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School’s game well raised

19 September 2014

Anthony Phillips on the life and work of a great headmaster

Thring of Uppingham: Victorian educator
Nigel Richardson
The University of Buckingham Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT968 )

EDWARD THRING (1821-87) is today remembered best as the founder of the Headmasters' Conference. Yet he did not call the first meeting, and very nearly did not attend it. But, as Nigel Richardson, a distinguished former headmaster and Conference chairman, indicates in this splendid biography, there is much more to celebrate; for, over a tenure of 34 years, Thring transformed a little-known and unresourced ancient grammar school of only 40 pupils in rural Rutland to a sizeable, first-rate independent boarding-school with a distinctive educational ethos.

Thring's own appalling education at Ilminster Grammar School and Eton may, paradoxically, have been the best preparation possible for the future Headmaster of Uppingham determined to make life for his pupils very different. As Thring noted, England's problem was not the untaught poor, but the "ill-taught rich".

Another lasting influence was his curacy in a slum parish in Gloucester, which ended in breakdown. Throughout his life, Thring would be dogged by insecurity and depression, even speaking with his pupils of his vulnerability. He also remained conscious of the poor, founding the first school mission in the East End of London.

Many of the situations that Thring faced are common to heads of independent schools today: falling-outs with parents, obdurate trustees, government interference, bad town-school relations, money worries. But, for Thring, this meant making up shortfalls in income and funding capital projects from his personal fortune. The result was that his finances and the school's became so mixed up that on his death in office his family were left very much at the mercy of the trustees.

There is no doubt that Thring's defining moment was the typhoid outbreak of 1875. With town and school at loggerheads, each blaming the other, and the future of Uppingham, now with some 340 pupils, under threat, Thring evacuated the school to a hotel in the Welsh seaside town of Borth. The operation was undertaken with extraordinary speed and efficiency. When, in May 1876, satisfied that sanitation problems had been tackled, Thring moved the school back to Uppingham, it was to a triumphant welcome. Both the school and his reputation were secure.

Quite apart from his significant public profile after the Taunton Commission, to which Richardson pays proper attention, it is for his understanding of education, particularly spelt out in Theory and Practice of Teaching, the book that made him internationally famous, that Thring should principally be remembered. He was decades ahead of his time, having an extraordinary insight into all aspects of school life, educational, physical, and domestic. Boys should have separate studies, and dormitories should have partitions.

Central to his thought was the uniqueness of each pupil, and his determination that every boy should do something well. Regardless of natural ability, they must all receive equal attention and be enabled to acquire self-confidence. Their happiness was crucial. Further, pupils should love learning for its own sake, and not simply to pass examinations. He was utterly opposed to "cramming children with facts and pleasing governments". Instead, he valued Socratic questioning, and the importance of observation and experience.

While the curriculum was to be based on sound classical teaching, it was to be supplemented by sport -in which Thring himself would participate - and, unusually for those times, music, although he was tone-deaf. He was deeply opposed to the muscular Christianity that was to become a feature of so many schools. Games were for creating manliness, not obsessive competition.

Thring had a simple faith, and was untroubled by contemporary scientific ideas. He was a strong believer in the sacraments and the power of prayer, and valued each pupil as a child of God. He saw the part that he played in the chapel, which, over a decade, he battled with the trustees to have built, as the centre of his work. Perceptively, he valued failure; for it implied "the not worshipping of success".

Indeed, through all the vicissitudes of his headmastership, "his trust was in God and that it was his work." In view of Alan Bennett's recent Cambridge sermon, can current heads of independent schools feel as confident? I hope so.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King's School, Canterbury.

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