Days gone by

29th January 2010 at 00:00
A club for headteachers that barred women was never destined for a long shelf life in the 21st century. Yet the Arnold Club's members could socialise, compare notes and improve their career prospects

It was a hot ticket in its heyday. When Terry Rees first started going there, you had to arrive early to be sure of somewhere to sit. There must have been 80 or so people there, and the hall was so full people sat on the window sills. After hearing a succession of heads sing, tell jokes and play the piano, Mr Rees fancied making it a regular outing. He approached a group milling around after the concert. "I said, `How does one become a member?'," he recalls. "There was a sharp intake of breath."

Not just anybody could join the Arnold Club. You had to find a proposer and seconder, and then you had to pass scrutiny of the other members. Nor was it open to any teacher. You had to be a headteacher to be eligible to join. And you had to be a man.

For his first meeting, Mr Rees had been taken along as a guest by his headteacher. Then a deputy head, he became a head soon after. The call came shortly afterwards. "To be invited to join the Arnold Club was a bit of a feather in your cap," he says.

Those days are long gone. From a high of about 150, membership fell to the low 20s. Meetings that in the past were packed struggled to attract a turnout of half a dozen. A once-exclusive club that could afford to turn away recruits was reduced to desperate - and unsuccessful - appeals for new members.

Finally, the remaining stalwarts decided to call it a day. And so it was that at the end of last year, after much soul-searching, the country's last surviving Arnold Club was wound up, bringing 140 years of history to an end. "I've some very happy memories and it's a pity that it's gone," says Frank Jewitt, the club's last president.

The Arnold Club was set up in 1869, the year before the Education Act that ushered in universal primary education in England and Wales. Originally a professional association for headmasters, this role began to be usurped by the emerging teacher unions, so it gradually morphed into a social club.

The club was named after Thomas Arnold, the educationist and one-time headmaster of Rugby School, and his son Matthew, the poet and school inspector. The gates of Rugby School are pictured on the club tie, and also on the chain of office worn by the club president.

The club was founded in Birmingham, but branches sprang up around the country, according to Angus Macmillan, its official archivist. However, these offshoots are all believed to have long since folded, and for some time the original Birmingham club was the last one standing.

Although it became primarily a social club - talking shop was barely tolerated - it was also an informal place for heads to exchange ideas and opinions. "If I had an application for a vacancy I knew I could go to the head for a reference," says Mr Macmillan.

The original Birmingham branch held monthly meetings, usually in the city's hotels and hostelries, where speakers would address members on a variety of topics - not always school related. There were excursions and annual dinners, but the undoubted highlight of the year was the Smoker or Smoking Concert (drawn from the Victorian tradition where men would smoke and talk politics while listening to music) where talented heads would entertain colleagues.

Comedians, singers, musicians, raconteurs . all took their turn in taking to the stage.

But the club became renowned for its refusal to admit women. All heads were men when it was set up, so the creation of a club for headmasters was only natural, but even when women made up a majority of new heads in the city they were denied membership.

This prohibition extended to visiting speakers. Mr Macmillan recalls an incident in which a speaker brought his wife to the event, only for the good lady to be asked to wait outside for the duration of the meeting. At one stage Mr Macmillan had the job of engaging speakers. "Often they would say, `Can I bring my wife?' and I would have to say, `We'd rather you didn't'," he says.

As membership declined in the 1980s and '90s, there were periodic debates on the merits of admitting women. Mr Jewitt was one of those in favour. "I used to say to people, `What is it that we do that we can't bring women along to?' I couldn't see a reason why women shouldn't be members, but some older members liked to cling to that air of exclusivity."

Membership was not automatic for male heads. Hugh Heaven, the club's last honorary secretary, recalls one head who was regularly blackballed. "Members would never have him. He was the one they didn't want and it was a real thorn in his side." Discretion prevents Mr Heaven from revealing exactly why he was considered unsuitable.

For Terry Rees, the acid test was conviviality. "Were you the sort of person one could spend an evening with and let your hair down with? I know one or two people still alive who were anxious to join but were never invited."

Mr Rees had been invited to join when he became head of St Saviour's Primary, Birmingham, in 1978. He in turn proposed Mr Heaven, a fellow Welshman, when the latter became head at George Dixon Primary, Birmingham, in 1984. Members would regularly bring new headteachers - male of course - along to meetings, to encourage them to join. But this did not always have the desired results. Mr Heaven recalls bringing recently appointed heads along as guests.

"They would come thinking there would be all these established heads there who might be useful to them and when they saw us they realised we would be no good whatsoever," he says. "I remember a friend coming to one of the dinners and he said: `Everybody is so old'. At some meetings it seemed like a competition to see who could get closest to the loo."

At one stage members were divided into two categories: full members, who paid an annual subscription of pound;7 and honorary, or retired, members, for whom membership was free. As the balance between serving and retired heads tipped towards the latter, this distinction was scrapped and the charges abolished.

Gradually, all its serving heads retired. Mr Heaven, 65, retired five years ago, Mr Rees, also 65, took early retirement in 1995. Mr Jewitt, the baby of the group at 62, retired five years ago, after 22 years at Birmingham's Jervoise Primary. Mr Macmillan, 82, retired in 1988, after headships at Northfield Manor and Hall Green primaries.

In an effort to boost its numbers, the club opened its doors to deputy heads, but this made little difference. But still the ban on women remained. They were allowed to attend special functions, but would be denied membership to the end.

Mr Heaven says some members were worried admitting women would change the character of the club. "The feeling was that women would want us to be more professional and talk shop," he says, before adding: "Not that they would have wanted to join anyway."

Even Mr Jewitt believes there came a point where admitting women would not have made a difference. "The club got a reputation as a bit reactionary and allowing it to persist as a gentleman's club was probably a mistake," he says. "But by far the most important thing was the time pressures on senior teachers."

Refusing to admit a group that makes up almost two-thirds of heads may be one reason for the club's closure, but it is not the only one. A serving head last joined the Arnold Club in the mid-1990s. Increased workload is an obvious explanation for the shortage of new recruits: it's hard to blame a head for not wanting yet another meeting in their already busy week.

Terry Rees believes the added time pressure on heads has also caused a change in the nature of the sort of people who take on the job. "It was for like-minded people who wanted to have a laugh. It never did advance you professionally," he says.

"It made us better-adjusted and better headmasters as a consequence, but people who take on the role now are not necessarily of the broad background that they were in the past. People have to fit a mould now; you won't find any characters any more."

Nor is it just the Arnold Club that suffered from a decline in community spirit. Many other organisations, from the WI to the Rotary Club, have also had to look at ways of becoming more appealing and countering falling rolls.

As a past president of Moseley Rugby Club in Birmingham, Mr Rees has seen once-popular social events abandoned. "We don't have the dinners that we used to and people just don't get involved any more," he says.

Last year the remaining members faced a choice: mount a recruitment drive, or call time on the club. They chose the latter. The club's paraphernalia - illustrated minutes books, membership lists and the chain of office - were handed over to the Lord Mayor of Birmingham in a sombre ceremony. The Birmingham branch had been the first Arnold Club and it would also be the last. "Rather than it coming to an undistinguished end we wanted to have a formal conclusion," says Mr Rees.

"We could see the end was coming, although we postponed it for a good five years," adds Mr Heaven. "What put the final nail in the coffin was two of the prominent members died. They were real characters, and we thought we should call it a day. It was out of its time and it had run its course."

The now-former members still meet up, but the club's demise has left a hole not only in their lives, but in the lives of future heads. Mr Heaven believes that what has been lost is a valuable part of their experience as a head. "It was the camaraderie," he says.

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