Robert Woodward: Teacher and entrepreneur
Saturday 15 November 2008
Educational entrepreneurs are a rare breed; rarer still are those capable of inspiring, exciting teaching while building and running a successful business. Robert Woodward, the co-founder of Mander Portman Woodward, one of the country's leading tutorial college groups, achieved all those things.
After leaving Cambridge in 1970 with a degree in English that better reflected his gift for friendship than his first class mind, Woodward spent an agreeable six months in Paris living the life, if not doing the work, of a writer. Returning to London with no very clear idea of what he wanted to be, but in need of money to buy the good wine for which he had acquired a taste, he drifted into tutoring with Talbot Rice, a well-known Knightsbridge "crammer".
Woodward quickly discovered that not only was his teaching in high demand, but that he thoroughly enjoyed it. Pupils – I was one of them - who had walked out or been kicked out of their public schools, who had failed their "A" levels or were expected to fail them, were sent by Talbot Rice to Woodward's small house in Lambeth. There they would be taught English literature and history as if they were brilliant undergraduates and Woodward a witty, engaging but ferociously demanding don.
It was an extraordinarily stimulating environment, especially so for young people who had rebelled against the tedium of conventional teaching at school. After a couple of years, at the age of 25, Woodward formed the idea of starting a college of his own, roping in two Cambridge contemporaries, Rodney Portman and Nicholas Mander, to join him in the enterprise. Woodward's main objective was to become his own boss, but he had identified a gap in the education market and reckoned there was also money to be made.
Boarding schools were not the enlightened institutions they are today: most were single sex and "A" level choices were often limited. The sixth forms of many girls' schools left a lot to be desired. The aim at MPW was to offer educational excellence within a non-institutionalised environment. The contract offered to students was that if they met the academic requirements of the school – attended classes, completed homework and behaved decently on the premises – they would be treated as young adults who were allowed to get on with their lives unencumbered by pettifogging rules. At the same time, MPW would provide pastoral care, with a private tutor assigned to oversee the well-being of each young person.
An attractive terraced house in Hollywood Road, Chelsea was acquired with a large mortgage, and a team of young, very bright and personable tutors was recruited. Most were "unqualified" – recent graduates, PhD students or erudite part-timers who could be paid on an hourly basis. Woodward's bank manager observed: "Education is a wonderful thing: fees in advance of expenditure."
MPW catered to all-comers. Among its students were "O" level re-takers, Oxbridge applicants, British royals, Ugandan Asians and the sons and daughters of newspaper editors and rock stars. The school also developed its own bursary fund and offered a number of places on a reduced or no-fee basis. Rapidly outgrowing its first premises, MPW moved to a larger building just off the Gloucester Road. To the surprise of his many friends, Woodward demonstrated a Stakhan-ovite appetite for work, often teaching 38 hours a week while still attending to the increasing administrative requirements of a fast expanding business.
Woodward was also a stickler when it came to maintaining what he regarded as civilised standards. He would insist on there being fresh flowers in the hall, proper tea sets for visiting parents and a glass of whisky for fathers who wanted to come in for a chat about their offspring after hours. He particularly abhorred unpunctuality among the students. On one occasion, determined to get a new academic year off on the right footing, on the third day of term, he locked the front door at 9am on the dot and waited, glowering in the hall for the late arrivals. There was a knock on the door a minute later and the wretched girl entering was subjected to the full force of Woodward's wrath. Unable to get a word in edgeways, she escaped upstairs to her classroom, Woodward threatening, "and if you are ever as much as a minute late again, I will be summoning your parents."
The girl was the new foreign language teacher, recruited in Woodward's absence during the summer holiday. She remained on the staff for many years, but was never late again.
In 1987, BPP, a professional training organisation, made an approach to Woodward and Portman (Mander had dropped out soon after the college was founded) about acquiring the business. The offer was too good to turn down and two years later they left MPW to pursue other interests. By then, MPW consisted of three separate buildings in South Kensington, where about 400 students were enrolled, and branch colleges in Birmingham, Cambridge and Bristol. Woodward joked that he knew it was time to move on because he was starting to find the mothers more attractive than their daughters. But in truth, as the business had grown, he had found less and less opportunity for teaching. He wanted his freedom.
Woodward used it to pursue his interests – he was unembarrassed to describe himself as a "dilettante". He became an avid collector of pictures, sculpture and old books with which he adorned the elegant family home by the Thames in old Twickenham. A grey early 1950s Bentley Continental was housed nearby. He wrote a screenplay about the relationships between the poet Shelley, Claire Clairemont, his sister-in-law, and her lover, Byron, which was, sadly, never filmed.
Throughout the 1990s, Woodward actively campaigned against the spreading of wind farms. When one was constructed at Llandinam, near his beloved cottage in mid-Wales, he was appalled by the desecration to the landscape. The more he learned about them, the more convinced he became that wind farms were an expensive irrelevance that threatened to scar large tracts of Britain's most gorgeous countryside. A pamphlet he wrote exposing some of the claims of the wind farm lobby is still used today by fellow campaigners across the world.
But Woodward's greatest passion was still teaching. Much of his time was taken up with Art History Abroad, a spin-out company from MPW that took "A" level and gap year students on conducted tours of Italy. Woodward was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. He became an expert not only on the art treasures of Venice, Rome and Florence, but also on the jolliest bars and restaurants to which he would steer his young charges. So successful were these trips that an older generation, some of them envious parents, demanded to be catered for as well. Many of Art History Abroad's clients became close friends, joining his wide and constantly expanding circle that included former MPW students and teachers.
Although Woodward enjoyed every aspect of his full life and adored both his wife of 34 years, Rosemary, and his four children, he often talked about his mortality and expressed the belief that he would die young. During the past six months, despite no evidence of illness, such thoughts seemed to preoccupy him. One summer afternoon he suddenly announced to Rosemary: "I want everyone to know I have completed my education and I have no regrets." Woodward died suddenly and unexpectedly at home on 4 November 2008.
Robert Jonathan Woodward, educationist: born Paddington, London 16 June 1947; married 1974 Rosemary Dening (three sons, one daughter); died Twickenham 4 November 2008.
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