Master of the bodice ripper

9th January 2004 at 00:00
New HMC chairman looks grey on the outside, but his passionate books tell a different story. Nicholas Pyke reports.

"Jane's body was straight as an arrow, complexion clear, the legs as long as heaven and the breasts the reward for having made the journey. Her eyes were almost black and had the same primeval depth as the pool that Henry Gresham had dived into that morning."

This, you might think, is extraordinary stuff for a school library, particularly the library at the academically renowned Manchester Grammar.

More remarkable still, the chap who penned it is none other than the high master himself, Dr Martin Stephen - historian, expert on battleships, published author of rumbustious Jacobean tales and, from this term, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

As he admitted in a recent interview, the book in question is rather "well thumbed" at certain key passages, but then the boys at such an academic hothouse could probably do with a giggle. The members of HMC, the influential club for the country's leading independent schools, could also do with a bit of light relief after six months of damaging speculation that they have colluded to maintain high fees.

But, while his historical novels have won rave reviews, Dr Stephen's public reputation is rather more, well, grey. "I don't think we're going to have a lot of laughs in HMC," said a fellow head.

Not that he is shy of airing his views. Dr Stephen is a voracious author of opinion columns, not least in The TES, and rarely shy of public statements.

In his first week in charge, Dr Stephen has already lambasted Professor Tim Brighouse, the London schools commissioner, for arguing that private school pupils should pay higher university fees. Dr Stephen told The TES this idea was "like a manifesto for King Herod or Stalin". It is, he suggested, "contrary to human rights to tax people on achievement and which school they chose to attend. It creates the moral outrage of penalising children because of the choices of their parents".

As James Miller, headmaster of Royal Grammar school, in Newcastle upon Tyne, and a long-standing friend of Dr Stephen's said: "He does not take too kindly to bullshit and is never afraid to speak his mind."

Dr Stephen said he aims to promote the sharing of good practice and partnerships between private and state schools, and to increase significantly the number of poorer pupils going to private schools. He supports the existing HMC policy of replacing scholarships for bright rich children with means-tested bursaries. But he also has doubts about the fairness of the current scheme for state-private initiatives, and wants to see the relationship between the two sectors put on a proper, contractual footing so that independent schools do not feel exploited, while their state school neighbours are guaranteed long-standing commitment.

Beyond that, however, little is known about what he will get up to. "This is one of the frustrating things about HMC," said another head.

"There's no platform, no position statements. You publish your CV and the chaps vote you in."

The fear is that Dr Stephen will represent a "magic circle" of five or six enormously academic schools, the sort of places where he has spent his career. Before Manchester he was at the high- powered Perse school in Cambridge, and in the summer term will take over at St Paul's boys school which, if anything, is even better at exams than Manchester Grammar. This is an unusual move. He will be the first HMC chairman to switch horses mid term. "But he has a first-class mind and tremendous energy and will cope well," said Graham Able, master of Dulwich college, HMC chairman in 2003.

Mystery surrounds the move as Dr Stephen himself says it was not one he had planned. But no one doubts that HMC and St Paul's have secured a skilled operator, whose lobbying and workaholic tendencies recently helped Manchester grammar raise pound;10 million for its bursary scheme. He is likely to be an effective spokesman on the major issues coming up, in particular, the planned reform of post-16 qualifications.

Dr Stephen, 54, was educated at Uppingham school, in Rutland, and Leeds university. Education is a family affair as his wife Jennifer is headmistress of the Grange school, in Northwich, Cheshire. Yet he had never planned to become a teacher, hoping to be an academic instead.

If in public he seems distant, even cold, his colleagues says he is a much more enthusiastic, passionate man in person, and a likeable one - an individual more obviously related to the historical bodice-rippers. This is the one his HMC colleagues are hoping to get to know.

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