describes as “a privilege” and “the best job ever” with a smile that radiates genuine joy.

Dr Cox has spent 15 years at RGS. While he does still play the French horn, his focus now is on education – and on preparing young people for “the test of life, not a life of tests”. Described by colleagues as an empowering leader, he is rightly proud of the academic excellence at the popular RGS school for 11 to 18-year-old boys, as well as its commitment to a much broader education. And, as the RGS family has expanded to include campuses in Qatar and Dubai, Dr Cox is determined to create a very recognisable RGS education in the UK and overseas.

WhichSchoolAdvisor talks with Dr Cox to learn more about his approach to teaching and his views on the UK education system.

What is the most positive memory you have from your own school days? How has it changed your outlook on what makes a fabulous school for children?

“My biology and music teachers were wonderful; enthusiastic, knowledgeable and great fun, they both change the course of my life by their passion. A school can only be outstanding if it has exceptional teachers."

What are the top five features of an outstanding school, in order, that must be delivered for every child?

"Providing the best education possible for every pupil irrespective of circumstances, a supportive community, a sense of belonging, engendering a love of learning, and providing wonderful opportunities."

What does the concept of a “whole child education” mean for you? How hard is it for a school to deliver at an outstanding level for students?

"Caring for your students in every respect; academic, extra-curricular, well-being etc. so that they are fully prepared for the future."

Girls are naturally better communicators than boys – schools need to recognise this and adjust teaching styles accordingly. True or false?

"Teaching young people requires energy, enthusiasm and inspiration whether boys or girls. Boys like competition and are, perhaps, more willing to take risks, which we can use in our teaching at RGS Guildford. To be honest, I don’t see too much difference in the teaching of boys to girls."

Chess is just as much of a sport as rugby. Outstanding schools recognise that the definition of sport should be broadened to engage every student. True/False. Why?

"Absolutely agree – I read out the chess results alongside the rugby results at assembly. Every activity has huge benefits for students and allows them to find their place in a school. It is not all about the 1st XI or

Do you think students being “woke” is an asset?

"All young people need to be aware that things in this world need fixing and that many issues have been ignored or downplayed for many years. They are, after all, the ones who are going to fix the problems. Our job as a school is to help them see the bigger picture so that they are not focused on one issue to the detriment of their wider education."

In rank order, which is more important: emotional intelligence, common sense, or academic/technical qualifications. Why?

"They are all important but I would suggest that Emotional Intelligence is an essential skill in the world of the future.

One needs to be able to relate to others if you are to demonstrate your academic acumen.

That said, intelligence and creativity in terms of problem solving are often linked and that is equally important."

Some students, even if given an outstanding education, will never be able to achieve academically. True or false. Why?

"False – achievement academically is not about passing exams and possessing a certificate full of A*s. It is about being able to think critically, learn independently, work as a team, demonstrate resilience and be creative of thought. Every young person can be trained in these skills."

If you were a parent, what are the top three most difficult questions you would ask a school to find out if it was right for your child? What are the answers that should make parents run a mile?

"How will you look after the well-being of my child? What is the culture of the School? What are you trying to achieve for your students? Any school which doesn’t have a very clear answer to these question should raise alarm bells."

What makes a good teacher? Thinking about your school, what five qualities must a teacher have for you to be confident that they will deliver an outstanding education for children?

"A teacher must demonstrate passion, inspiration, engagement, enthusiasm and care."

How important is breadth of subject options at Sixth Form? Which subjects are jettisoned by some schools that you think should not be?

"Breadth of options at Sixth Form is very important as every pupil has different skills and wishes. We deliberately try to keep all options open regarding the less popular subjects such as Electronics and Greek as these have their own academic worth. We [only] write the Sixth Form timetable once option choices are in to try to accommodate every students’ choice."

Will we still have GCSE qualifications in 10 years’ time?

"We will have something akin to GCSEs but not in their current format. It is important to provide opportunities for pupils to demonstrate their academic progress. I would, however, like to see a paper either written or online which tests general academic ability, rather than testing memory."

If you were deciding the future of British education and could make three radical changes to help all schools deliver an outstanding education for the 21st century, what would they be and why?

"Post A Level applications to university; a more tailored education for every student; less emphasis on league tables and passing exams."

Describe the top five things that make a Royal Grammar School education special/different...

"We encourage independence of thought, the ability to think critically, self-motivation, the love of learning for its own sake, inclusivity and resilience. These are at the heart of everything we do, they are not just words written as part of a marketing brochure."

British curriculum, American curriculum or IB curriculum? On balance, which is the best for most students? Why?

"All curricula are good in their own way, but the British education system is seen as the gold standard throughout the world, and it is something of which we should be very proud."

What do you think is meant by a school providing an “international education”? Is it important? Why?

"An international education is about partnership, engagement in different cultures, sharing ideas across international borders and establishing a family of schools sharing the same vision and ethos. Our young students will increasingly be competing for jobs in a global marketplace. We need to give them the experience of global engagement and what better time to do it than when they are at school."

Inevitably, all things being otherwise equal, schools with higher fees will be able to invest more in students and deliver a better education. True or false – and why?

"True to a certain extent, although I have seen examples of an exceptional education in schools in some of the least affluent areas of the UK. Higher fees, however, enable schools to attract the most inspirational staff and wonderful facilities - and opportunities are all part of providing the best all-round education."

Is Value Add an important measure of how well a school is really achieving for students beyond the bells and whistles? Can you measure added value accurately across schools for the whole child education beyond academics? How?

"Value added is very important because it provides a school with the data it needs to confirm its educational provision or to seek ways to improve. In the same way, data about emotional development and well-being (AS Tracking, for instance) provides information so that a school can be comfortable that it is identifying those pupils who need support."

Can every child learn how to be confident, or can they “only” learn how to appear to be confident?

"You can’t change a student’s personality so don’t try. Real confidence comes from excellent teaching and pastoral support. It also comes from being comfortable in one’s own shoes and not having to conform to some stereotype. This innate confidence is so much more healthy than a skin-deep swagger."

Is it better for students to leave school being humble, or arrogant? Why?

"Humble - every time. It’s what I love about the boys who leave RGS Guildford. They are right at the top of the academic pile and they have that innate self-belief, but they go out into the world exhibiting great humility. They don’t think the world owes them a living just because of the school they attended."

In one sentence, what would you like to have achieved for every student when they graduate your school for either university or business?

"I would hope that our students would be fully prepared with all the skills they need for the future and looking forward to their lives after leaving RGS."

A version of this article was first published in our sister site,, a school comparison site for the UAE. 

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