A School Built on Ethos

Ideas, assemblies and hard-won wisdom

By: James Handscombe


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Products specifications
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Size: 234mm x 156mm
Pages : 224
ISBN : 9781785835339
Format: Paperback
Published: March 2021

In A School Built on Ethos: Ideas, assemblies and hard-won wisdom, James Handscombe explores how schooling is more than gaining qualifications, how learning is more than exams, and how academic success comes more readily to those who have grasped this idea.

Harris Westminster Sixth Form has had enormous success in providing an academic education for students of all socio-economic backgrounds. This success is grounded in the development of a scholarly ethos that guides students and staff into successful habits – driven by a clear vision for the community and communicated through everything that the school says and does.

In this book, founding principal James Handscombe takes readers through the school’s development and illustrates its journey by sharing a selection of the assemblies that have underpinned and elucidated its ethos.

In doing so he offers guidance on how such a staple of school life can be used to shape a community, and shares transferable lessons on how assemblies can be planned and delivered effectively.

Furthermore, James discusses the challenges the school faced during its creation and offers an improved understanding of how academic and scholarly learning can be delivered and developed in a school – whether it be newly formed or already established. He also asks the fundamental question of how schools can encourage and enable disadvantaged young people to aspire to and engage in academic enquiry.

Suitable for both established and aspiring school leaders, especially those who are thinking about the kind of school they would like to run and how they can shape it.

Picture for author James Handscombe

James Handscombe

James Handscombe studied mathematics at Oxford and Harvard before training to be a teacher. He worked in schools in South Wales, Australia and south-east London before becoming the founding principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form in 2014. He occasionally gets invited to speak at conferences and sometimes finds time to write things – mostly articles for the TES and letters to the editor of The Times, but he's also written for Schools Week and The Spectator's Coffee House blog.

Click here to read James Handscombe’s blog.


  1. This inspirational book is much more than a report of building ethos in a publicly funded selective sixth-form school. Don't dismiss it as a quirk that creates a newly privileged class. Instead it is a model of how school leadership enriched by a deeply human hinterland can transform students, teachers and a community. Poetry, art, music, people, hope, trust: all play a part in founding a fresh culture that turns lives and expectations around. Visionary education can make social change possible - here's one way.

  2. An external view may deem the purpose of a school as a relatively straightforward endeavour - to educate children. On the other hand, educators would rightfully posit that a school is a much complex ecosystem especially when the philosophical concept of a school's 'ethos' is considered. Arguably, established schools have taken years in which to refine their idiosyncratic 'ethos' that sets them apart from others. But what of a new school on the block? How does a newly created school establish quickly a learning ethos that others have had years in which to perfect? That was the challenge presented to Head Teacher James  Handscombe and his Senior Leadership Team when they accepted their posts at the newly established Harris Westminster Sixth Form when it opened its doors to students for the first time in 2014.

    This book charts brilliantly the establishment of a school's ethos through the use of assemblies, as James Handscombe shares assembly content, purpose and reflections with the reader as thoughtful learning orientations. Harris Westminster's assemblies provide collective space for the orator to draw upon their intellectual interests to inspire, provoke, encourage and pique the curiosities of the audience that are situated at the threshold of adulthood. This collection of assemblies is bold, at times brave, and is grounded in a collective humanity which seeks to encourage and unite in a common scholarly purpose - that of human flourishing. If Ofsted's notion of 'cultural capital' is to equip children and young people with 'the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement' then I am certain this assemblage of content achieves this benchmark. I think the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, often associated with the concept of 'cultural capital', would have approved too. Having said that, this is not a book whose purpose is to satisfy Ofsted nor, as James opines, one that offers some sort of educational elixir for those that seek to transpose its content word for word in the hope they too can replicate the outcomes of Westminster Harris. If anything, this book gives permission for educators to share not only their knowledge and love of learning but to connect enquiring intellects to the brilliance of humanity. Finally, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato held the view that children should not be exposed to "chance stories" fashioned by "chance teachers", fearing that such offerings would leave a questionable and indelible imprint on a young mind. However, Harris Westminster's success is because they did, and do, take a chance. For this is their ethos. And it is one we can all learn from.

