Rugby was immortalised in Tom Brown’s School Days, but its headmaster, Peter Green, is brandishing another book — a Christie’s catalogue with the school’s name on it. During an attic clear-out items were discovered in an archive room and were put up for sale. They had been given to the school in around 1880 by the Old Rugbeian Matthew Holbeche Bloxam, and included Chinese ceramics and British watercolours. The highlight was a rare drawing by Dutch Old Master Lucas van Leyden, which sold for £10 million.
If the decision to sell that seems crass, it isn’t, says Green. ‘Why would we keep it? It has no intrinsic value to Rugby School. If we were able to build a massive museum, then perhaps. But to insure it we would have had to charge our parents, who are paying fees for an education, for a museum, which doesn’t seem right.’ In any case, the upshot is that the 452-year-old public school has been given a £15 million cash injection.
Green has been head of Rugby since 2014, when he moved there from his previous headship at Ardingly College in West Sussex. Before that, he spent five years at Ampleforth College, where he was instrumental in introducing co-education. Before that, Uppingham.
He read geography at Edinburgh, then went into teaching. He is the first Rugby head not to have been educated at Oxford or Cambridge. ‘When I started teaching more than 30 years ago, if you’d said I would be headmaster of Rugby, I would have said: “That won’t happen — I’m not Oxbridge”.’ Among his predecessors are Archibald Tait (1842-1848), who went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury, and Sir Arthur fforde (1948-1957), who became chairman of the BBC.
When we met it was two months till 29 March, Brexit day. Green, a rugby-mad Scot with a copy of The Jesuit’s Guide to Almost Everything on his desk, ponders the thought of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, and the Labour party’s position on fee-paying schools. ‘If [Corbyn] decides to add VAT on to fees, that will close a significant number of independent schools. If that happens, how is the government going to afford to educate these people?’ He is fairly confident Rugby wouldn’t be Corbyn’s first victim. ‘He can’t say we’re not widening access, or that we’re not a charity. Our engagement with the local community is enormous.’
Rugby has an unusual asset: an estate in Bloomsbury which includes super-smart Lamb’s Conduit Street. The income derived from that investment — bought in 1560 by Lawrence Sheriff, who endowed Rugby — funds the school’s Foundation Awards. These are bursaries provided for pupils who live within a ten-mile radius of the school, and they can cover up to 100 per cent of day fees. There must always be 43 Foundationers attending Rugby; presently, there are more than this, says Green, and ‘a significant number of them don’t pay any fees’.
Then there’s the Arnold Foundation, set up in 2003 to offer means-tested support for boarding places at Rugby. This pays for 35 students to attend Rugby with free places; it particularly supports children from the country’s most disadvantaged areas.
The Christie’s cheque will help matters more. Some of the money will be spent on a new archive, but most will be invested in widening access. The money is a ‘game-changer’, says Green. ‘It could provide 20 free places, or 40 places at 50 per cent fees, or 80 places at 25 per cent fees.’ As it stands, Rugby provides bursaries and scholarships to 41 per cent of its 810 pupils. The school’s full boarding fees this year are £35,760. Green cannot bear parents being castigated for wanting to pay for their children’s education. His two attended public schools: ‘My wife and I didn’t [buy] a house because we spent our money on fees. That was our choice, and I wouldn’t swap that for a moment.’
He has some sympathy with the criticism that there are too many former public school pupils in public life. He is pretty cross about Brexit. The day after the referendum, he says, ‘it was as though there had been a death in the school’. He would be happy for it not to happen, but ‘I understand where the government is coming from — they have to push forward with the will of the people, though we were lied to during the referendum.’ Yes, by people who attended public school. He laughs. The issue with politics, says Green, is that ‘we went down a line of reducing everything to soundbites, and ceasing debate, and look where we’ve ended up’.
What of the Old Etonian triumvirate, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg? The issue isn’t the schooling, he says. With Rees-Mogg, ‘it isn’t that he was at that school, it’s that — hasn’t he moved some of his business abroad? That to me is more of an issue’. He chuckles, adding: ‘The last time I met [Rees-Mogg] I reminded him that in the Eton Boating Song it says “Rugby may be more clever”. He accepted it with good grace, as you’d expect.’