In good faith

5th March 2004 at 00:00
As a young officer in the Second World War, Bobby Wills saw at first hand the appalling consequences of 'godless tyranny'. On leaving the army he embarked on a quest to train teachers in spiritual education. And he's still fighting the good fight, reports Elaine Williams

At 85, Bobby Wills still lives with the shadows of trauma, grief and guilt he suffered as a soldier in the Second World War, a conflict that left many of his friends dead and which nearly took his own life.

When the fighting was over he did not want to forget what had happened, nor did he want society to forget the extent of the terror wrought by "wrong thinking". He says: "It was evil, so evil. I wasn't brave, and I survived, but my friends were dying around me." In truth, Mr Wills was as brave as the next young dedicated army officer. Indeed, despite suffering devastating injuries when he was blown up in Tunisia, he returned to the Italian campaign as a "mule" officer, protecting allied supplies through the mountains.

The war, according to Mr Wills, had grown out of "godless tyranny" and a relentless materialism that only spiritual insight and familiarity with the work of great religious thinkers through the ages could counteract. Had not the First World War - "one of the bloodiest and most unnecessary wars that wrong thinking and misunderstanding have ever produced" - been justified as the conflict to end all conflicts? Yet, says Mr Wills, it "sowed the seeds for more bitter fruit to come". In the decade after the Second World War, Mr Wills became convinced that the teaching of spiritual education was the key to ensuring such a conflagration was never repeated, and set about committing a large slice of his own wealth to this end.

As the second son of Lord Dulverton, a member of the Wills tobacco family, and as a trustee of the Dulverton Trust, the family trust that contributed significantly to the building of Bristol University, he was already part of a philanthropic tradition that invested in education. In 1965 he set up his own institution, the Farmington Trust, committed to teaching people "the wisdom of the sages of the ages". It has been a lifetime's quest to support the further training of teachers in religious education.

Mr Wills looks back on his early efforts with wry humour. A witty, self-deprecating man who has shunned personal publicity for most of his life, he says it was not an easy task for someone described during his school days at Eton as "not very well equipped" intellectually (he omits to mention that he is a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford). He bought a large Edwardian house in Oxford and appointed academics to run a research unit looking at moral education. But the exercise proved disappointing for Mr Wills, a practically minded farmer and businessman. After six years of "so-called" pure research, he says, two things became apparent: that it "could go on for ever without any conclusion being reached", and that he could never be satisfied with endless debate about abstract moral concepts.

He wanted concrete application.

In the early 1990s he appointed as secretary to his trust a contemporary and fellow war veteran, Colonel Robert Hornby, an astute political operator who embraced Mr Wills's ambitions and supplied the practical drive he was seeking. After retiring from the army in the 1960s, Colonel Hornby had set up the Church of England's press office at Lambeth Palace during a turbulent period of the Church's history, and went on to serve two Archbishops - Fisher and Ramsey - as press secretary.

In 1967, he had become development officer of Warwick University, fundraising so successfully that, by the time he left, 400 acres of bare land had been turned into a thriving campus. Mr Wills and Colonel Hornby, who had been acting as an unofficial consultant to Mr Wills for some years before his appointment as secretary, decided the work of the trust must have a direct impact on schools; religious education teachers were to be the way forward, and were to be helped to provide inspirational spiritual teaching.

To that end, Mr Wills worked to build up significant endowments to place its fellowship scheme on a firmer footing, establishing the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies. From 1990, teachers were offered study leave to improve their spiritual teaching. Successful fellows are awarded wholly funded sabbaticals, up to a generous pound;14,000, and sometimes more, including the cost of study, accommodation and cover for their schools.

When the national curriculum was being created in 1998 and RE was under threat, Mr Wills wrote to then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who assured him that "RE was an acceptable academic subject with its proper place in the curriculum". Colonel Hornby is sure that Mr Wills's intervention helped secure a future for RE.

In the 1990s, a new director of the Farmington Institute, Martin Rogers, former chief master of the King Edward schools in Birmingham, put the fellowship scheme on its present secure footing. He persuaded Mr Wills that unless he funded teaching cover, schools would not release teachers to undertake sabbaticals. Colonel Hornby says: "The transformation was immediate. We received extensive applications." Mr Wills's "army" of informed teachers of religion was born.

So far, more than 300 teachers have benefited over the past 14 years, and many have regarded the sabbatical as a professional lifeline, a rare and precious opportunity to take stock, reflect and recharge their batteries within a stimulating environment. Now based at Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, the Farmington Institute has set up partnerships with 17 universities, enabling teachers to study within their local area, before meeting up in Oxford for final presentations and conferences. It is an astonishingly well-honed venture.

The partnership between Bobby Wills and Robert Hornby endures. Both Anglicans, but with minds open to the virtues of faiths worldwide, they support spiritual education in its broadest sense. Though octogenarians, they are now busy ensuring that the Farmington fellowship scheme continues its work.

One fellow, Sue Moore, head of Queen Elizabeth IIhigh school in Peel on the Isle of Man, took up a Farmington fellowship to study in Oxford in 1993, producing a scheme of work linking science and religion for sixth-form RE teachers. She looked specifically at the work of Carl Gustav Jung and the relationship between religion and psychology. "I had been teaching for eight years and it was a wonderful opportunity to think and reflect," she says. "I attended lectures on all sorts, I talked to a wide range of college people at dinner, I gave presentations, and it really boosted my confidence. RE teachers can be very isolated in schools, but I went back feeling I could make things happen."

Eddy Jackson, headteacher at Highfurlong in Blackpool, a three-to-19 school for pupils with special educational needs, used fellowship funding to take a day out of school every week for 26 weeks. Under a supervisor from the University College of St Martin's Lancaster, he created a project called Dare (digital assembly resources for educators) to help teachers in the challenging task of creating meaningful assemblies for children with multi-sensory impairment. "It was a wonderful chance to stand back and look at a difficult area for special needs," he says. "I also loved the time I spent in Oxford. We were made to feel very welcome. It's a Rolls-Royce scheme and you want to make the most of it. Fellows produce high-quality work. This is a model the DfES could learn from." His project, as with all other Fellowship projects, can be found on the Farmington website.

The Farmington Institute is now directed by Reverend Dr Ralph Waller, the principal of Harris Manchester College, who is driving its expansion. Mr Wills's aim is to establish a pound;20 million endowment to enable the trust to fund 50 fellowships a year. He is also extending the scheme to Commonwealth countries. In addition, he has established three fellowships for the armed forces, drawn from the Joint Forces Defence Centre at Shrivenham, to pursue projects on moral and ethical leadership. Teachers and army personnel mix together at the institute, a relationship that Dr Waller says "works well" in enabling the professions to learn from each other.

Mr Wills is always present at the annual Oxford conference, when fellows present their work, maintaining a paternal, though characteristically low-key, approach. He likes to tell the story of how, one year when he attended the conference wearing his usual jumper, looking more like the caretaker than the VIP, he was asked by a female teacher sitting next to him at lunch what he did at the institute. He told her he just helped out.

When she then asked exactly what he did, he responded: "If you must know, I'm the founder and chairman," he relates with a sparkle in his eye. "She turned to me and said, 'I simply don't believe you'."

For further information contact the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies, tel: 01865 271965; email:; See subject focus on RE in this week's Teacher magazine, pages 22-29

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