Rugby team tackled dance;Books

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
GORTY: Neville Gorton's Years at Blundell's 1934-1942. By John Margetson. Letheringham Books. pound;9.50 inc pamp;p (cheques to Old Blundellian Club) from E R Crowe, 46 Higher Town, Sampford Peverell, Devon EX16 7BR

Gerald Haigh reads a tribute to an unlikely reforming headteacher

Eccentric heads, as played by Alastair Sim, Margaret Rutherford, "Professor" Jimmy Edwards and others, are directly derived from the recognisable folklore of education. The real ones were every bit as endearing as those from fiction.

Sir John Margetson's affectionate book about Neville Gorton, head of Blundell's School in Tiverton, Devon, from 1934 to 1942, describes one such idiosyncratic headmaster. His reports on pupils, Sir John tells us, "were penetrating, cryptic and almost illegible." His utterances, whether in sermons or normal conversation, were often impenetrable: "He explored ideas so deeply that he tended to forget how he had reached the point in the first place."

What, you are forced to wonder, would he have made of being made to sit in a seminar group in a Teacher Training Agency course for serving headteachers? How would he fare in one of today's multi-stage interviews, with presentations to governors and in-tray exercises?

The real story of "Gorty", though, is not of his scholarly absentmindedness but of the huge and impressive improvement he wrought at Blundell's during eight short years.

He emphasised the arts, he brought in distinguished scholars whose personal quest for learning he wanted to encourage in his pupils. The music master, James Hall, who for years had preached the value of his subject to uncomprehending ears, was set free when Gorton arrived - "he got the backing every director of music prays for" - and in 1940 the school performed Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, with a dancing chorus that included several of the first rugby XV. The watchwords were excitement, vitality, eagerness, and all of it was achieved against a background of academic progress.

Gorton was obviously good for Blundell's. There was a broader achievement, though, in that his work gave increased impetus to the slow and halting reform of the public schools that had begun at the start of the Great War. As Margetson reminds us, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, in his (The Public School Phenomenon 1597-1977) writes of "The Monolith" - the regime of tyranny, bullying, beating, snobbishness and narrow-minded religion to which public schools were traditionally signed up.

Reformers took on the Monolith at their peril and, before Gorton arrived, Blundell's was part of it. His triumph was to demonstrate not just that it could be dismantled, but that the change could be accomplished not through the spilling of blood but by fresh air and light let in through opened shutters. In this he was a model for others who would do the same in all sectors of education.

There is a wider readership for this book than a quick glance might suggest. After all, to a school governor, say, contemplating the appointment of a new head in an inner-city school, this story of a scholarly and religious public school headmaster might seem supremely irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sir John Margetson has reminded us that the things that really make schools work are

the quality of the relationships

in them, and the breadth of

the visions to which their

leaders cleave.

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