NEWCASTLE'S Royal Grammar School is thriving in spite of recession, as Peter Jackson discovers talking to head Bernard Trafford.
I WAIT nervously outside the beak’s office, contemplating memories of long past misdemeanour and chastisement, only half hearing the distant echoes of childish voices and running feet in the corridors.
But when Bernard Trafford ushers me into his wood-panelled office with the offer of tea and biscuits, he is all warmth and charm and laughs a lot.
It is light years away from the savage sarcasm of the head at my own northern grammar school.
In fact, Royal Grammar School head Trafford cheerfully admits to being “a wishy-washy liberal in lots of ways”.
How times have changed – or perhaps a background as a music teacher has made him humane. After all, it was a role for which this 56-year-old felt destined even as a child.
“I was always quite sure, all through my childhood and adolescence, I was going to be a music teacher,” he says, though conceding there was a short period when he flirted with being a train driver.
He grew up in Somerset, where his father was a village doctor, and was educated at Downside boarding school near Bath before going up to Oxford to read music and from there to teacher training college.
Was he not tempted to be professional musician?
“I think I always knew I wasn’t good enough to be a performer and I like writing music but I’m not a composer,” he says. “It turned out I was a good organiser and not a bad conductor, but I always feel the world’s full of people who can conduct a bit and I didn’t feel there was a mission.”
When he went up to Oxford he was an organist and he conducted the choir.
“That was wonderful training for me, conducting stuff and arranging stuff. I took up the trumpet while at Oxford because I desperately wanted to play jazz which I’d fallen in love with at about the age of 17.”
His first job was at High Wycombe Royal Grammar school – a state school where he spent three happy years.
During teacher training he had met his wife-to-be Katherine, but as a low-paid music teacher at a state school he could not afford to get married and set up home. So he took a job as director of music at the newly independent Wolverhampton Grammar School in 1981.
“The plan was to go there for three or four years and then move on, but we finally left in 2008,” he says.
In the meantime he had married Katherine and they had reared a family. Along the way at the school he had been made head of sixth form and then became head in 1990.
So why the move to RGS?
“I think 18 years is a long time to be head in one school. I don’t think I’d gone stale, but my two daughters had both grown up and gone off to university.”
He tried for a few big headships without success. But he was a member of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, HMC, and became chairman in 2007. It looked as though his career would take a political/professional direction when the RGS headship become vacant.
“It wasn’t on my radar interestingly, but we’d had a love affair with the North East since 1989 when we had a family holiday here at Boulmer. Then we came every year except one for at least a week.
“By summer 1999 we couldn’t stand the pain of parting every August and thinking we weren’t coming back for a year so we decided to buy a little cottage. We did that in 2000 and we still own it.”
But what clinched it for Trafford was RGS having gone coeducational in 2002.
“I had taken Wolverhampton mixed and I couldn’t have gone back to single sex, I really couldn’t,” he says.
It meant taking over a school twice the size of Wolverhampton and much higher up the academic league tables.
“That makes it sound like a hard-nosed decision, but it wasn’t. It was a fresh challenge. I thought, if I don’t go all out for this I shall kick myself for the rest of my life, so I went for it and got the job.
“And I’ve never had a moment’s regret and the change being as good as a rest has been truer than I could ever have imagined. You know intuitively it’s going to be good for you, but it has been extraordinary – like a year-long adrenalin rush.”
He took the reins in 2008. He had done teaching practice in comprehensives but since starting as a qualified teacher had only worked in grammar schools, including RGS.
“It’s the kind of school I know and love, it’s in a very different part of the country and twice the size, but there’s a feel to the old grammar schools and I knew I had a kinship.”
So what’s the appeal of grammar schools?
Trafford takes a deep breath and approaches the question with care.
“Phew, yeah, OK. There is an intellectual, academic tradition, it’s kind of in the water and in the building.
“There is a proud tradition of the academic and of valuing intellectualism, but, of course that can sound a bit dry and intense, but it isn’t because actually we have an enormous amount of fun.
“There’s a buzz about the place, a buzz of inquiry, but there’s a lot of laughter and a passionate commitment to all the other things – the sport, the music, the drama, all of which we value hugely and value equally. Schools like this aren’t barbaric and only centred around rugby. The sports people value the arts and vice versa.
“It doesn’t happen by accident and it’s my job to guard that ethos jealously and strengthen it.”
But this is an ethos which is, on the whole, only available to those who pay – up to £10,000 a year. I wonder, how does he, as a wishy-washy liberal, justify that?
“It’s a hard one and politicians won’t go there because it’s so difficult,” he says. “I just want the best for children, so I find it very difficult turning people down, but it’s what the school is and I have to accept that and do the selection process as humanely and fully as possible. But, in the end, it’s true, we have a narrow ability range, we are a specialist kind of school.
