Obituary - Lord Pilkington of Oxenford - 1933-2011

29th April 2011 at 01:00

The Reverend Canon Lord Pilkington of Oxenford was an unashamed elitist. Dismissive of inclusion, he believed there was absolutely no equivalence between academic and vocational studies. As head of the King's School, Canterbury, and then St Paul's School, London, he battled for the due recognition and reward of merit.

Peter Pilkington was born in Newcastle in September 1933. The son of avowed atheists, his commitment to Christianity began while a pupil at Dame Allan's Grammar. This, and a love of history, grew as he progressed through school.

In 1952 he began a history degree at Jesus College, Cambridge. Here he was taught by several high-profile Conservative historians, helping to shape a high-church, high-Tory outlook.

After graduation he joined a church mission, working with lepers in east Africa. Returning to Britain in 1957, he was ordained to a Derbyshire curacy. Here he met Helen Wilson and they married in 1966.

His passion for history remained undiminished, and in the early 1960s he took a job teaching the subject at Eton College. Despite the classroom handicaps of short stature (he barely cleared 5ft 6in) and a high-pitched voice, Mr Pilkington immediately won over pupils with his charm and enthusiasm.

His ability to forge unlikely alliances was a repeated theme throughout his career. In later years, participating in a debate held by Kent University's socialist society, the staunch Tory charmed the audience with tales of his mining-village upbringing.

Committed to meritocracy, he did not believe that schools should be responsible for social engineering. Vocational education was not equivalent to academic learning, he said: the two sets of pupils should be taught separately and non-academic pupils allowed to finish their schooling early.

In 1975, he was appointed headmaster of the King's School in Canterbury and Canon of the cathedral. His pupils, however, were less taken by their new headmaster than by the attractive wife who towered over him.

Soon, however, they noticed his capacity for supportive joviality. One pupil, asking his advice on how to impress a girl, was informed that he should take her to Istanbul: "Any girl who gets taken to Istanbul is yours." Another boy was told: "If you don't do up your cufflinks, you'll end up a heroin addict."

But "Pilks" was also notoriously sharp. A formidable interrogator, he could invariably - and with no apparent evidence -spot a lie and force a confession.

He had been brought in as a reformer and, under his leadership, corporal punishment was phased out and girls admitted to the sixth-form. He also raised fees significantly, ploughing money back into school development.

In 1986, the governors of St Paul's School offered him the post of high master. During one interview, they asked him to name his weaknesses. "Gossip," he said immediately. (Westerns were another. Whenever school business allowed, he would spend the afternoon watching cowboy films on TV.)

At St Paul's, he felt he was returning to his own academic origins, in a school where selection was based on merit. He was a keen supporter of the assisted-places scheme. He wanted bright pupils to flourish, irrespective of their background. And he emphasised the danger of declining standards. In a 1991 pamphlet, he lamented: "Only in England is it regarded as a belittlement of human nature to want the best out of it."

St Paul's provided new focus for his reforming streak: he spent around 7 million on refurbishment, including a new design and technology block. He was fascinated by technology, but failed entirely to master it himself. He would watch, entranced, as faxes arrived in the school office.

Lively and quick-witted, he was prone to snap decisions. In keeping with his educational views, he saw people as either "clever" or "not clever", with nothing in between. Anyone disagreeing with him had to be mentally agile and absolutely certain of facts.

He did, nonetheless, increasingly delegate the day-to-day running of the school. "Are you beginning to let go of the ropes?" someone asked him as he neared retirement. "Oh, I did that years ago," he replied.

In 1991, he left St Paul's to chair the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Four years later, he was made a life peer.

After Helen's death in 1997, he was affected increasingly by heart trouble and Parkinson's disease. The first time he collapsed, the Aamp;E doctor admitted him with a gasp of recognition: "Oh my God! It's my high master."

Lord Pilkington died on 14 February. He is survived by his two daughters.

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