Obituary - Peter Mason 1914-2009

28th August 2009 at 01:00

As high master of Manchester Grammar, Peter Mason revolutionised the curriculum, presided over a huge building expansion and took the school to full independence. But, asked to list his achievements, he would merely shrug and say, "I think I left the school in a good state."

Born in Birmingham in 1914, he was the child of teachers. On graduating from Cambridge with a double first in classics, he was offered jobs at the BBC, the Foreign Office and as a teacher. Foreign service had glamorous appeal, but he was engaged to maths graduate Mary Davison and felt teaching offered stability. It also allowed him to focus on classics. He maintained this scholarly interest, eventually becoming an authority on the plays of Euripides.

His first job was as sixth-form classics master at Cheltenham College, a post he held until the start of the Second World War, when he was commissioned to the Intelligence Corps. On his discharge, he took a job at Rugby School as sixth-form classics master. But, three years later, he was appointed head of Aldenham School in Hertfordshire. At 35, he was one of the youngest public-school heads of his day.

Aldenham was a boarding school, so he and Mary served as housemaster and housemistress. Their three daughters ate meals and played tennis with pupils; the family corgi, Taffy, regularly nipped boys' heels.

A devout Anglican, Mr Mason oversaw the completion of a school chapel and acquired two Stanley Spencer paintings for the building.

He flourished in the Hertfordshire countryside surrounding the school, taking long walks, or fly fishing in nearby lakes.

In 1962, he left to become high master of Manchester Grammar. The school was an academic hothouse: specialisms were chosen early, and the curriculum was designed to ensure pupils achieved high grades in public exams. But Mr Mason highlighted the importance of all-round education and school community. He altered the curriculum to ensure boys were not forced to specialise until later.

Mr Mason was a consummate fundraiser and refurbished the school's classrooms, as well as building new music rooms, language laboratories, squash courts and a computer centre.

When the direct grant system was abolished, he had to choose between adopting a comprehensive status or pursuing full independence. With reluctance, he chose the latter: he believed the best education should be available to all pupils.

He met business people and politicians, campaigning to fund bursaries for poorer pupils. In total, he raised #163;1 million - a significant sum at that time. And he established a tradition that continues today: about 300 Manchester Grammar pupils currently receive financial assistance.

Despite such high-level meetings, he was never aloof. One French teacher recalled being interviewed in fluent French by Mr Mason as he stood on the sports fields in wellingtons, watching boys play.

He was a man of integrity and tact: the word "gentleman" was often used to describe him. When one scholarship boy realised he could not afford to take up his university offer, Mr Mason wrote to the university, telling them they should keep the place open indefinitely.

"No high master cared more for the welfare of colleagues and boys," said one colleague. "None advertised the fact less."

In retirement, he travelled in Europe, visiting and writing about independent schools. This led to the creation of the European Council of National Associations of Independent Schools, with Mr Mason as life president.

Retirement allowed him to indulge his love of the countryside. He moved to a Cotswold village, where he fished, tended his garden and led countryside walks.

Peter Mason is survived by his first wife, Mary, and third wife, Marjorie, and by his daughters, nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

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