Advice to school leaders and boards from 1932

One of the five schools where I served as Principal was an all-boys’ school in Australia with a history (now) of over 150 years.  The first time I walked into my office after taking up the headship, I was greeted by a large and very impressive collection of old books on somewhat dusty bookshelves.

There were certainly some unusual titles among the books I inherited.  There was volume 2 of “Demosthenes’ Orations”, but not volume 1.  There was the three-volume set of “The Life of Gladstone” and the four-volume set of the “Works of Edgar Alan Poe”.  There was a book called “Two-minute Bible readings for Use in Opening School and in Hospital Wards”.  Another book was titled “The Schoolboy – his nutrition and development”, and it talked about hunger (and I quote) “as a manifestation of the carnal sin of greed, to be suitably repressed”.

Perhaps the most surprising title I found was “The Life of the Bee”, published in 1901.  I was probably the only Headmaster in the world at the time to have “The Life of the Bee” on his office shelves, and it was a 351-page manual on apiculture, or beekeeping.  Perhaps one of my predecessors had seen a parallel in raising bees and raising boys, because there was a bookmark at page 47 in the chapter headed “the swarm”.

Several old books, including The Romance of School and The Life of the Bee.

One very interesting 216-page book dating from 1932 was called “The Romance of School” by Rev Dr Charles John (CJ) Prescott, Headmaster of Newington College in Sydney, Australia from 1900 to 1931.  The book contained 37 chapters with diverse headings such as ‘Boys’, ‘Girls’, ‘The Dining Room’, ‘Pocket Money’, ‘Epidemics’, ‘Latin’, ‘The Joy of Learning’, ‘Schoolboy Friendships’, ‘Public Spirit’ and ‘The Product’.

Given Prescott’s career, chapter 1 naturally focussed on the topic of ‘Headmasters’, and the book opened with these words at the top of page 1:

“Headmasters are naturally in a class of their own.  They have many qualities in common imposed upon them by the conditions of their work, but outside of these they are as varied as the flowers.  One excels in scholarship, another is a proved athlete, another is great in administration, another a masterly disciplinarian, but one and all they are autocrats and rule in their spheres as kings.  Yet in some relations the autocracy is tempered.  They do not rule their governing bodies as they rule their boys. In a certain sense they are subject to them: from them they receive their appointment, and by them they may be dismissed. Their relations may be genial and friendly, sometimes they are unpleasant, in some cases they are stormy.  Instances have been known in which voting bodies or individual members have tried to treat headmasters merely as paid servants, but these are exceptional.  As a rule, a working understanding is reached, and as both have the same object in view, the welfare of the school, this makes for mutual tolerance and sympathy.”

In chapter 9, titled ‘Governing Bodies’, Prescott explores the relationship between Heads of School and their Boards in more detail.  I’ll reproduce a substantial excerpt from this chapter, partly for its entertainment (and sometimes horror) value to modern educators, but mostly as a basis of comparison for today’s school leaders and boards to reflect on their own practices.

“Many schools are incorporated, subject to the law of incorporation.  In such cases the body is the legal owner of the premises, the trustee for endowments and property of all kinds, and the party responsible for debts, if these exist.

“It therefore holds the purse-strings.  It makes its own financial arrangements with the staff.  In certain cases in the past, it has let the establishment to the headmaster who has paid a rent nominal or real, and then has paid his assistants what he thought just and made what he could out of it. House masters in like manner have conducted their houses on the same principle.

“The system still obtains; but in Australian schools the tendency is to give fixed salaries to all the staff, and to keep the financial management in the governors' hands.  Their function therefore is an important one and offers opportunities to men of business ability.  People of academic training are not usually financiers (though there have been notable exceptions) and a few men with good business training can render high service.

“While the reputation of a school will depend upon the work of its staff, the ruling body can do much to support that reputation.  The (board) members can use their personal influence to secure an ample inflow of new boys; sometimes their very names are a guarantee for the soundness of the institution they control.  Many such bodies are very wideawake to the interest of the school, and its prosperity has been aided by their active co-operation.

“An obvious danger is that the numerical and financial aspect should become the prominent one.  If the numbers increase or are maintained and there is a gratifying balance on the right side at the end of the year, there is satisfaction: but if numbers decline, or if the profit is a small one, or is replaced by a loss, the tendency is for every member to become discouraged and sometimes disagreeable; this, too, even when in other respects the school has been doing its best work.

“Of course, the financial test is one of the legitimate tests, as is the numerical.  Yet one of the most brilliant and scholarly headmasters in England in the nineteenth century, when his boys were shining conspicuously at the universities, was never rewarded by large numbers, and the financial test may be equally misleading.  In a bank or a commercial enterprise, or a trading concern, or a mine, or a shipping firm, it is accepted as the just test; though even here a truer one might be whether or not these enterprises are discharging a useful public service.

“But a school is not a bank, nor a business, nor a speculation.  The question is: Is it doing the work for which it was founded? Is its teaching sound, its training effective?  Is its general tone good?  Is it turning out worthy and capable men?  These are the supreme questions to be asked, the others though legitimate and necessary are of minor importance.

