It was always odds-on I'd fail history: Michael Leapman's old private school still scores badly on exams, but what he lost there on A-levels he gained on the horses, as he recalls

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GOOD TO SEE that the alma mater has got itself into the news at last. Embley Park School, near Romsey, Hampshire, which I attended from 1951 to 1956, today ranks as one of the worst half dozen independent schools in the country in terms of A-level results, according to last week's Financial Times table.

If its ethos has remained as it was in those days, it will be delighted with the accolade, because it was always far more concerned with healthy outdoor pursuits than the tedious and stuffy exercise of the intellect. Its entry in the Schools Book boasts proudly of its 'phenomenal record of success in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme'.

It is situated in a marvellous old house in extensive grounds, once inhabited by Florence Nightingale. Not long before I arrived, it had changed its name from Romsey College. Susceptible youths that we were, we were never given a detailed explanation for the change but there were rumours of one of those regrettable incidents that arise when lonesome schoolmasters are placed cheek by jowl, as it were, with nubile young boys.

All that had been put behind them before my arrival, when the school was acquired by Evelyn King, a former junior minister in the post-war Labour government, later to become a Conservative MP. He was keen on country pursuits, especially hunting, and there was a distinctly horsey feel about the place. Riding lessons were a popular optional extra (I did not opt). The local hunt used occasionally to meet outside the school and we were allowed to sell programmes at its annual point- to-point meeting - although, in an uncharacteristic concession to respectable opinion, we were forbidden to wear school uniform on the course.

Many of the staff seemed to be chosen as much for their equestrian as their academic abilities. The history master was a case in point. He had a second job as assistant to a local National Hunt trainer and many a long evening would I spend with him and another pupil in the stables, as he ministered to his horse and we discussed the world of racing. His trainer had a rank outsider, Gay Donald, running in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and on his advice I invested a half crown each way. It won at 33-1 and I've been a racing enthusiast ever since. I failed A-level history but would surely have passed had there been a paper on the development of the English thoroughbred.

Later the history master married the school matron and briefly became a racehorse trainer in his own right - as did the other pupil in our threesome, with rather more success. I would occasionally meet them on racecourses, and I still do see there another old schoolmate who, despite his expensive education, followed his father's career as an on-course bookmaker. I seem to remember that he left the school under some kind of a cloud to do with (horror) seeing girls.

I never make myself known to him at the races: indeed, the only schoolfriend with whom I still maintain relations was one of the four in my year who went on to A- levels. Despite everything, he is now a Reader in Economics at Essex University.

Mr King was a devotee of the work ethic, especially outdoor work that could be used to assist his expansion plans. The main form of discipline was called opus, in rare deference to the classics. It would be doled out in half-hour segments according to the gravity of the offence. Gangs of miscreants would be made to perform manual labour, and in this way a fine new swimming pool and squash court were completed in record time. The worst jobs of all were chopping wood for the hall fire and picking stones out of the new playing field, hacked out of the wood by the main entrance.

The grounds were so large that it was hard to keep track of boys who did not want to be kept track of. In the rambling garden, reprobates built 'dens', where they would smoke cigarettes and cook vegetables - occasionally chickens, too - stolen from the surrounding farms. Sometimes they would wash the food down in clandestine visits to the local pub, aptly named the Horse and Jockey.

Many pupils were from overseas, especially the Middle East. One Iranian (he would have been Persian in those days) was related to the head of the Shah's armed forces. Several others were the sons of people in the British colonial service.

I went there because my parents had not acted with sufficient alacrity to enter me for a more reputable place and, having been successful in business, they were keen to pay for my education. I should have been better off academically at my local grammar school but I would have missed other pleasures, such as our excursion last Saturday to Goodwood, picknicking on the Downs with friends and losing money on the horses.

I had no contact with Embley Park for more than 30 years until about a year ago, when I had a call from the school secretary. She had heard, she said, that I had won an award for something. What was it? Could they perhaps use it in their publicity? I confessed to having won two, one for journalism and one for a book I wrote, but both a while back. Nothing to do with the Duke of Edinburgh, so she rightly lost interest.

Danny Danziger returns next week.

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