Can you spot a good teacher by measuring the angle between their thumb and forefinger? Robin Lown thinks he can. Ruth Brown meets the palmist from Ofsted.
Robin Lown is used to being called a crackpot. He's accustomed to conflict in his roles as a teacher, a school inspector and now as a non-conforming member of the palm-reading fraternity. He's taken flak for his unconventional take on their ancient art, but none of the jibes seems to stick and insults look as if they would bounce off his bullet-proof enthusiasm for his fledgling career in reading palms.
So he's not about to shy away from one of his pet theories: you can, says this part-time Ofsted inspector, spot a good teacher by looking at their hands. Surely this is a dangerous concept for someone in his position to hold?
But just take a look, he says, go on, it's all there - your life in your hands, there to be read in the same way scientists interpret the genetic code in your DNA, and a guide to learning about yourself and helping you get the most out of life. Every wrinkle and tiny criss-cross of lines traces your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, predisposition to certain character traits and even allergies and diseases. Obligingly, he runs over a few easy markers. Look at the distance between your thumb and forefinger - the larger the gap the greater the energy, openness, good humour and ability to take responsibility. Good teachers usually have a gap of between 60 and 90 degrees. A wide gap between the little finger and ring finger indicates an ability to communicate well; a broadly splayed hand means you've got charisma.
But a long thumb - one that extends beyond the first (or basal) joint of the index finger - suggests a person who likes to be in control. And long fingers suggest someone who pays attention to detail; someone with impeccable files and records. On the other hand, those with short plump fingers are good at seeing the wider picture.
Robin Lown first became interested in palmistry when he was drawing hands and faces for A-level art; he began treating palms as a personality "barometer" at teacher training college. His family thought he had "a very odd hobby", albeit one that was always good for party tricks. He discovered that cultures all over the world used the hands as a diagnostic tool for mind and body. At the birth of one of his three children he watched as the Caribbean midwife scanned the hands of the new-born baby for signs of Down's syndrome. And he learned that Buddhists consider the hand-lines an indication of a person's spiritual, psychological and emotional make-up.
Robin Lown admits to scrutinising hands during school inspections, but insists that his observations don't interfere with the techniques demanded of Ofsted. "It's like anything else in the Ofsted process - you have a hypothesis, a point of view, but you have to check it out," he says. "I look at the symptoms and behaviour and analyse that to see where it comes from.
"I can't help but notice that there's a connection between personality types and types of performances that teachers give, the way they come across and project themselves."
Since hiring a theatrical agent to market his talent three years ago - after he lost his first Ofsted job - he has achieved minor fame, appearing on Sky TV's A Date with Fate and ITV's This Morning, analysing (without meeting his subjects) the hand-prints of celebrities, including Trevor McDonald ("a strong streak of vanity in his nature and probably a very snappy dresser"), Carol Vorderman ("she will never want for money. A very technically able lady and a very good presenter") and Carol Thatcher, Margaret's daughter ("she has a good legal mind and one 'leading parent'").
H has been courted by the press; a News of the World reporter posed as a secretary last October when she booked in for a private reading to test his claims. But, says Robin, she went away a convert after he spotted her lie and also picked up a childhood trauma - the death of her father.
At his home in rural east Sussex, he rattles through his list of recent triumphs in a manner that is nothing if not shamelessly self-promotional. Yet somehow his beaming bonhomie and unfailing entrepreneurial spirit sweeps away your cynicism on a tide of conviction and seemingly irrefutable evidence.
Born in Hastings, Robin, 48, lives with his wife and children on the edge of the historic village of Battle. For 23 years he taught in primary schools around the south-east, the last four as an assistant head at a junior school in Eastbourne.
Even as a teacher, he applied his own theories in getting the best out of his pupils. "I started noticing children's hands when I was teaching and certain things were very consistent. Children with high-tented arches on the tips of fingers were often very inhibited, didn't communicate well and had a greater than average tendency towards autism and dyslexia. I started psychologically typing children in class. Very intense children tend to have whorl-shaped finger prints - they tend to be nervy, uptight, tense, self-centred and need creativity to unwind and a gentle yet focused approach.
"I started using it in my teaching and it helped me tremendously. I didn't tell anyone about it. I just found I was getting results."
But the convention of following the rank and file up the career ladder was never his game and he wanted out. "The old view of management was that you went through as a teacher and earned your colours and went into management. I was challenging that view - I felt that a lot of things weren't being managed well." So in 1996 he trained to be an Ofsted inspector but, only eight months after he started work, 400 jobs were cut as the inspectorate began hiring private contractors.
Although he is still a part-time inspector, his palmistry skills are much in demand. The number of private clients has gradually grown - and included an adviser to the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Corporate clients seek his help in matching work roles to personality types and building stable work teams.
In several cases he says he has spotted the early onset of allergies and serious illnesses and has referred clients back to their doctor for medical check-ups. Changes in cells - a precursor to cancer - are apparent in the skin patterns, he says, as are diabetes, heart disease and gland problems.
But Robin is not a fortune-teller. "I find that what I do is to highlight people's potential and, in drawing them out, I can give positive feedback in an area where they already have a potential and you get rapid growth. I simplified my knowledge of palmistry and found it worked, but I'm off on my own on this one."
Other palm-readers have not always taken to his more scientific, less "pure" treatment of the art. "People used to say I had to be a Romany gypsy to be able to do this. That's bollocks." Now he teaches palmistry on weekend courses for the Adult Residential Colleges Association.
Convinced of the solid evidence behind palm-reading, he points to the latest scientific reports that back up his own theories on the links between genetic codes and the size, shape and pattern of the hands. He's had three doctors pick his brains about palm-reading lately and he's convinced he's on to something big. It's just a matter of time before the world reads his forecast and steps into line.
Robin Lown begins a series of palm readings in You and Your Job, page 33