School head's stammer nearly prevented career

Education Editor,Richard Garner
Thursday 27 January 2011 01:00

The headmaster of one of Britain's top performing independent schools reveals today for the first time how he was turned down for a teacher training course because he had a stammer.

Martin Stephen, High Master of St Paul's Boys School in Barnes, west London, was told he would "not be able to stand up in front of a class without reducing them to uncontrollable laughter".

St Paul's is one of the leading independent schools in the country. Dr Stephen, a head for 24 years, was previously headmaster of Manchester Grammar School.

Writing for The Independent, Dr Stephen describes how it was "exquisite agony" to watch the Oscar-nominated film The King's Speech.

He had been diagnosed with "an incurable speech defect" when he was 13. The snub, from Leeds University, where he wanted to take a diploma of education course, came in 1970.

According to teacher training experts, Dr Stephen would be unlikely to be treated so brusquely if he wanted to enter teaching today. However, while colleges would be loath to reject anyone on grounds of disability, they may seek other reasons for turning them down.

"I think teacher training would be very, very wary of not admitting someone on the basis of a stammer," said John Bangs, a senior research associate at Cambridge University. "People are enormously disability aware these days. Whether they might not find other ways of not admitting that person is the real question."

Like King George VI, Dr Stephen was ultimately cured "by a quack with no medical qualifications".

His saviour was an old Etonian called Burgess, who had been working as a car mechanic before finding a way to cure his stammer. Burgess is also said to have cured the Goon Show comic Michael Bentine of a stammer.

Dr Stephen said he was lucky that his parents were willing to fork out "the then-unimaginable sum of £100 to Burgess, who for all they knew might be a total fraudster". Children from poorer homes would not have that option.

According to the Communication Trust, as many as one in 10 children nationwide – 1.2 million – have some form of long-term and persistent difficulty in communicating. This can range from an inability to say certain words or construct sentences to problems understanding instructions and lessons.

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