South Front digging - 9 May 1941

Schools for Thought

My boarding school education started in 1933 at Summer Fields, Oxford. It is a preparatory school, even then of some antiquity and there were about a hundred of us, all boy boarders eight and a half to fourteen years old – the number is now circa 250. We were reared very predominantly in Latin and Greek with a smattering of English Literature and History, where we seemed permanently stuck with the Tudors while Maths, the Sciences and French were very poor thirds. But with many other schools nearby we had very enjoyable matches, mainly cricket, football and rugby and I loved the drama – a production of Richard II had Patrick Macnee, Christopher Lee and Robin Sinclair in the cast, as well as myself in a minor role.

I entered Stowe in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis. We were immediately put to digging air raid trenches near the Queen’s Temple while a party of German students played a cricket match with the remnants of the Summer’s first XI on the North Front. It was an unreal start!

In spite of it being almost entirely in wartime conditions, I thoroughly enjoyed my four years at Stowe. It was during the headmastership of the legendary JF Roxburgh and the foresight in his leadership very much governed how the School conducted itself. As the call-up age into the services was 18, many of us who were chosen for prefectorial and other senior duties assumed them a year in advance of what we might have anticipated and so I became head of Cobham House in a very fruitful relationship with the House Master; School Prefect with responsibilities for the library and chapel and became the first boy Editor of The Stoic. I passed my A levels and as a Historian, learned to edit lecture notes into something coherent. I passed the Officer Training Corp exams and when Stowe became a detachment of the Home Guard, I became a Lance Corporal, putting me on level terms with Jonesy of ‘Dad’s Army’ fame. I also acted in school plays and became Secretary of the Debating Society. The above demonstrates the breadth of experience which could be obtained at Stowe even in wartime conditions. These were brought home to one every time JF in chapel read out the name of a fellow Stoic who had been killed in action. Additionally, I spent some evenings in the Pineapple Boys’ Club in London’s Edgware Road which featured in the last issue of The Corinthian and when the boys of that club came to Stowe, my brother Robin and I raised the teams to play against them.

Towards the end of my time an Old Stoic, Steven Smith (Grenville 37) came to speak in the chapel. Steve was a Quaker and therefore a non-combatant though he hazarded his life by being an ambulance driver in London throughout the Blitz. When the war started in September 1939, there was a mass evacuation of children from London into the countryside but the first seven months saw little in the way of action close to London and there was a steady drift back to the capital. Meanwhile the London schools had been taken over as British restaurants, offering those Londoners who were spending their nights in underground stations the opportunity of having their one cooked meal of the day, provided by a host of volunteers, for 1 shilling. As a result, with no schools to go to, children were running wild dangerously with very little to occupy them. Steve had managed to obtain a significant grant from the American War Relief Fund and had set up a club for boys and girls in a disused sail maker’s premises in Rotherhithe on the side of the Thames and in his Chapel talk was appealing for help. My friend, Jack Manley (Temple 43) and I decided we should answer the call which was to occupy our last two holidays prior to call-up. We were fortunate that the ferocity of the Blitz was starting to diminish at this stage.

Roll forward to 1978…10 years previously I had been elected to the Livery of The Worshipful Company of Brewers and by 1978 I had served 3 year-long terms as Renter, Middle and Upper Wardens before becoming Master for the year 1977/78 which taught me the historic importance of the Guilds as a reservoir of experience and intellect over many centuries.

As a member of the Court, I was very aware of the importance The Brewers’ Company attached to the two schools which as a result of long established bequests had been brought into the orbit of its responsibilities. They were Aldenham, the fee paying public school based at Elstree and Dame Alice Owens School, a voluntary aided comprehensive school in the state system. On completing my year as Master, I was aware that there was a pending vacancy for the Chairmanship of the Governing Body of Owens School (a role which until recently has by tradition been filled by a member of the Court). There was an evident reluctance among members of the Court to take this on. It was a challenging time. Founded in 1613 in Islington, the school had become two grammar schools separated for boys and girls and with total pupils of 650. For a variety of reasons the Court had decided to relocate the schools by merger to Potters Bar in Hertfordshire and after a site had been found and much preparatory work undertaken, the move was accomplished in the period 1973/76, becoming a mixed-gender voluntary aided comprehensive school in the state system.

The answer to the question ‘why did parents have to make considerable sacrifices to obtain entry into independent schools? This was mainly because the education provided by the former was significantly better than the overall standard in the state sector. I reasoned, therefore, that that being so, did it not behove those of us in a position to make a difference and with the ultimate aim to achieve the highest standard of education in its various forms for every child in our land, to use our best endeavours to advancing that ideal? I reflected that my 44 year career with Guinness would shortly come to its close and it would leave me time to fulfil the role properly. With some qualms due to my lack of experience, I accepted.

