Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A ticking off at Westminster

The diaries of John Rae, headmaster of Westminster School in the 1970s and 1980s, are being published tomorrow (2 April) by London-based Short Books under the title The Old Boys’ Network. Short Books says they capture the spirit of the times, and of a man at the very heart of things - with humour, passion and a refreshing honesty.

John Malcolm Rae was born in 1931, the son of a radiologist, and educated at Bishop’s Stortford College (a public school in Hertfordshire) and Cambridge. As a young man, he excelled at sport, especially swimming and rugby. He went straight into teaching, training in Edinburgh. His first job was at Harrow, where he taught as an assistant master until being appointed headmaster of Taunton School in 1966. By 1970, though, he had moved to head Westminster School, where he stayed until 1986. In the subsequent two decades, before his death in 2006, he remained active, giving lectures, and holding various directorships (Laura Ashley Foundation, The Observer, Portman Group). He also wrote books, fiction and non-fiction.

These brief facts, though, say nothing of Rae’s ambitious, charismatic and controversial personality. The Times obituary begins: ‘He understood how boarding schools had to adapt to the changing expectations of a generation of parents new to independent schools. The process was sometimes painful, and with his strong personality he became a controversial figure. Some acknowledged that he brought necessary innovation, especially on co-education; but others were uncomfortable with his forthrightness, his flair for publicity and his ambition.’

The Guardian called him a ‘brilliant headmaster who was inspirational, outspoken and happy to court controversy’. But Jim Cogan, writing in The Independent, says this: ‘Working as John Rae’s deputy was exciting, rewarding and good fun. But I was lucky. Others in the Common Room found him aloof and distant - a weakness which he was well aware of, and which predated his time as a headmaster.’

During 14 of his 16 years at Westminster, Rae kept a diary, which is due to be published tomorrow (2 April) by Short Books as The Old Boys’ Network: A Headmaster’s Diaries 1970-1986. The diaries chronicle, Short Books says, ‘everything from dinners with prime ministers, to drugs and sex scandals, and more than a smattering of extraordinary and demanding pupils and parents', and this makes 'for an often shocking and unputdownable read’. The diaries capture, the publisher adds, ‘the spirit of the times, and of a man at the very heart of things - with humour, passion and a refreshing honesty’.

In fact, the book is already available - see Amazon. Moreover, it is being serialised on BBC Radio Four (read by Tim Pigott-Smith); and The Telegraph has published a substantial set of extracts (nearly 3,000 words), here are three of them.

10 July 1973
‘After lunch, I see the parents of a sixth-former who has received very bad reports. They blame the school because they saw their son pass the entrance exam and start at Westminster with such bright-eyed enthusiasm, only to drift away into a non-academic, guitar-playing world. I suspect the truth is rather different. They sent their son to a tutor to get him up to the standard of the entrance exam, and this private intense tuition produced an illusion of ability that soon faded once these special circumstances were withdrawn. Subsequently, the boy has been out of his depth.’

19 April 1976
‘To Winchester for an unpublicised meeting of eight major public schools: Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Harrow, Rubgy, Charterhouse, Shrewsbury and Marlborough. We dine in the warden’s lodgings and before and after dinner we talk about the threats to the future of our schools at a time of rising fees, falling numbers and political hostility. We agree that whatever happens, we eight will act in concert. The unspoken agenda is that our schools must survive even if other independent schools go to the wall.’

22 June 1978
‘I am woken at 2am by footsteps on the roof. I find two 14-year-old boys clambering along in the semi-darkness. I say, ‘good evening’, and they, only mildly surprised to see me, say: ‘Sorry, Sir’. I tell them that roof-climbing is dangerous and that they must come down through the headmaster’s house and report to me in the morning. I admire their enterprise - it is what schoolboys should do sometime before they grow up, but they need a ticking off just the same.’

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