At Westminster School, under the shadow of Big Ben and at the very centre of national life, 600 of the brightest, quirkiest and most stimulating boys and girls in the country spar with teachers of similar character. Results are spectacular. The difficulty for the headmaster, however, is that by long tradition some of the governors and a great number of those who teach at Westminster have little time for headmasters. So he treads a thorny path, saying to himself, as John Rae confesses to his diary: ‘I am lucky to be here, but my days are numbered.’

Actually Rae survived in the job from 1970 to 1986. These extracts from his diaries, put together just before his death two years ago, remind us what a time of change it was. Oxford and Cambridge abolished their scholarships; Rae admitted girls to the sixth form; he saw the parent body shift towards ‘more millionaires and less academics’, and he dealt increasingly with boys from dysfunctional and one-parent families. Teenage culture and drugs arrived, from neither of which a school in the centre of London could be immune.

The disciplinary and pastoral problems inevitable in a lively school with a liberal tradition took up a great deal of his time. Many Westminster masters considered themselves akin to university dons, there to teach and stimulate, not to be concerned with such matters as the school rules. Efficient organisation they tended to condemn as ‘un- Westminster’. So Rae was often in the front line as the school coped with a dissident or psychologically troubled boy or with a difficult parent, or with both.

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