“We hurtle ahead at an enormously fast academic pace, the kids thrive on that. If they couldn’t keep up with that pace and if they struggled they’d have a rotten time, so it’s horses for courses.
“One reason why schools like this are so successful is that we don’t have to do lots of setting and all that kind of stuff, they are all of similar ability range, moving at great speed, aiming very high and it works for them.
“This model works and it works hugely well and that’s why I stay in that sector, accept some of the difficulties and contradictions.
“We don’t make many friends out there, but then I think politicians are very cowardly about tangling with the whole issue because they neither decide to do away with us altogether – which would be terrible vandalism – nor honestly accept the success of what we do.”
I ask him would it be fair for an Oxbridge college to give preference in selection to a student from a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ over one of his students?
“No, they should not get preferential treatment, but Oxford and Cambridge should judge on potential – and at their best they do. Obviously one of the big measures of potential is prior attainment.
“I don’t think they should expect less of them [the comprehensive student]. I don’t mind if they say it’s clear RGS should get that youngster to two A*s and an A in their A-levels, given the circumstances, and make the other candidate a slightly lower offer, there’s no problem with that, they always have done. That’s what politicians forget.”
RGS is a substantial business. A registered charity, it has an annual turnover of £13.5m, 1,277 pupils and 186 employees, of whom 115 are teachers.
But the business management of schools has come on a long way since Trafford first became a head in 1990 and now his senior staff are involved in drawing up budgets and he is assisted by “powerful and expert bursers running the whole buildings and money side of independent schools”.
He seems an educationalist rather than a businessman though.
“You make the decisions for the community and the educational values. You always make the decisions about the people and not the money – and it hurts sometimes,” he says.
As businesses, some schools in the sector are finding it hard going. The Independent Schools Association has warned that many smaller private schools are struggling to survive in the downturn.
Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Blackburn is applying to become a state-funded free school and King’s School in Tynemouth is converting to a state-funded academy. But RGS thrives.
“You do get winners and losers at difficult times. They are banging on the doors to get in here,” says Trafford.
One of his ambitions is to open those doors as widely as possible for pupils whose parents cannot afford the fees.
“We’ll never be needs-blind, but we do raise bursary funds to help children from poorer homes.
“We have 80 this year on bursaries and the average level of help is about 85%. In other words they are from quite poor homes contributing little or nothing to the school fees,” he says. “We have to raise £750,000 a year and that doesn’t come off the fees, that’s donated money from trusts and individuals and from one endowment.
“We are not satisfied, I’d love to get beyond that, it’s a huge challenge. Everyone in this place values the fact that there are children from quite poor homes alongside those from very privileged ones in Jesmond and Gosforth.”
His ambitions are to see the school’s reputation spread locally and nationally and for it to be regarded as a model for co-education. He wants to continue to drive up quality, which he says could be in terms of the league tables, of which he disapproves.
“You have to have a hard-nosed attitude to really get excellence, but we can do that and be hugely humane, kind and happy and that’s what I always want to do,” he says.
“So that’s my world and it’s a hugely rich and challenging one.”
What car do you drive?
I walk to work and tend to take the Metro to local meetings or trains to London, so my car’s a mid-life crisis just for fun motoring – a 1997 Mercedes 320SL convertible.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
When up-country, the Red Lion Inn in Milfield, North Northumberland. A proper country pub with wonderful food and great specials.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Quick one-liners – Lee Mack in BBC’s Not Going Out.
What’s your favourite book?
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. Many have imitated, but no one’s bettered his detective novel style.
What was the last album you bought?
A CD by a brilliant local jazz group, Djangologie, bought at their recent Sage gig. It’s called A New Leaf.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
I always wanted to be England’s Children’s Commissioner, but when the last Government finally created the post, they stripped it of all powers. When indulging my hobby of writing music and drama, I’d like to be a cross between Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and John Rutter.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Actually, I’d like it to whistle a tune – one that I’ve written!
What’s your greatest fear?
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Jim Collins’s Hedgehog Principle for avoiding mission drift – only do things (as an organisation) that you’re good at, that you can get excited about and that make you money.
And the worst?
Personal ISAs. The Traffords went into stocks and shares ISAs – and the FTSE went into freefall.
What’s your poison?
My favourite (but extravagant) is Italian red, Brunello di Montalcino. Friday after work is a G&T. With mates, real ale!
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Usually, the Independent.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Young teacher in 1978 with salary of £2,700 a year.
How do you keep fit?
Running every other day, two to two and a half miles. Walking other days. Have succeeded recently in losing a stone, but that was also through dieting and cutting out the beer.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Talking over others when getting carried away.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
My one-click Amazon Prime habit.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Winston Churchill – an exceptional leader but deeply flawed. Makes him human.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Alan Bennett, the Dalai Lama.
How would you like to be remembered?
For making a difference to young people’s lives – and having a laugh doing it!