Dr Leslie Bather – Headmaster (1970 – 1996)

A Few Memories and Reflections

By Dr. Leslie Bather, Headmaster (1970 – 1996)

(Written in 2009)

I was appointed headmaster-designate in December 1969, just in time to be invited to the Christmas stage production.  This turned out to be Handel’s ‘The Messiah’ (Park One) followed by Gian-Carlo Mennotti’s charming little opera ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’.  It was a wonderful evening – what an introduction to one’s new school! The packed audience was clearly as impressed and moved as I was by the outstanding performance.


It seemed to me that this, my first experience of life at Bishopshalt, told me almost all that I needed to know about the character and atmosphere of the School I was about to join.  The evening spoke of high expectations and ambition, belief in the pupils, an unwillingness to accept the second-rate, a sense of vitality, a strong communal spirit, a determination to identify and develop talent.


I had worked only in good state schools, but I know that many others were dull places, cultural deserts that failed to raise the sights of their pupils.  As the ‘Good State Schools’ Guide’ said twenty-one years later, “children have unlimited talent.  Much is suppressed in infancy, dampened in the junior years by popular culture, and left undiscovered in the process of formal education”.  The authors added that this does not have to be so.


After I retired, Bishopshalt became an ‘Arts College specialising in Music and the Performing Arts’, but the strength of the arts was truly apparent throughout my time at the School.  The arts play an important part in many people’s lives and though not every pupil will make the arts a priority, many if exposed to them will do so.


There had been a good tradition of Gilbert & Sullivan, but with ‘Amahl’ and a terrific production of ‘Oliver!’ in 1971, the then head of music, Jim Hannah, instigated a new era of musical dramas which flourished under a succession of producers.  An independent reviewer from the National Operatic and Dramatic Association described his arrival for one performance.  He was struck by the sound of an audience eagerly anticipating “much more than the school play”.  They were, he added, not disappointed.


Other happy memories are of fine performances at our Carol Services in St. John’s Church, at morning assemblies (what better start to the day than lovely music performed live), and of course, at the Spring Concerts which were splendidly ambitious, including such works as Fauré’s ‘Requiem’, Vivaldi’s ‘ Gloria’, Haydn’s ‘Nelson Mass’, ‘Saint Nicolas’ by Benjamin Britten and jolly pieces from the juniors such as ‘Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo’.


The change from grammar school to comprehensive came in 1977.  Whatever our opinions on the consequences for England of the closing of most grammar schools, at Bishopshalt, we were determined to keep our expectations high.  Achievements in the arts reflected this.  Not only were shows and concerts as good, if not better than before, in 1988 the modern dress performance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was the first of what turned out to be splendid annual performances of Shakespeare’s plays.


On my first day in 1970, I walked into the School grounds along the North Drive.  From the then staff room on the first floor of the mansion, I saw members of staff looking down at me.  “What will he be like?” they were no doubt wondering.  “What will they be like?”, I was thinking!


They turned out to be splendid of course and their good work not only brought all those achievements in the arts, but success across the board in examination results and in a great range of sport and other extra-curricular activities.  Two very different triumphs spring to mind as examples of many – the under nineteen football team winning the Borough Cup for four consecutive years and the Debating Team in 1996 (some twenty years after the School became comprehensive) winning the county level of the Cambridge Union Debate against competition almost entirely from well-known independent schools.


What seems evident is that it is the teachers’ attitude that makes all the difference – belief in their pupils, high expectations, a positive philosophy.


Recognition, praise and encouragement are vital and one of my first decisions was to introduce the present form of prize-giving with prizes for all sorts of effort, achievement and contribution to the School.  We had some interesting visiting speakers at prize-giving, including our most famous old boy, Bernard Miles (later Lord Miles of Blackfriars).


John Watts, an old boy who was MP for Slough, had to cancel at the last moment because he was ordered to stay at Westminster for a vital vote in the Commons.  On the principle that lightning does not strike twice, he agreed to come the following year.  All went well, but there was a moment of excitement just as the proceedings were about to start when there was an urgent call from 10 Downing Street.  The Prime Minister had decided to promote John to be Minister of Transport.


Staff always listened most attentively to the visiting speakers, but whether this was to hear the words of wisdom, or because there was a staff sweepstake on the length of the talks, I leave you to decide.


Turning back to my first day as headmaster, I had long believed in MBWA – management by walking about – so the first thing I decided to do was to walk around and look at the School at work.  I went into what was then the Music Rom and had my first conversation with a Bishopshalt pupil.  He was Michael Tavinor, now the Very Reverend Michael Tavinor, the distinguished Dean of Hereford Cathedral.  He is to preach the sermon at our centenary service in St. John’s Church, Hillingdon.


Bishopshalt is so lucky in its buildings and grounds.  I had to stand firm to preserve many of its features – the Victorian gates, the curved wall with its Victorian lamp, to stop plans for an intrusive fire escape across the mansion roof and, above all, to save the Victorian conservatory.  Neglect in the sixties had left the conservatory in poor shape and Hillingdon Borough would not spend a large sum on something that did not contribute much to the teaching.


Still, we had the support of the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, and there was some exciting fund-raising.  Bernard Miles arranged a Bishopshalt v London Theatres Club cricket match.  As well as Bernard himself, many famous stars were there, such as Leonard Rossiter, Richard Beckinsale and Millicent Martin, star of the hugely popular ‘That Was the Week That Was’ television show.  There was a football match against a British Parliamentary XI, a concert by the Central Band of the RAF and a recital by Janet Craxton, one of the finest oboe players of her time.


In the event, the conservatory was saved, and its restoration won a Civic Trust award.


In the late eighties, Hillingdon Council was showing considerable interest in removing sixth forms to set up separate sixth form colleges.  This strengthened the argument for breaking away from the Council and becoming one of the new grant-maintained schools.  So, we became one of the pioneers and 1990 – 1996 were particularly exciting years.  With complete control over finances and policies, we were able to make big improvements.  Our success attracted huge publicity, including a mention in a House of Commons debate.  I appeared many times on television putting the case for the grant-maintained system and even had alive interview on BBC Television News.


In setting up the grant-maintained school, as with all other school activities during twenty-six years as headmaster, I had great support from teachers, non-teaching staff, parents, governors and Old Uxonians.  Anything can be achieved when people work together as a team.


The Parents’ Association had some enthusiastic leaders over the years.  The BSPA gave us great help financially and their social activities help to create the right spirit in the School.  In 1994-1995, a special committee led the fund raising for a Music Suite extension and what had seemed a rather formidable and frightening private enterprise was carried through successfully without holding back on other activities.  On a Monday in September one of Britain’s top violinists, Tamsin Little, officially opened the Suite and played for us in the School Hall.  A few days later she was one of the soloists in the Royal Albert Hall, playing at the Last Night of the Proms.  I was surprised and pleased when the committee proposed that the Suite they had worked so hard for should be named the Leslie Bather Music Suite.


What matters most of all in a school?  Ken Pearce wrote a fascinating little history of Bishopshalt, sold in aid of the restoration of the Conservatory.  He concluded it with words written by Bishopshalt’s second headmaster, John Miles, on the School’s fortieth anniversary.  Mr. Miles wrote:


“Without strong and noble personal influence, the work of education is barren.  In the final analysis, the only factor which really matters is the quality of the men and women who stand before their pupils in the classroom”.


Looking back after twenty-six years as one of Mr. Miles’ successors, I am sure of the wisdom of those words.  It was a privilege and a happy experience to work with so many teachers who believed in their pupils, maintained standards and kept expectations high.


Leslie Bather