John Rae

Headmaster of Westminster


John Malcolm Rae, educationist and writer: born London 20 March 1931; Assistant Master, Harrow School 1955-66; Headmaster, Taunton School 1966-70; Headmaster, Westminster School 1970-86; married 1955 Daphne Simpson (two sons, four daughters); died Haslemere, Surrey 16 December 2006.

John Rae was the Governing Body's third choice to succeed John Carleton as the Headmaster of Westminster School in 1970. As luck would have it, his two rivals dropped out and Rae got the job. From that point on, with extraordinary assurance, he rode his luck, becoming the pre-eminent public-school head of his day - the first educational "celebrity" and a household name among the intelligentsia.

John Malcolm Rae was born in London in 1931. The son of a London radiologist, he was educated at Bishop's Stortford College and read History at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, leaving with a mediocre degree, half-Blues for swimming and water polo and rugby skills sufficiently honed to play for London Scottish.

His first appointment was at Harrow. Over the next 10 years he combined teaching history and games coaching with studying for a doctorate at King's College London. His dissertation was on First World War conscientious objectors. He also wrote a novel, The Custard Boys (1960), filmed as Reach for Glory (1962) and awarded a UN prize. The book revealed both his considerable literary talent and a precocious interest in the media.

In 1955 he married Daphne Simpson and by the time he left to become Headmaster of Taunton School in 1966 he was the father of six children. By all accounts he had a torrid time at Taunton. Identifying pockets of opposition early on, he took an autocratic line and sacked staff and expelled boys. The school was glad to see him go, and Rae was glad to leave. At the same time, prompted by the setting up of the Public Schools Commission, he had made his name as someone not afraid to speak his mind.

With this short headmastering experience behind him, John Rae arrived, fully fledged, on the London stage - with all the skills and qualities he needed to play a starring role which he might have written for himself. Handsome and articulate, he was from the start an accomplished performer, a model of self-confident metropolitan urbanity.

Taking a different approach, Rae eased himself into the Westminster job. But it was not long before the media were paying him court. He was a new phenomenon, a high-ranking head ready to speak his mind on any issue. Thus began a remarkable stream of articles for the broadsheet press - including a long stint contributing to the Times Educational Supplement - as well as making many radio and television appearances.

In the course of this sustained exposure, Rae acquired a reputation as a controversial figure. From his privileged vantage point he specialised in articulating uncomfortable truths about the independent sector and alerting other heads to matters of concern - changing adolescent mores, the problems of drugs, the advantages, or otherwise, of co-education. In this way, while he broadened the area of debate not everybody welcomed his interventions or his advice. Despite this, he was elected Chairman of the Headmasters' Conference in 1977. But John Rae was no revolutionary. He stopped short of confrontation and made no radical calls for change.

While admitting that public schools were divisive, but at the same time valuing their independence, he could not offer an overall critique of the country's educational problems. His one principled stance was his resistance to the Assisted Places Scheme, which deeply offended his sense of fair play. He later summed up his position: "You do not deal with a famine by sending a few lucky children to lunch at the Ritz."

Politicians of all parties were drawn to him. Harold Wilson - while Prime Minister - sought his advice, came to dinner and attended the school play; the "Gang of Four" saw him as an ideal educational spokesman and courted him assiduously, to no avail.

A stream of famous visitors - Enoch Powell, George Steiner, David Puttnam, Shirley Williams and others - flowed through Dean's Yard. The Election Dinner, marking the end of the school year, was a mini-Camelot regularly attended by the great and the good from all walks of life. The highlight of the dinner was a sophisticated parody written by the Headmaster and recited by the scholars, teasing national and school figures in brilliant word-play.

Given his wide-ranging contribution to the national discourse, outsiders (and some Westminster governors) understandably assumed that Rae was an absentee headmaster, an attention-seeking headline-grabber. But that was far from the truth. Rae's time at Westminster was a labour of love. His energy and work-rate were quite prodigious. He insisted on teaching seven or eight periods a week and was a regular spectator at matches, plays and concerts. He chaired all the internal committees and rarely missed an assembly or an abbey service. His detailed knowledge of individual pupils was quite extraordinary. Not only did he know each boy or girl by name, but he could recall details of their background - their prep school and their parents.

Ever sensitive to adverse publicity he kept a tight moral grip on the school - during his time no boy or girl crept in by the back door, serious wrongdoing was rigorously dealt with and standards of behaviour were valued above length of hair or polished turn-out. In true Westminster form, he tolerated and enjoyed eccentricities among staff and pupils.

Carrying this formidable burden put a heavy strain on his wife and family, who could reasonably have complained that they saw little of him. For a time the marriage broke up. But, once the pressure was passed, Daphne and John got together again.

John Rae's last years at Westminster were fraught with controversy. In 1983 Daphne published a memoir, A World Apart, which was intended as an entertaining squib based on her experience of boarding-school life. But the book's extravagances provoked resentment and her husband's authority and integrity were undermined. He stood by her throughout this difficult period.

Rae's career after Westminster was undoubtedly an anti-climax. Neither of his two major jobs, running the Laura Ashley Trust or as first director of the Portman Group, afforded him anything like the satisfaction he had had from headmastering.

But he was far from inactive: he governed schools, was director of The Observer and never refused the opportunity to speak. His writing energy had not been exhausted by the four children's books he wrote while at Westminster. He now published books drawing on his experiences - Too Little Too Late? (1989), Delusions of Grandeur (1993) and two books of advice to parents on how to get the best education for their children. He then wrote a biography of a courageous headmistress whom he had met in Belfast - Sister Genevieve (2001). Finally, in 2004, he wrote The Agnostic's Tale, a tough-minded study of intellectual and religious doubt.

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.

Rae once told me that he saw stoicism as the primary virtue. He had to draw deeply on his formidable reserves during the last illness - cancer, which had shadowed his life for many years. While he had been fiercely independent all his life, guarded from intimacy by his imposing manner and by his public role, his illness made him dependent and brought him closer to his friends and, particularly, to his family.

Jim Cogan

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015