Michael Mavor: Charismatic headmaster who led Rugby into the co-educational era

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Michael Mavor, who died suddenly while on a trip to Peru, was a dynamic and energising headmaster who, throughout the course of a distinguished career, led three of Britain's foremost schools – Gordonstoun, Rugby and Loretto. At each, alongside an outwardly authoritarian approach, he treated all with great courtesy and friendly ease. In turn, one could not help but notice the warm affection and deep respect for him.

Born in Malaysia of Scottish parents, Michael Mavor was educated at Loretto School near Edinburgh. There, in addition to his outstanding academic abilities, he was captain of cricket, hockey and golf, editor of the school paper, pipe major in the band and Head Boy of both junior and senior schools. In 1965 he was awarded an open exhibition to read English at St John's College, Cambridge; he also represented the university at rugby and cricket.

Acquiring a Postgraduate Certificate in Education, in 1969 he began his teaching career in America. Awarded a Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship, for four years he worked at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. While there, in 1971, he published a volume of study notes on Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews. On his return to England in 1972, he taught English at Tonbridge School. Impressing as a drama producer and sports coach, he won particular distinction when promoted to director of studies.

In January 1979, aged only 31, Mavor succeeded John Kempe as headmaster of Gordonstoun School in Moray, Scotland, the youngest such appointment in the school's history. Assuming responsibility for educating Princes Andrew and Edward, it was inevitable that, before too long, he would be cast into the national spotlight. This duly came in May 1980, when, amid a blaze of publicity, nine boys were summarily expelled for the possession of cannabis. He won plaudits for his skilful handling of a very difficult situation, and his time at the school was marked by a distinct improvement in the school's academic performance. To his great delight, this was achieved without detracting either from the school's distinctive outward-bound capability or its proud tradition of service to the community.

In 1990, he moved south to take on a new challenge as headmaster of Rugby School. Here, amid an institution seemingly out of step with the modern world, his brief was simple: reverse the perceived decline in the school's fortunes, raise academic standards and improve pupil numbers. While he scrupulously respected and valued Rugby's rich history and traditions, he nevertheless proceeded to introduce perhaps the most radical changes to the school since the reforms of Thomas Arnold in the middle of the 19th century. Thus, from September 1993, this bastion of male boarding-school values would begin the inexorable march to full co-education.

However, in 1995, his unexpected promotion of sixth-former Louise Woolcock to be joint Head of School proved a step too far for many. That year, in addition to their banner-waving protests, the boys famously boycotted a chapel service to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mavor's predecessor, Arnold. He was outwardly unperturbed and, undoubtedly aided by Woolcock's deft handling of the media, Mavor's strategy proved an immediate success, applications from prospective parents increasing dramatically.

Amid his burgeoning reputation, it was perhaps inevitable that his sphere of influence should spread beyond his immediate environs. Already a leading light at the influential Oxford Conference in Education and much in demand as a school governor and adviser, in 1997 he was awarded the ultimate accolade when he was elected as chairman of the Headmasters' Conference (HMC). Then, with his customary enthusiasm and panache, he went out of his way to welcome the new Labour Government's embryonic ideas for more productive partnerships with independent education. To his lasting regret, it remained a rare aspiration unfulfilled.

Following 11 successful years in the Midlands, in 2001 he could not resist the lure of a return north of the border to his alma mater, being appointed headmaster of Loretto School. Though it was much smaller than Rugby, many of the problems were the same. Often taking a pragmatic approach to situations, he remained resolute in his belief of the benefits, both social and academic, of a good boarding-school education.

He was a long-standing enthusiast for the International Baccalaureate examination, and among other changes, perhaps his most distinctive came with the innovative creation of the Loretto Golf Academy. Under its auspices, talented young golfers could develop their sporting prowess without detracting from their academic progress.

Addressing the assembled masses on his final day as headmaster in June 2008, he famously illustrated his sermon by driving a golf ball firmly down the aisle of a packed school chapel. Having assessed the health and safety implications of his possible action as "High Risk", typically, he chose to go ahead. This says everything about a man who, at every stage of his life, was at ease with both himself and the career he had chosen. It was this underlying freedom that allowed him to be so generous to all those who may not have been aware of the talent they possessed, but whose full potential he would so resolutely help to realise.

Kenneth Shenton

Michael Barclay Mavor, teacher and headmaster: born Kuala Lipis, Malaysia 29 January 1947; married 1970 Jane Sucksmith (one son, one daughter); CVO 1983; died Lima, Peru 8 December 2009.