  3. A School Built on Ethos cleverly combines poetry, philosophy and knowledge into a comedic jaunt through the author's mind as he delivers a wondrous series of captivating assemblies to his student body. The reader cannot help but be swept along with the flow as they meander through each chapter, which conclude with real words of hard-won wisdom. These narrate an insight into how James Handscombe has established success in his school and instilled life-long values into his students, and these same values will provide acuity for any school leader. 
  4. This is a book about how an incredibly successful school built its ethos - but it's not just about this school, as the principles elucidated here can be applied to any school. Through a series of assemblies and commentaries by the founding principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, the book outlines the key principles involved in creating excellence through building ethos in a school. These principles - Harris Westminster's driving ideas of ambition, perseverance and legacy - can be adapted for any context.

    A School Built on Ethos is by turns entertaining, thoughtful, stretching and deeply interesting. James Handscombe demonstrates very clearly that while every school leaves a legacy of some kind, a legacy of excellence can indeed be planned for and created with ambition and perseverance. 

  5. Handscombe is the Montaigne of education writers. His book is a beautifully written smorgasbord; a feast of thought spread out before you. Or maybe it would be better thought of as a carefully curated exhibition, the exhibits chosen for the light they shed on each other and, obliquely, on the process of leading a school. Handscombe never tells you what to do. Instead, he provides fleeting glimpses by means of an extraordinary range of assembly topics in which the breadth of his interests and erudition sparkle and glister as he cajoles, exhorts and guides the students who have been privileged - whether they knew it or not - to be present at these addresses in which the very human core of a school is refracted. 

  6. Harris Westminster is a gem and it has been a privilege to work with and get to know many of their students. James' book provides a peek behind the door of why this school and the students themselves are such a success. James is an inspiring, passionate and dedicated school leader and educator, and in this book his passion and enthusiasm is infectious and jumps right off the page.

    A School Built on Ethos offers an insight into the framework that differentiates this school and enables it to achieve all it does.
  7. An honest, touching and inspirational tale with pearls of wisdom and useful practical ideas.
  8. Many books about education are purely utilitarian; you open them up in the hope of learning how to do something better. Whilst A School Built on Ethos offers plenty in this regard, it does much more besides too. Furthermore, there are sadly too few education books that work as a piece of literature; however, this book shares a narrative to savour and get lost within as James Handscombe takes you on a fascinating journey of how a school comes into being, in both a physical sense but also as something that transcends its bricks and mortar. It is also a delightfully funny read as James meanders from one digression to another in weaving his captivating story. The scripts of assemblies that pepper the book are particular high points and I turned the page on each one feeling enriched. They also beautifully illustrate the points made in each section of the book and enable you to see the author who walks his talk on a daily basis. 

    I adore A School Built on Ethos for many reasons. It is wonderful to read about school leadership from someone who clearly loves their job, their school and their students. And as well as giving many practical points on school leadership, James also sets out a clear case that a school is more than a building, a timetable and a budget; it is a community and one that needs an ethos to bring people together and give them a common purpose. 

    I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
  9. A School Built on Ethos offers a personal take on the world of education via an ingenious idea, whereby head teacher James Handscombe has written each chapter around assemblies delivered at his school over the past few years. That his school is Harris Westminster - a sixth-form school that serves a wide range of students yet is situated right in the centre of Britain's power and privilege, pomp and circumstance - gives this book a unique edge, too. Handscombe teaches us all a number of lessons from (sometimes literally) his pulpit, yet manages to make the style more conversational than preachy. This is to his credit.

    A book that is a joy to dip in and out of, A School Built on Ethos conjures up an array of fascinating situations and characters, but it is the advice drawn from experience that will resonate long after the book has been read that will bring readers to it, safe in the knowledge that they are in the good hands of a thoughtful and empathetic head teacher.

  10. Great book
  11. Great book

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