Reunions are full of nostalgia and the recent one for pupils of The Leys School from the 1950s and the 1960s was no exception. My first term at the school was Autumn 1959 so I fell pretty much in the middle of the group age-wise. We all looked reasonably prosperous this week though none of us was quite the same shape as we had been fifty or sixty years earlier.
Key to the nostalgia were the buildings. The Kings Building (above) was the same as it had been when Norman Wilkinson captured it eighty plus years ago. The same applied to my own House, East, which viewed from outside seemed identical. Indeed the same as it was when my father was one of its first inhabitants in 1930.
The other building in the photograph is the “new” Music Centre a superbly equipped place where students can study any instrument (including the bagpipes!) and play in world class music rooms.
The Grand Hall, now ten years old, has a theatre that would be the envy of any professional Company. And, in truth, every other aspect of a modern day rounded education is covered by quality facilities. Sport, The Arts, science and the rest.
Back to the historic buildings some dating back 120 years. As I have said externally they are all as I remember them. Internally, however, they are unrecognisable from my day. The dormitories are gone to be replaced by study bedrooms and a range of other facilities. And it’s not just the internal physical fabric of the buildings that has changed. The Leys has been co-educational since 1990 and girls now comprise almost half the pupils.
The Leys was founded as one of the first Methodist public schools though by the time I came up in 1959 the methodism was fairly muted. Alan Barker, the new Headmaster, was an Anglican and that, to an extent, set the tone. The school chapel is magnificent and in my day we attended services every day, and twice on Sundays.
Author and polemicist the late Christopher Hitchens was at The Leys when I was there. He was a couple of years younger than me and in a different House so I didn’t know him well. Like me he did not emerge from the school a Believer – a Methodist or any other sort! That said this strident atheist did once say that he “learned more in the Leys Chapel than anywhere else in the school” ! I wouldn’t go quite that far but we did have some good visiting preachers including the Rev and very Red Donald Soper. The Chapel , opened in 1906, with its fine stained glass owes more to Oxbridge College chapels than it does to the rather austere meeting halls of the Wesleyan tradition. It is largely unchanged inside and out from 60 years ago.
Historian and Leys teacher Derek Baker called his book on the school “A Partnership in Excellence” . I like this descriptor, a tad boastful though it is, because there is a continuity in the thought that excellence is transferable from one generation to another. It was a fine school in the early 1960s and it is a fine one now – the times have changed radically but to be excellent is an achieved goal.
This brings me inevitably to the contentious subject of private education – the ability that parents with money have effectively to buy privileges for their offspring. It is perhaps a bit simplistic to say that “excellence” is the result if the ordinary can be transformed for the better. But surely if “Levelling up” has a meaning you need an excellent model of attainment to level up towards. The Leys is assuredly that.
The school motto “In Fide Fiducia” means “In Faith, Trust”. This has also morphed a bit over time but for a modern parent to believe that they can trust their child to be looked after and developed in a school is a prerequisite of education. For me this means much, much more than “just” passing exams.
We met today’s Housemaster of my old House East who said that all his charges go to University – no doubt it’s the same from all the other Houses as well. But the partnership in excellence between pupil and teacher, sports or drama coach, for unexamined subjects is at the heart of what the school does as well. I think it always was – culture is not narrowly defined. And examinations are not the only challenge.
Chris Hitchens in his memoir remembered a magical summer evening when our own home grown rock group “The Saints” gave an outdoor concert culminating in their version of “The House of the Rising Sun”. Of its time perhaps but my collector’s item copy of their LP “Saints Alive” reminds that they were pretty good. Today the School drama group regularly puts on performances in the wonderful theatre which like that rock concert all those years ago are open also to the good burghers of Cambridge. A recent performance of “Chicago” got rave notices.
The school song “Joyful word at parting spoken” is unchanged except that the line “Distance from her sons can sever” is now “Distance from us all can sever” – a reflection, of course, of the now co-educational nature of the school. But better in other ways as well. “Us all” can be seen to cover all of us with Leysian connections even those like me and my friends at the Reunion whose connection started many decades ago
Each verse of the school song finishes with the Greek word Χαιρετε! Former headmaster John Barrett, in his splendid sermon to us in the Chapel, focused on this word which is a joyous expression very versatile in its meaning. I think our old boy community all hoped that it means “adieu” with its theme of meeting again. Let’s hope that we can.
Paddy Briggs, October 2021