Eric James was one of the foremost educationists of his generation. As a ten year old school boy I had the pleasure to meet him in the corridor of my new school Manchester Grammar of which he was the High Master from 1945 to 1961 when he left the school to take up the post of Vice Chancellor of the new University of York, which under his guiding influence was to become one of the best of the new universities. I have recently read a new study of Lord James concentrating on his role in the foundation of the University of York, although also covering briefly other facets of his remarkable life.
During his time at Manchester Grammar School (M.G.S.) the school came to be regarded as the finest in the country. Eric was an energetic man who quickly graduated into a national role as a member of the Secondary Schools Examination Council, the Central Advisory Council for Education (England), the University Grants Committee, most unusually for a school master at that time, from 1949-58, and chairman of the Headmasters’ Conference (H.M.C.) in 1953-4. He was knighted in 1956 and made a life peer in the second Macmillan list in 1958, almost certainly a unique honour for a school master. I recall that while on a school camp in the Lake District in Whitsun 1961 we sat by the radio waiting for a national news item to announce his successor as our High Master, a certain Peter Mason. Mason was High Master for the remainder of my time at school but never again I think was in the national news.
Eric was born in 1909, the son of Francis, a commercial traveller in brushes, and Lily, a governess before their marriage. Francis was 45 and Lily 38 at the time and Eric’s brother and sister were nine and seven years older. The family moved a number of times and by 1923 they moved to Southampton with his father now ‘a commercial jeweller’. Eric, clearly a clever little boy, now enrolled at Taunton’s School. The school had become a public secondary school during the late nineteenth century. Eric did well, becoming deputy Head Boy. By being an endowed municipal school and because The Queen’s College, Oxford had possessed lands in Southampton, the school had two exhibitions to the College exclusively for its pupils with the ability to gain entry. Eric was awarded one of these to read chemistry. So, despite his modest background, through good fortune and exceptional academic ability Eric went up in the autumn of 1927 to one of the leading universities in the world.
On graduation with a double first in 1931 Eric had essentially two choices – to become a school master or to become an industrial chemist as the two other chemistry scholars did in that year. In the event, the College, possibly for the first time, provided Eric with a post-graduate studentship in organic chemistry. He completed his doctorate in two years in July 1933, having had a paper published with his tutor in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1932.
Eric applied for a temporary post in physics at Winchester College, a post subsequently confirmed, but more appropriately in chemistry. Eric later said that the only reason for his appointment was that the Head, the Reverend Alwyne Williams, simply did not know the difference between chemistry and physics. What is more likely is that Williams had seen in Eric a potentially able science teacher for a school that valued individual talent in its teaching staff almost more than any other.
One of his pupils was later to write about his style of teaching that its subversive nature reminded him of the teacher in the then contemporary film The Dead Poets Society (1992). Eric remained at Winchester for twelve years and it was undoubtedly one of the formative experiences of his life. Critical to his development and his future career was the arrival of a new Headmaster in 1935, Spencer Leeson, at that time Head of Merchant Taylors’ School. A Wykehamist himself, Leeson was not simply returning to enjoy the College’s distinguished traditions but to use its fame as a powerful force in the national debate about the future of education in Britain. Leeson had a vision which Eric came to share, which had at its core a belief that the whole education system, independent, selective and maintained should have a nation-wide coherence.
The national debate had begun before 1939 but gathered pace as the war progressed and the post-war world was planned in terms of full employment, education, health, and comfortable old age. Within these educational discussions, Leeson, who was Chairman of the H.M.C. throughout the war, had become the most powerful Headmaster in the country. Eric would have lengthy conversations with Leeson about post-war education and as a scientist, brought an empirical rationalism to thinking about social, as well as moral, religious and political questions. But unlike many of his colleagues in the 1930s who drifted into socialist enthusiasm for Stalin’s Soviet Union, Eric was radically inclined but always rooting his opinions in scientific fact. His vision for the future was to mobilise science and technology for human betterment.
When the governors of M.G.S. advertised for a new High Master in 1945 Leeson encouraged Eric and another Winchester teacher to apply. Some forty candidates applied and five were ultimately shortlisted, three serving Headmasters and the two Winchester men. Eric, the youngest, secured the job aged 36. Leeson told his governing body “No wiser appointment could have been made. Dr James’ especial strength did not so much lie in chemistry – although he was a brilliant student and teacher – as in his championship of a humane educational ideal”. For his part, Eric on leaving asked Leeson how he might be a successful Headmaster, a request that prompted a multi-page guidebook to headmastership, a text that Eric used verbatim when he became the leading headmaster of his day, but never passing it off as his own.
