In 1972 the successful 11+ candidates from tiny Dale Hall primary school in north Ipswich were all due to start Northgate Grammar School that September. But my parents had heard that bursaries were available at Ipswich School and so had also entered me for the 11+ entrance exam there, against the advice of the headmaster at Dale Hall who regarded their ambition as an unconventional and unnecessary distraction to a perfectly good state grammar school education.
When the offer of a Queen’s Scholarship to Ipswich School arrived in the spring, our family was assessed as requiring 100% remission. A full fee bursary. The family celebrated with a meal at the Martlesham Red Lion, the first time we had dined out for an evening meal.
“My recollection is of seven very busy and happy years“
My preference to attend Northgate Grammar School with primary school friends was flatly declined. Sometimes adults do know best. The bursary at Ipswich School changed my life, and provided a very different educational experience to that of my friends at Northgate. The key differentials were higher aspirations and a wider range of extra-curricular opportunities. The latter were a particularly strong feature. I played Fives, Rugby and Hockey, and received Cricket coaching, for the very first time. I travelled abroad and flew for the first time with the CCF (to Germany) and even skied for the first (and last) time in communist Bulgaria. Then there was drama and the philately club. An ignited passion for history. I was no good at music, but still vividly remember listening to Handel’s Creation and watching a performance of Cox and Box.
My recollection is of seven very busy and happy years. The teaching was, at worst highly competent, and at best, and often, inspired. The recent arrival of both a reforming Head—John Blatchly—and a clutch of young, highly able teachers, with strong all-round interests themselves and who cared about pupils (Gregory, Holt, Hoskins, Ingham, Bannan, among others) must have helped.
“It shaped my lifelong interests and future educational values”
The encouragement to engage in a wide range of different opportunities, and the exemplification and support available to pursue passions and develop skills, were high. It opened up a world of sports and interests I had not tried before. My parents reckon that life was so varied, full and busy that I was never home before 6pm for six nights each week. The culture raised academic aspirations. It shaped my lifelong interests and future educational values. My mother was so impressed with the place she ended up working as PA to the Head of the Junior School.
Ipswich School led to Durham as an undergraduate and to Cambridge for a PhD. I stayed at Cambridge University for 17 years researching and lecturing in medieval history, while also playing rugby for Wasps and England. I still recall the first game of rugby I ever played, aged 12 for the Ipswich School Midgets against St Joseph’s College. The Midgets were mutilated. My first game for the 1st XV as a 15-year-old under the impressive John Nicholson was against Ipswich rugby club…the full men’s team, not the colts! The cricket coaching and experience at school led to a decade of pleasure playing cricket for the Old Ipswichians and Suffolk.
“The values I observed and absorbed at Ipswich School have been influential throughout my career in education”
After lecturing at Cambridge University, I became Head of Leeds Grammar School, and finally High Master of St Paul’s School in London. In between these two jobs was a short stint back in academia, through a Visiting Fellowship at All Souls, Oxford, and a chair in Late Medieval History at the University of East Anglia.
Leeds Grammar School and St Paul’s have a good deal in common with Ipswich School: medieval grammar schools turned independent schools, with an emphasis on providing a strong academic education and promoting the all-round development of the child. The values I observed and absorbed at Ipswich School have been influential throughout my career in education.
High academic standards and aspirations, a strong work ethic, provision of a wide range of opportunities, a culture that promotes engagement in whatever activity is right for the individual, excellence as well as participation in extra-curricular activities, developing interpersonal and life skills through all those activities, bags of encouragement, clear boundaries and direction when needed, and extending bursaries to enable talent within the local community to benefit from a top education.
Having enjoyed another stint at All Souls in 2019 to deliver the James Ford Lectures in British History at the University of Oxford, a return to UEA and Suffolk beckons in late 2020, including returning to the Governing Body at Ipswich School.
“A small payback for the life-changing door that a bursary to Ipswich School opened for me in 1972”
Northgate Grammar School was a damned good school; but would I have followed this varied educational career, and gained such pleasure from playing two sports to a high standard, if my wishes had prevailed over my parents’?