Mr Edwards and Father Aelred by Alastair Stewart

30th January 2015 at 00:00
As an adolescent, the newsreader could be arrogant and pushy, but a passionate history teacher and a free-thinking monk taught him to challenge himself and question the world

My father was in the Royal Air Force. As we were always on the move, I boarded at St Augustine's Abbey School in Ramsgate, Kent, from the ages of 11 to 18. It was run by monks and laymen and employed teachers with varying qualities.

Mr Edwards taught history with great passion. He was a very bright young man, and a recent graduate from the University of Oxford. He would come storming into the classroom and draw a chalk map of the British Isles in seven seconds flat. History was storytelling to him. The characters were giant figures, whether it was Ethelred the Unready or Thomas Cromwell.

If I liked the teacher and the subject, I was attentive, constructive and probing. Robin (as I learned to call him later) and history ticked those boxes, so he saw the best of me. If I didn't like the teacher, I could be an arrogant little so-and-so. I remember walking out of economics A-level because I was so bored.

Robin had the grace, wit and professionalism to endure my pushy, self-confident adolescent character. When I went back years later to present prizes at the school, he came bounding up to me and said: "Stewart, Stewart. Tell me, what are you doing these days?" Then he grinned from ear to ear and added: "I've been waiting all day to say that."

I retain his passion for history. When I'm covering general elections or state openings of Parliament, a lot of it is coming from dear Robin Edwards. I saw him just a couple of months ago at a fundraiser for the school's chapel. He's in his late seventies now.

Another teacher who was a huge influence on me was Father Aelred. He was a monk and a priest and my form-master when I was 15 and 16. He taught general studies, which is where you talk about philosophy, nuclear physics, literature, whatever you want. It's where your mind is prised open and you suddenly start thinking.

Father Aelred was an intellectual giant. He took us by the scruff of our necks and said: "You will read and you will enjoy George Orwell, John Steinbeck and Aldous Huxley." We discovered a world that we had no idea about, and to this day I remain a huge fan of Orwell.

He sowed the seeds that led me to be quite seriously radical in my late teens and early twenties because he said: "Think. Don't accept anything." Usually if you said to a monk, "I don't quite understand this Virgin birth business," they'd say, "It's an act of faith, you've got to believe it." But Father Aelred would say, "Hmm, you might have a point there." He never told you what to think; he taught you how to think.

Remarkably, he told a few of us 15-year-olds that he was beginning to lose his faith. Then, when we were 17, he gave up the priesthood and was shuffled quietly out of the school. Next I heard that he'd left the monastery and, finally, that he'd given up Catholicism. It was the ultimate example of someone who really believed in free thought and debate. He never gave up on learning, though, and carried on working as a headmaster elsewhere.

I never met him in person again, although about 15 years ago I did This is Your Life and he was there on the big screen, having swapped his robes for a crew-neck sweater and shirt. It was a joy to see him. Afterwards I told my father: "Apart from you, that's the most influential man in my life."

Alastair Stewart was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He supports Action for Children's Paying the Price report, which highlights the devastating impact of not having financial education. Find out more and join the campaign at

News in brief

Alastair Stewart

Born 22 June 1952, Gosport, Hampshire

Education Madras College, St Andrews, Fife; Salesian College prep school, Farnborough, Hampshire; St Augustine's Abbey School, Ramsgate, Kent; studied economics and politics at the University of Bristol

Career Long-standing ITV newsreader. He now presents the 1.30pm and 6.30pm news


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