From novelist to high master

Martin Stephen is the author of several bodice-ripping novels. He is also the new high master of St Paul's, one of Britain's top schools. What plans does he have for the institution, asks Catherine Nixey institution

"One filter coffee. Smooth or robust sir?' asks the waitress. "Ooh. What a question. Robust, I think. Yes, robust." Martin Stephen looks at me out of the corner of his eye and laughs. It's a sweet laugh, more of a giggle really, showing gappy front teeth. "Anything else would be a challenge to my masculinity."

Dr Stephen, who is high master at the phenomenally successful Manchester Grammar School, chairman elect of the Headmasters' Conference, which represents some of Britain's more elite schools, and author of 15 academic books, will take over the position of high master at St Paul's School for boys next year. There is much excitement about his appointment to this plum post. A man with a high public profile and a visionary leader, he is expected to bring change.

Since arriving at Manchester Grammar he has maintained the school's excellent position in the league tables and its Oxbridge entrance figures - between 40 and 60 boys every year. At the same time he has made the school more inclusive through his bursaries scheme, whereby bright boys from disadvantaged homes have all or part of their fees paid. Out of 1,400 boys, more than 200 are on bursaries.

The scheme has been running for only four years but Stephen has got some big players involved - the banks, HSBC and Rothschild, are among the national contributors, its patron is the Prince of Wales and Sir Alex Ferguson is vice-president.

So far he has raised £8.4m, and he wants to raise a lot more money to cover more boys. "We would like to make entry to the school means-blind," he says. "So anybody who meets the entrance standards can get in."

Stephen may sound as though he was born into teaching but he never intended to be a teacher; he wanted to be an academic. He left Uppingham, the minor public school he attended, vowing never to set foot inside a school again. "I absolutely hated it," he says. "I hated it because I was a rebel and I was a misfit and I wanted to be in control of my own life."

Stephen won't say in what way he rebelled. "Ask my house master," he says. It is clear, however, that it was a limited rebellion because it didn't get in the way of his taking A-levels two years earlier than usual. He remained, he emphasises, on good terms with many of his teachers. It's hard to imagine this round, jolly man being difficult or aggressive. And he didn't completely abandon his plans to become an academic - he has managed to find time to teach English literature to undergraduates at Manchester University.

Leeds University, where he studied English, was "wonderful", he says. During the holidays he undertook voluntary work with delinquents. As a result he survived what he calls three murder attempts by his charges - one with a pitchfork, one with a carving knife and one in a mini.

To his credit his enthusiasm for helping disadvantaged children remains undimmed. How will this sit at St Paul's, arguably the best and most exclusive boys school in the country, which is not known for its access schemes? Isn't St Paul's a long way from Manchester Grammar?

"It's a long way geographically," says Stephen. "I'm not sure that spiritually it's a long way. The interesting issue is that certainly at some level there is a very strong desire indeed to reach out to the community to offer education on a meritocratic basis. There's a tremendous sharing of interest between the great academic day schools of the United Kingdom."

The next high master of St Paul's will say very little about the price-fixing allegations at Britain's top independent schools and the inquiry by the Office of Fair Trading. "I think that particular story is one of the greatest misrepresentations of post-war history," he says. It is not clear what he means. He talks endlessly about National Insurance and the Government. I don't quite follow his answer. I suspect that is because it was not much related to the question. But it is so long that it does put me off asking any more.

He is also very cagey about the circumstances of his move to St Paul's. "I certainly hadn't planned to leave Manchester Grammar School," he says. "I have been extremely happy there." So did St Paul's come to him? "Well sort of but I'd rather not talk about it," he says. "I loved Manchester. You go to a school because you bring in new ideas. But 10 years on there's a terrible danger that you are defending those ideas that you brought in 10 years ago. There's a great danger in the comfort zone. When you start to become a comfortable fixture, that's probably time to go; inevitably schools appoint a new head because they want some new ideas."

Was St Paul's looking for some of Stephen's ideas? He hopes so. He has made no secret about the fact that he is very keen on access. "Particularly as I think that there is huge advantage to the whole school in it," he says "But I don't know whether these would translate to St Paul's."

A little-known facet of his character is that he is a secret scribbler and is the author of two rumbustious Jacobean bodice rippers. The hero of one is Sir Henry Gresham, a swashbuckling beefburger of a man whose masculinity is very rarely challenged. What do his pupils think of his books? Indeed, what do other public school headmasters think of the following? "Jane's body was straight as an arrow, complexion clear, the legs as long as heaven and the breasts the reward for having made the journey. Her eyes were almost black and had the same primaeval depth as the pool that Henry Gresham had dived into that morning."

Stephen looks unfazed at the thought of his pupils reading his books. There is a copy in Manchester Grammar's book room and there are certain well-thumbed bits, just like Lady Chatterley's Lover in the Fifties, he says. Those are the naughty bits, he adds. "All the first formers come and say 'Cor' over it." Martin looks pleased. "But otherwise they're very decent about it." They have good reason to be decent to the high master: he has been decent to them.

MARTIN STEPHEN: A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 1949

Father: Sir Andrew Stephen, a GP who was chairman of English Football Association and Chairman of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.

Education: Uppingham School. Left at 16 with A-levels.

Year off: Worked in remand homes with delinquents.

Degree: English and history at Leeds.

Part-time PhD on the poetry of the Great War.

Career: Taught at Haileybury School.

Appointed housemaster of the first girls boarding house at Haileybury, with his wife.

Head at Perse School in Cambridge.

High Master of Manchester Grammar School.

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