“Apart from this, a governing body is exposed to two opposite dangers, the one of ill-directed and excessive zeal, the other of laxity.  If it is a large body, it probably will contain some, placed upon it for the sake of the supposed value of their names, whose interest is skin-deep, who rarely attend its meetings and do not concern themselves with what is going on.  Such a body may say: ‘We take some trouble to give the place the best head we can find, and it is his business to do the rest.’  This means, of course, that it makes no attempt to help the man of their choice, even though it is in their power to do so, if they would take the trouble.

“On the other hand, members of the ruling body may magnify their office, and think that their position entitles them to visit, to enquire, and to criticize at their sweet will; sometimes a headmaster has been treated as though he was simply and solely a paid servant.  Dr Arnold (Headmaster of Rugby School in the UK from 1828 to 1841) was emphatic on this point.  The remedy of a governing body, he said, was not interference, but dismissal; and by that assertion he added one more valuable element to the store of benefits he gave to English education.

To the boys of a school there is no greater man, on his own ground, than the headmaster.  The old story that Dr Busby (Headmaster of Westminster School in the UK for almost 57 years, from 1638 to 1695) kept his hat on in the presence of Charles II, lest his boys should think that there was any greater man in the Kingdom than himself, is suggestive of a time when boys did not know so much of the big world outside as the daily reading of the newspapers teaches them to-day. It was an extravagant assertion of authority, and perhaps only the Merry Monarch would have tolerated it, but there may be places even to-day where some assertion would not be out of place.

“As a rule, the governing body selects the headmaster.  This places immense power in their hands and calls for very judicious exercise.  Sometimes personal acquaintance, or relationship, comes in to interfere with a purely impartial choice; in some cases, political views or ecclesiastical prejudices distort a just judgment.  Many a time a first-rate man has been refused a headship for such reasons, and an inferior appointment has been made with ill results.  But so much depends upon a prudent choice that it forces one to raise the question whether proper prudence is displayed in selecting the ruling body itself.

“When once a choice has been made, the supreme need is that there should be mutual trust.  Of course, cases may arise in which for good or bad reasons that trust breaks down.  Then the only course open is for the headmaster to resign or for the ruling body to dismiss him.  Instances of both have occurred in the great English schools.  But until such breaking point is reached, each side should trust the other.

“The management of finances belongs to the governing body.  But the management of the school, the settlement of its curriculum, the principles of its internal government, the direction of the masters, should be left to the man who, if he is worth his salt, has made a study of these things and ought to know more about it than any of his councillors, and who, if he is doing his duty, has his finger upon the pulse of the school, and understands it better than any outsider, even though that outsider was at one time a boy in the school himself.

“The heroic enterprise of Dr Thring (Headmaster of Uppington School in the UK from 1853 to 1887) in raising Uppingham from a tiny, endowed grammar school to one of the great schools of England, is one of the romances of the nineteenth century.  It attracted universal attention, it set scores of other people thinking, and it marked him as one of the most stimulating forces in the educational life of the land.  Yet his biographer has to relate that there was, to the end of his life, almost constant friction between him and his trustees.  Thring was undoubtedly a man of exceptionally strong character and had a profound conviction as to the soundness of his methods and his plans, which indeed were justified by the results.  Any co-operation with him was easily carried on, when he was recognized as the dominant partner; but perhaps not otherwise.

“Yet it remains a pathetic story that such a man should have been thwarted, opposed, and hampered by a body of men who with one shining exception, had not eyes to see the quality and power of the one whom they themselves appointed to be the ruler of their, originally, tiny school.

“And what an honourable function it is to be a ruler of a great school!  In the motherland, the proudest of the aristocracy, even royalty itself, counts it an added honour if their names are associated with some great school.  They have nothing personal to gain, but it is a fine form of public service. To help to maintain its reputation, to make its future eclipse its splendid past, to be a nursing father to its annual cohorts of glorious boys setting out for the battle of life – this is a task that any good citizen might well envy. And out of a sympathetic heart, he will be moved from time to time to make some fitting gift, and when he makes his will, while he makes generous provision for his widow and his children, he will joyfully insert a little clause that will cause his school to remember him when he has passed away.”

Clearly, 1932 was a vastly different world educationally than today.  CJ Prescott concludes his book on page 216 with a conversation he is having with his own adult son soon after his retirement.

“Are you asleep, dad?  Your pipe has gone out.  I crept into the room five minutes ago, and you were so still that I was afraid I should wake you.”

“I must have been dreaming, my dear.  I was back at school again and living over my schooldays.”

“And didn’t you wish to be a boy again, dad?”

“Yes, for a time.  They were happy days, and I like to recall them.  But there are other things.  I wasn't married to your mother then, and what should I do without my girls?  It was good to be a boy; but better still to be the father of a family like mine.”

“And were all your memories pleasant, dad?”

“Nearly all, but not quite.  The last thing I dreamed of was that old N. had reported me to the Head for gross disobedience and I was in his study.  It was a clear case, I must admit.  Just as he said, ‘Bend over,’ you spoke to me, and I woke up, and you saved me from a hiding.”

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Prescott CJ (1932) The Romance of School: A Headmaster’s Retrospect.  Sydney: Angus & Robertson.   

A modern analysis of the role of the board and its relationship with the Head of School is provided in several of workshops, including OSG-S1 Board Operations, OSG-S3 Future-focussed board leadership, and OSG-S4 Governance and Management.

Advice on this and other aspects of effective leadership and school governance is also provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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