Obituary: John Mackay

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The Independent Culture
JOHN MACKAY was a schoolmaster distinguished not so much for his public fame as for his private virtues, a model of what a headmaster should be: dedicated to the welfare of his pupils and skilfully bridging the divide between traditional and liberal ideas. For this reason, although he never sought publicity, he was adjudged a great headmaster. He was chosen to be chairman of the Headmasters' Conference in 1970, only the second head of a Direct Grant School to be so honoured. He was head of Bristol Grammar School in a controversial era: national policy was moving towards egalitarianism in education while internally schools were trying to cope with greater freedom for, and fuller participation by, pupils.

As a public figure he fought tenaciously for the values of the grammar schools: for academic excellence in a system designed to give opportunities to likely high-fliers from low- income homes. Within Bristol Grammar School - founded in 1532 - he seemed on the one hand a traditionalist and stern disciplinarian, and on the other an innovator whose ideas were notable for their humanity.

He exacted the highest standards from both staff and pupils. Absences, for instance, were scarcely tolerated. A notice in the staff common room read: "No member of staff may attend weddings other than their own." His own command of English meant that carelessly written end-of-term reports were instantly returned for re-writing. In writing to a difficult parent his secretary typed "I will be glad to see you next Thursday . . ."; it was amended to "I will be willing to see you . . ." Yet the staff were told not to show apoplexy over the fashion of long hair; there were more important matters in the life of the school.

Among his innovations were: exciting open days; a council of sixth-formers whose views counted; morning assemblies of a more secular variety featuring staff and boys; a musical renaissance; increased extra-curricular activities, including film-making; strong support of sport alongside greater choice and voluntary participation by seniors. A present-day bishop said: "Rugby used to be compulsory. I hated it, and, glory be, I was told I could go and play the organ instead."

John Mackay was born and educated in Nottingham, graduating BA from Nottingham University and then, externally, from London University in 1935, with a First in English. Before the Second World War he played a dominant role in the Student Christian Movement and lectured at St John's College, York. He joined the Navy as a rating and was duly commissioned, but he never spoke of his wartime experiences until a grandson, given a primary-school project, questioned him; only then were his exploits on convoy duty in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the North Sea revealed.

After the war he became a postgraduate at Merton College, Oxford, gaining a DPhil in English. He joined the staff of Merchant Taylors' School, Crosby, in 1948 and from 1956 he served as Second Master of Cheltenham College. In 1960 he was appointed Headmaster of Bristol Grammar School, where he reigned for 15 years.

The fair play shown in all his reforms, relationships and decisions won him universal respect, just as his 65 not out in an early staff match won him instant popularity. He never made up his mind quickly, but there was total integrity rather than devious diplomacy when, after weighing up pros and cons, he made ultimate decisions. It was this integrity, built on the solid platform of his Christian faith and wonderfully happy marriage, which was the foundation of his character and work and which issued in a rare mixture of modesty, generosity and a full appreciation of life.

He saw the worth in such varied things: Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse; Dante's Inferno and Dickie Bird's Autobiography; taking services in Tormarton, where he retired, and supporting Gloucestershire Cricket Club. In retirement he became a licensed reader of the C of E, a governor of Clifton College, Westonbirt School and Acton Turville School, quite as proud of the last of these as of the first two, as much the centre of village life as of his family's life.

If he is most readily remembered by family, friends and former pupils, rather than as a public personality, that in no way lessens the importance of his contribution to education in general and Bristol Grammar School in particular. It is what makes him special. One pupil who thought a misdemeanour would lead to expulsion from Bristol was shown an understanding which led to his now being a distinguished member of society. Another, an Old Boy from Crosby, wrote out of the blue to say that Mackay's influence had been so enormous that he had risen to the top of his chosen profession from being a stuttering small boy completely lacking in self- confidence; the swift and practical measures which Mackay had taken had restored his self-esteem.

Though scattered far and wide in different lands, his family reunited this summer to give him a final, memorable 85th birthday party. He is survived by two sons, two daughters and four grandchildren.

Roger Young

John Mackay, schoolmaster: born Nottingham 23 June 1914; English Lecturer, St John's College, York 1938-40; English Master, Merchant Taylors' School, Crosby 1948-54; Second Master, Cheltenham College 1954-60; Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School 1960-75; Chairman, Headmasters' Conference 1970, Treasurer 1974-75; married 1952 Margaret Ogilvie (died 1996; two sons, two daughters); died Tormarton, Gloucestershire 8 October 1999.