There is a romance about the origin of the school. As a young girl in 1563, Alice Wilkes rose from her milking school in Islington fields at the moment when someone practising cross-bow archery fired an arrow which pierced her bonnet. Being devout and regarding her escape as a divine intervention, she vowed to fund an alms house and a school on that spot. She went on to survive in a distinguished career with three husbands, two brewers and a judge, and becoming Dame Alice Owen. During her fifteen years of widowhood, she was reminded by her maidservant of the pledge of many years before and, as a result, she founded an alms house and a school for thirty boys of Islington on that spot. In her will she charged The Brewers’ Company to take on responsibility for the foundation which remains the position to this day. It would have been impossible at that time for the poorer boys to aspire through education and it is likely that the earliest pupils were drawn from the lower middle class which boded well for its future.

My start was not without incident. As stated, the school had only begin to recruit pupils to Potters Bar eight years before my advent in 1981 and there was much pioneering work still to be done. The Learned Clerk to The Brewers’ Company retired, leaving a substantial void in the guidance he provided. The Headmaster, too, retired due to failing eyesight and the two senior members of the staff asked to retire early. Following interviews, we chose the new Head who proved to be an excellent choice and I started with a completely new Senior Management Team – this was not without its advantages. I inherited a Governing Body of seventeen members, four of whom were County nominees – in all too many, in my view, to be moulded into an effective team. A government restructuring towards the end of my time reduced the number to a more manageable twelve, but it was a body which had some loyal and experienced members who assisted me greatly with their advice and support, especially in my early days. While some of the teaching staff who had come from Islington felt some twinges of nostalgia, they were soon enthusing over the modem facilities available to them at Potters Bar: space; a rural setting; easy travel and well-equipped modern buildings with sports fields, tennis courts and so on. Speaking to the Hertsmere Borough Council subsequently, I could sense that we were welcome not least because we were providing school places in a growing area where a lack had existed. While the Headmaster was skilfully combining the traditional features which had stood the Islington schools in such good stead over 350 years, complying with the provisions of the 1980 Education Act, I saw it as my priority to establish good relations and communication with parents, the County Authority (an added difficulty was that Hertfordshire was a ‘hung’ Council at the time) as well as neighbouring voluntary aided schools and the local press, while at the same time moulding the seventeen governors into a coherent body. It was essential in these early pioneering days for the Headmaster and I to inspire confidence that the move to Potters Bar was for the good and not the reverse.

The high reputation of the Islington schools had preceded it to Potters Bar so that at the time I took over, numbers had risen to 1100, later advancing to 1400. HRH Princess Anne formally opened the school in 1976 and in 1991 HRH Prince Philip opened the new Edinburgh Centre devoted in the main to teaching Computer Technology. In 1987, we were honoured from a visit by the Duke of Kent while in 1997 HRH Princess Anne returned to open the Bernard Ryan Modem Languages Centre. In 2007, the Duke of Kent came to open the Arnold Lynch Block for Art, Design and Technology and Mathematics. Starting in 2012, I led the fundraising for a 350-seater concert hall/performing arts centre which became the Edward Guinness Hall in recognition. In addition it was possible to fund an all-weather sports pitch through the charitable trust of a very generous old Owenian – it was opened by the Minister for Sports, Colin Moynihan, in 2007 and in 2016 Lord Winston opened a very well equipped Science block – all the above indicates the breadth of educational opportunities which were being offered. The Dame had certainly started something! With such buildings and high quality in the Headmaster’s teaching staff including art, music and drama which were developing fast, we have been consistent in being in the top ten comprehensive schools in the League tables.

I count myself very fortunate to have had experience in each of these three sectors of our national educational system. I was also fortunate to have inherited, at Dame Alice Owens, the benefits of the merger of two grammar schools which had developed its tradition in terms of governance, conduct, disciplines and charity over 350 years and retained these in the move from Islington to Potters Bar. The links with The Brewers’ Company were invaluable. Although I was able to maintain good relations with the permanent staff and councillors at county level, political party intervention could prove irksome when we were able to achieve Grant Maintained Status in my final year. This meant we could afford a Bursar and spend to the best of our ability based on our experience and whatever funds we were allocated. It gave a much better focus to our efforts. Parents have responded to this as it gave a new meaning to ‘Our School’ and in so many ways parents have given their enthusiastic support to the progress of their childrens’ advancement in academia, the arts and sport. In every way it has been a tremendous advance in state education as I knew it in my boyhood, though disparaties in the State Sector are still very marked but the best are becoming very good. I recall the excitement in the 80s when two of our pupils were the first to gain places at Oxbridge; nowadays the number is averaging. John Rae, the former Headmaster of Westminster School, has written that the greatest challenge facing the independent sector is not now hostility from the Labour Party, so much as the improvement in the state system in terms of education as one might hope that we have reached a maturity where we do not seek to destroy what is fundamentally good but to augment it. Surely our aim must be for every child in our land to have as good and full an education as the nation can afford. It will take time but the omens are good and could lead to a restructuring of our educational system. But, if this were to happen, my prayer is that the solution will come about in a harmonious and constructive way and not from an unfruitful sense of rivalry.

Edward Guinness (Cobham 42)