John Rae

Headmaster of Westminster

Thursday 25 January 2007 01:00 GMT

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

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