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The Wykehamists' revenge

Fran Abrams on how staff and pupils at a venerable school saw off a state-educated head who dared to challenge cherished ancient traditions

Reading the accounts of Winchester College before becoming its headmaster in 2000, a lesser administrator than Dr Nick Tate might have felt some quiet satisfaction.

Even apart from its vast estate of historic buildings containing priceless paintings, silver and glassware, the 600-year-old public school had assets worth more than pound;30 million. In the previous year it had raked in almost half a million pounds more than it had spent. Yet the new head could not help feeling uneasy.

For despite its enormous wealth, the college was living beyond its means.

Even the chairman of its governors admitted it: the 1999 surplus was "barely satisfactory", he said in his preface to the accounts, and it did not meet the governors' targets.

Dr Tate, formerly chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, determined that changes must be made to secure the college's financial future and cut some of its more profligate spending. He could not have predicted the furious reaction his decision would provoke.

During a turbulent three years Dr Tate would face snobbery over his grammar-school background, false allegations about him to police and the use of his wayward teenage son as a weapon against him. His friends believe his plans to modernise the school were at the root of the trouble. One of them described his departure in March this year - ostensibly for family reasons - as "a putsch".

Dr Tate had spotted early signs of a worrying trend in the college finances. In 2000, governors were forced to admit their results were "disappointing", not least in the returns from the college's large estate of farmland. In 2001 the balance sheet fell by pound;2.8 million, mainly because of a drop in stock market investments.

Fee rises had pushed up income from parents by 23 per cent since 1997, and it was clear these annual hikes could not continue indefinitely. Dr Tate began to turn his attention to other areas. Why, he asked tentatively, was it necessary for the college's 11 boarding houses each to have their own separate dining facilities? The lack of a central dining hall had pushed Winchester's accommodation bills to pound;2.7 million a year.

The suggestion caused uproar and never even became a firm proposal, after it was fiercely opposed both by pupils and staff. It became one of the most controversial issues during Dr Tate's two- and-a-half-year tenure. Graham Prentice, a student at the school who left last year, said it became a hot topic for debate at mealtimes. "It was completely despised by all the students," he said. "We really valued the ability to sit down at a small table within our year and in our house and be able to talk to our teachers, from the headmaster down. Also it gave us the luxury of being able to walk down to breakfast in our dressing gowns."

The idea was quietly dropped. It seemed it had gone right to the heart of much that was prized by Winchester's staff - their ability to operate their own fiefdoms within the house system. As one insider put it: "Individual teachers and boarding houses could do exactly as they liked. It was highly decentralised. What Nick Tate was trying to do was to lay down minimum standards - little things like ensuring they all ate tea at the same time.

The response was: 'We've been having tea at 4.45pm since 1382. How can we possibly change that?' " Another of Dr Tate's impertinent questions involved staff housing. Could the school save money by dispensing with some of its 100-plus staff houses, many listed and with glorious walled gardens? The bill for repairs and maintenance of college buildings came to almost pound;3.5m a year.

After all, he pointed out, some senior staff were teaching for only about 12 hours per week. If they could be persuaded to take on a fuller timetable the school could reduce numbers, sell off maybe seven houses and raise several million pounds while saving on maintenance. The top of the school's pay scale for teachers was almost pound;50,000, and perks such as free housing tempted many to stay until they came close to that level.

He also developed plans for an extra boarding house to expand pupil numbers and bring in much-needed income. But even this was controversial: staff complained that it would dilute the historic character of the college. The atmosphere became increasingly tense. At the same time, Dr Tate's teenage son Oliver, a pupil at the school, had been in trouble. He was disciplined for drinking and smoking cannabis, and thrown out of his boarding house for persistent indiscipline.

At some point during this difficult time, the new head began to suspect that his emails were being hacked into. When a letter purporting to come from parents was sent to social services, complaining of improprieties in his handling of his son's behaviour, he told the college governors he believed it had come from staff. Later, false allegations about his conduct were made anonymously to the police.

The situation was not helped by the fact that Dr Tate was forced to deal with allegations of sexual abuse against one of the school's housemasters, who was suspended pending the outcome of a police investigation. In March this year the headmaster decided to quit.

Dr Tate told The TES he could not talk about his departure from Winchester.

Nor was anyone at the college prepared to comment, though Tommy Cookson, the new head, has said he is continuing with a range of reforms begun by Dr Tate. Some of Dr Tate's friends have expressed anger at the way he was treated.

"He was shafted," one of them said. "He dared to suggest that they should look at issues like centralised dining, and he fell foul of the system."

James Sabben-Clare, Dr Tate's predecessor as Winchester head, said he believed the school needed to expand, though he doubted changes such as centralised dining would be worth the disruption they would cause.

"The staff are pretty conservative and the pupils are even more so," he said. "The governing body took a risk in appointing someone who had no experience of running a school, let alone a boarding school. That created more of a problem than they expected."

During his time at the college Mr Sabben-Clare attributed its academic success to simple excellence and tradition: "It's like the visitor to Cambridge who asked how they managed to get the lawn as nice as that. The answer was that you must mow it and roll it - for about 600 years," he once said.

More recently, though, some say that the cherished tradition looks less like the key to excellence and more like a threat to the long-term future of the college.

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