The timing of his appointment was extraordinary. Not only was the war over but Butler’s 1944 Education Act had come into being. Eric realised that the Act, and the Direct Grant Grammar School system in particular, would change the whole context of an academic education in the city and region. Eric saw that the numbers of boys able and wishing to continue their education beyond the age of 15 and on to university would rise rapidly. He understood that facilities and staffing in the school would have to respond to these new challenges. By the mid-1950s 75% of all M.G.S. boys went onto university, 58% of the sixth form, now totalling 460 out of a school of 1340, had studied mathematics and the sciences, and over 100 boys, well over half, left to study science and technology at university.
Eric deliberately positioned himself, and by implication, his school at the centre of the national educational stage. By accepting full participation in the direct grammar school scheme, just prior to Eric’s appointment, the governors put themselves at the apex of the new framework of state secondary education, a talisman for the grammar school selective system as a whole. As such, M.G.S. became a school offering over 500 free places to boys, paid for by Manchester and neighbouring local authorities. My own was paid for by Cheshire. Now able to select the most able boys, regardless of the lottery of money or geography, as Eric pithily put it, the school had no need of fee-paying feeder schools.
The national debate now polarised between those favouring a selective system and those opposed. Eric, though of left of centre sympathy, argued passionately for a selective system. In 1954 he organised a conference in the North West consisting of 40-50 Lancashire and Cheshire heads in the invited presence of Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the opposition, and the Labour Party front bench team of Michael Stewart and Alice Bacon.
Eric’s onslaught on the Labour policy of introducing comprehensive education for all is astonishing. It is too long to summarise here and may be worth a separate blog on its own. But in brief he described the great success of the grammar schools, most of which were of recent origin, in producing highly expert pupils while promoting social mobility. As a scientist he was particularly at pains to point out that the nation needed exceptional scientists and therefore it needed exceptional teachers to teach them. These people were in short supply and so their efforts needed to be concentrated in a limited number of schools for the good of all. If such people were made to teach average pupils their efforts would be wasted.
Eric described Labour politicians as ignorant, irresponsible and frivolous. He finished by saying that “It is a lamentable fact that to the men in this room, whatever way they may vote, the prospect of the Labour party in power, with its present educational policy, offers not the hope that it should, but rather the menace of ill-considered policies, of the denial of opportunities, the lowering of standards, and the frustration of legitimate hopes. For those of us whose sympathies have always been on the left it is a humiliating and bitter thought that the advent to power of that party whose lifeblood should be educational advance is something that is feared by the most highly educated section of the teaching profession.”
Gaitskell wrote about this experience at length in his personal diary. He confessed to being “astonished” at the “truculence” of the headmasters who “one after another said that the Labour party was against the grammar schools, that it had attacked them. That it was trying to destroy them”. He concluded “My own feeling is that we should not be too precipitate in this matter because of the many local problems that would arise, and that only if our programme had been phased in a little more wisely, we should have had not nearly as much hostility from grammar schools and other people in the teaching profession”.
But in 1965, just over ten years later, the Labour Education Minister Anthony Crosland brought out a white paper which showed that Labour had in fact learnt nothing from Eric James and his colleagues’ criticisms. I was then a sixth former and a member of our Debating Society. I led a debate against the white paper and while the Debating Society’s events were normally only attended by pupils a number of masters attended this one. Without knowing of Lord James’ views on the subject I used many of the same arguments and said that in a comprehensive system standards would level down, not up.
Let’s look at what’s happened since the grammar schools were destroyed. In a generation we have fallen rapidly down the league tables in mathematics and science. Our industry is crying out for people with these skills. And we are forced to import them from other nations who also need them.
And how did boys find Eric James? One pupil wrote “The supreme reward of being … (a pupil) at M.G.S. was to be taught by Eric James… The Fabian agnostic took upon himself the Religious Instruction of the Sixth Form. What we got was an awesome trip through the history of Western Thought, after a thorough grounding in Platonism, 'the Chief’ bemoaning the while his ignorance of classical Greek.”
Another, the famous children’s author Alan Garner, was loitering in the corridor. Asked what he was doing, the young Garner had the quickness to reply, “Thinking, Sir”. Equally swiftly the tone changed instantly, “Good. Forgive the intrusion”. The same former pupil continued “what he was, in the effect he had on the boys of his High Mastership, and what they passed on to the world, he still is and will be. He gave us our selves. I can think of no greater gift.”
Of my own encounter in a corridor with the great man my recollections are vague. I do not recall what if anything I said. I certainly wasn’t as quick witted as Alan Garner in my response. But I do remember that this imposing figure, something like Zeus descending from Mount Olympus, also had a kindly face.