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q&a with ucc’s new principal

Upper Canada College principal Samuel McKinney with Grade 12 students Sevion DaCosta, left, and Jay Potts.

The new headmaster at prestigious Eton College in Britain created quite a buzz two years ago when he announced his aim to put the 566-year-old independent school for boys on a more modern, inclusive and progressive path.

Simon Henderson was just 38 when he left the helm of Bradfield College for the 1,300-student boarding school near Windsor at a time when then-Prime Minister David Cameron was being attacked for having what some considered an inordinate number of Old Etonians with privileged backgrounds in his political inner circle.

Mr. Henderson told British media that while academic excellence will remain a focus at Eton, there will be more emphasis on students' mental health and developing their "emotional intelligence," and accepting students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including through a boosted bursary system.

But Eton isn't the only independent school looking to modernize and distance itself from an elitist reputation.

At one of Canada's oldest independent schools, Upper Canada College in Toronto, for instance, new principal Samuel McKinney is bringing some ideas of his own to the boys' school founded in 1829.

"For me at UCC, the college has always tried to strike that delicate balance of honouring and respecting the past while being progressive and looking toward the future, and this absolutely needs to continue here as we widen our focus to become more inclusive as an institute," says Mr. McKinney, who was born and raised in Ontario's Niagara region.

The son of two schoolteachers, Mr. McKinney, 49, has taught in both Canada and Australia. He was deputy headmaster and head of senior school at 168-year-old St. Peter's College boys' school in Adelaide, South Australia, before becoming UCC's 19th principal effective July 1.

An avid sportsman who continued to play hockey the past eight years, at the only rink in Adelaide, he moved back to Canada with his wife Rose, also a teacher, and sons Jack, 17, Connor, 16 and Charlie, 14. All three children now attend UCC, which has about 1,160 students (including about 90 boarders) from senior kindergarten through Grade 12.

Mr. McKinney is in the early stages of leading UCC in the development of a new strategic plan, in consultation with others, including faculty and staff, parents, students and alumni.

At this early point in the process, he offers some of his ideas and thoughts:

What do private schools, including ones like UCC that are steeped in tradition, offer to students dealing with modern-day issues?

I can't speak for all schools, but I believe UCC has a tremendous range of opportunities in music, arts, and sports, both within and out of school hours that [provide them with the] opportunity to develop unique characteristics that allow them to win with grace and lose with dignity. While my own circumstances were perhaps more sporting, I recognize for the times I spent involved in debating or in musical production, there's a teamwork that gives you a sense of involvement and value, a sense of meaning in the work you're doing.

Have private schools, including single-gender ones, maintained relevancy and does UCC have any plans to admit girls, for instance?

It's important that we recognize not all schools are right for all individual students, whether they're boys or girls. … One thing I've learned in my time at progressive schools in Australia and Canada is ensuring education is tailored for students' needs. That's why at an all-boys environment, we have an opportunity to be specialists in boys. This understanding shapes everything we do – in the classroom, on our playing fields and in the community. … UCC will continue to be relevant long into the future [because] … we spend a lot of time thinking about the ways boys learn and grow, and that's where we put our emphasis.

How important is looking at students and their needs from a holistic perspective?

Young people in 2016 face challenges and life circumstances causing them stress, depression and the like. … We know that boys …are all individuals and go through those stages of development, adolescence and the like, where the ground beneath their feet can turn to quicksand, so we want to make sure what we deliver is age and stage appropriate for our boys. My own experience has been that, to teach students well, you must know them well. As an educational institution, we have a responsibility to help boys develop skills on resilience and strength of character to deal with circumstances life is going to throw at them. I've learned schools have a fundamental commitment to the development of students as whole people, and ones that offer a high degree of individual attention are providing the best learning and growth opportunity, [including fostering] a sense of belonging that exists within the school and that extends beyond the gate of the school.

There's a movement to make independent schools more accessible to families that aren't so privileged. Where does UCC stand?

I believe we are now in a position to create accessibility to the school for a far wider breadth of students. We had a significant fundraising initiative that lasted the better part of 10 years that was achieved a year ago and raised about $104-million overall, and we're directing about $50-million of that toward providing financial assistance. Now more than 200 boys have access to the school [because of financial aid], and we're working on a figure of 20 per cent of the entire student body. [For 2016-17 at UCC, tuition for domestic day students ranges from $30,860 to $33,860, depending on the grade; for boarding students, it's $55,860 for Grades 8-10 and $58,060 for Grades 11-12. The school committed more than $5-million in financial assistance for this school year.]

Any curriculum changes in the works?

We are an International Baccalaureate school so we provide curriculum that sits within the framework of the IB – we have some latitude about the program and offerings, but it is very much a framework being applied across a number of progressive schools worldwide. Our focus is on providing a rigorous and engaging curriculum that's progressive in nature but that also really works to prepare our students for a world that is rapidly changing. It's more critical in many respects that we revisit our curriculum on a regular basis as we recognize there are significant influences in the space of boys' learning.

What else is UCC doing to foster healthy and effective learning?

We have had some wonderful classroom designs come online where there isn't a front of class. Learning happens all around the room with boys surrounded by whiteboards, supporting a creative and dynamic learning environment. The chairs and desks move around easily, fostering group collaboration and co-operation – learning skills that are crucial in today's world. [About $35.5-million of the $104-million raised has gone into improving classrooms and other facilities.]

How do teachers fit into UCC's goals?

The research is very clear with regard to what has the greatest degree of impact on a student's learning, and that's the quality of teachers. We have teachers who have joined us from all corners of the world with incredible skill and ability. On balance, we have at least a gender equal balance of teachers in the school. It's so incredibly important for the boys to have positive and strong female role models in this school – that is the world of 2016 as it should be.

Responses have been edited and condensed.