Harrow County School for Boys




Richard Buckley

I put my thoughts on my time at HCS from 1959 to 1965 in the Guest Book on 28th January 2001. I said a number of things I had long wanted to say and had not intended to contribute again. However, Jim Golland's recollections (in which he kindly gave me an honourable mention) have prompted me to try and put Simpson and his era into some sort of perspective and to ask myself whether I have been too harsh on him all these years.

When I joined HCS, society was still largely deferential although unquestioning deference was rapidly crumbling. We were still living in the aftermath of the war although we boys were too young to realise it. I suppose we vaguely appreciated that all the staff had lived through the war, even fought in it, but it never occured to us that they had all been shaped by it. Our teachers were the last generation which expected to do as it was told. We were the first which expected to do as it wanted. Teenage culture was being invented. The easy relationship that my children were to have with their teachers did not exist. In all probability, there would have been more than the usual conflict between staff and boys throughout the 1950s and 1960s whoever had become Headmaster in 1946. 

A.R.Simpson was a very odd man indeed. There really is no other way of putting it. I know nothing of his background or personal life but I have always suspected he was damaged in some way. Even by the standards of the time he was reactionary and out of touch. He was not a man with whom the words humour or charm would ever be associated. There was no warmth about him. He was an appalling snob. If behind all this there was a warm, friendly man   struggling to get out, we never saw it. 

Above all, he was an elitist, a good thing, but unacceptable when used as an excuse to berate and insult the overwhelming majority of pupils who were not high flyers. Coupled with this elitism was an aggressive belief in meritocracy and a feeling that, given a level playing field, the best state schools could more than hold their own with the best public schools, particularly in respect of winning places at Oxford and Cambridge. This wholly creditable attitude was somewhat diminished by the fact that he could not envisage any worthwhile institution of higher learning other than Oxford and Cambridge. This is evidenced by his contribution to the 1961 Golden Jubilee Book in which he does not even acknowledge the existence of any other university. 

It has been suggested that his preoccupation with Oxbridge was a good thing because it served to raise standards throughout the school. Maybe, but if so, this was an unintended side effect. As far as I can recall, Simpson was explicit - nothing but Oxbridge was worth considering. 

Heads don't have to make themselves liked to be successful but few heads are remembered without some degree of affection. In anyone else, unworldly and enduring phrases such as 'woodpecker shoes' or 'shortie overcoats' would be considered endearing. Not so in A.R.Simpson. Nor, as far as I can tell, is he remembered with even grudging respect. The Guest Book says it all. 

In the myriad of tasks facing a Head, three stand out. He should set the tone, the ethos if you like, of the school. He should ensure that his teaching staff encourage all pupils to perform to the best of their ability. He should be a good picker of staff.

I do not question the truth of what Jim Golland says about the school's achievements (although I wonder how many of them actually had Simpson's approval) but it is undeniable that HCS was not a happy or a contented school during Simpson's stewardship. You only have to read the Guest Book for overwhelming evidence of that. Responsibility for the success or failure of any organisation begins and stops with the Boss. The bad feeling that I remember so well at HCS in the early 1960s stemmed directly from Simpson's extraordinary attitude towards his own school. 

It was as if he was at war with the majority of his pupils, and perhaps his staff as well for all I know. He certainly didn't like us very much. I clearly remember his derogatory comments and sneers at just about everything except classics and Oxbridge when he addressed us, often incomprehensibly, at inordinate length at assemblies. I recall one tirade pouring scorn on boys for applying to what were then called Colleges of Advanced Technology because these institutions were 'inferior' to Oxbridge. What the staff must have made of it I really cannot imagine.

At least he was consistent - he hated everything, particularly what he perceived as the drop in standards of the post war world. Having re-read extracts from his private writings quoted in Trevor May's History of HCS, I think he was a frightened man, conscious that the ordered pre-war society in which he had felt so comfortable had disappeared for ever. He was terrified of all 'modernity' and its 'temptations' (though frequenting 'Guy Hayward's' in Station Road on a Saturday night seems so innocent compared to what we have had to guard our children against).

He could be, to put it politely, not a very nice man.

Jim tells of the occasion Simpson reduced a successful Oxford candidate to tears by describing him as a failure for merely gaining a place rather than winning a scholarship (there are a number of similar stories in the Guest Book).

This is one of the most extraordinary and distressing tales I think I have ever heard. It defies rational explanation. What sort of man would behave in such a way? What sort of example was this for a Headmaster to set his staff or pupils? What demons lay behind such cruelty? Such behaviour is wicked and unforgiveable in any adult, let alone one responsible for the education and welfare of a thousand boys. 

He certainly set a tone for the school but it was one that was sour, corrosive and, at times, downright unpleasant. 

It might be said that I am being unfair and judging him by the informal standards of today rather than the more robust standards of the time. I think not. Can one imagine the genial Crowle-Ellis behaving in such a manner? Or Randall Williams or Ernest Young? 

On the need for a Head to ensure that all pupils were monitored and encouraged to perform, I can speak from personal experience. 

For some reason, I got off on the wrong foot at HCS and never recovered. Somehow, despite all that was on offer, nothing ever 'grabbbed' me. I totally bombed academically This was my own fault and I make no complaint about it. But as someone who was clearly articulate and intelligent, why did no-one ever question my appalling academic record? Why did no member of staff ever try and do anything about it? Why did this supposedly great grammar school ignore me and many others like me

It is the duty of a Headmaster to ensure through his staff that the performance of all his pupils are closely monitored and that serious attention is given to those who fail when clearly they shouldn't. This is an elementary matter of routine schoolmastering. Simpson failed to do it. 

Was he a good picker of staff? I can't judge for the sciences but I have always felt that on the 'Arts' side the school was well provided with excellent men who could have taught anywhere. There were time servers and duffers as well but every organisation has those. There were more excellent heads of department than not. There were even a few characters. I think Simpson comes out well on this count. 

That said, his achievements as a picker seem to me to be swamped by his failure to set a proper tone for the school, the way in which he abandoned the less clever and his obsession with Oxford and Cambridge.  I cannot avoid the conclusion that Simpson was a deeply flawed man who should never have been a Headmaster. The achievements Jim rightly celebrates in his piece were, I suspect, made in spite of Simpson, not because of him. 

Richard Buckley / 9-10-01


For a different personal view of ARS, from Colin Dickins, click here

Click for Dr. A. R. Simpson - Retirement profile in Gaytonian 1965

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