King’s Old Vigornians follow a wide diversity of career paths and you can listen to some of their stories below.
Interview with Charlie MacKintosh (L6) with Simon Webb (H 60-69) on 3rd May 2019.
CM: How did you come to attend King’s?
SW: Mostly because of a couple of primary school teachers. My father was a Church of England clergyman, we got posted around and there was little money. We lived in a village called Cleeve Prior and the first primary school I went to was run by a person called Mrs Stithen, a great teacher and she got me enthusiastic about learning. My dad then got a posting to Kidderminster, then an industrial town, and so I went to the local primary school, Foley Park Primary School. I was there for 2 or 3 years and then the headmaster, Mr Handley, asked my parents to go and see him and he said I should go to The King’s School, saying, “he seems to be learning quite quickly and the right school for him would be The King’s School. I know this is an unhelpful suggestion as someone has to pay for this, but I’ll ring some friends and see if we can help a bit.” So that is why I ended up at The King’s School.
And I was fortunate in that, in that era, there were some state-funded grants, the Direct Grant scheme and then there was also the King’s Scholarship that was available so I put in for that and there were grants available, some for the clergy corporation. So I was very conscious that other previous generosity, particularly the King’s scholarships and the bursaries that were associated with that, which were rather like the bursaries here; they were needs-based and were enabling me to come and have a great education. So that was how I arrived at King’s.
CM: What impact do you think your time at King’s School had on you?
SW: Probably two things.
Apart from generally good quality teaching, which was tremendous – both the characters and also the teaching. I remember the week proving calculus. John Turner [was my maths teacher] and he waited until we were at the right moment and then he said, “this week we are going to prove calculus and then you’ll understand where it comes from and then you’ll be able to use it properly.” That was quite an amazing experience.
Breadth was one thing: although I ended up specialising in Maths and Physics, the moment I said I was interested in doing something wider than that at university – I ended up doing engineering and economics together – immediately the school said, “you need to do some other things as well then.” Jasper Cash was the Head of English and he said, “I think you could do with learning how to write some essays so come to some of my classes and we’ll look at some famous essays. We’ll pick subjects and you can write some essays”. I also kept up a bit of history with Alan Stacey and as I was interested in Industrial Engineering, he found some things to read on that.”
The other thing was a sense of connection. Worcester was not a huge city, but if you wanted to get involved in government, there was a bishop who was in the House of Lords, there were MPs – Robin Walker was around at that time and he used to come and talk to us and later on in my life I worked with Peter Walker – and even the judge. There was that sense of connection with the wider state and the wider world and people who had been in business.
There was that sense of breadth and that people like you could go and do jobs like being a judge, because these people seemed to be tilting to you with that expectation.
CM: What impact do you think you had on King’s?
SW: I introduced some things that were not present at the time. I was okay at sport and cricket but I wasn’t a big sporty person and there was quite a lot of emphasis on that. I realised there were a number of people who were interested in doing different things so one thing that I started was a Social Studies Group (which was also an excuse in those days to have the Alice Ottley over!) so we had a joint social studies group. We used to meet and have talks about the Probation Service and Crime and Poverty in Worcester.
I was quite a good chess player. A bit of a competition broke out among mathematicians about Bridge and Chess in the group that had been taught calculus really well (John Weston and Kit Ross won the English Schools Bridge Competition) and I built up the Chess Club.
I still work with Church Music. Harry Bramma, who was then Assistant Organist which spanned both the school and the Cathedral, decided we could do better in participating in Church Music and so he got over 200 of us and taught us a piece, which was a rip-roaring Victorian piece by Stanford, Te in Deum and he taught us this, with choristers to fill in the bits and one evening a week we filled the Quire, jammed up to the altar, and we sang this together. It was very moving and I still remember it.
We used to do rather experimental school plays; Jasper Cash allowed them to do a play which was fairly new called, Look Back in Anger which had a lot of swearing. It was basically a kitchen sink drama and so the parents were in uproar. We did a lot of Brecht, quite original things.
CM: And do you think your experiences at King’s School helped you in your later career?
SW: There is an angle on this, that question of breadth. It is apparent that the way the world evolves nowadays, so quickly, is that the skills you need turn out to be less predictable. I was lucky to have done some quite decent maths and some engineering and then economics is a sort of vocabulary, at its best it is a sort of decision-making. You’re going to find that one of the things that helps you is that you don’t feel you’re put into a small box of skills. There’s this sense of breadth where you can have a range of academic interests and when it comes to the world changing, you can adapt more readily because you’ve got in your background that idea that you might go and do a range of things. The Civil Service, when I went back for a good while, was very good at encouraging what they called Twin Anchor Careers, so that I did big projects and I did policy. Sometimes the projects come and go and policy was on a bit and vice versa, but I have never had a year off, so I’m still waiting for my gap year! And so I think that ability to move from discipline to discipline is quite important.
There is something about communication which is quite an important thread: performing in a band or doing plays, projecting yourself, having talks, having debates and discussion groups is all about putting things across to people; a very useful thread in the last 25 years. It gives you a safeguard against the world moving if you’ve got breadth of interest.
CM:You talk a lot about your time at Oxford, do you think you would have got into Oxford had you not attended King’s?
SW: Possibly not. The college I went to in Oxford, Hertford College, had an outreach scheme itself and is famous for it.
I see for myself because I worked on a lot of big projects and in Cumbria where we do nuclear clean up, we are seriously short of people who have got enough maths and physics, who can gauge the subjects. Elsewhere in Cumbria my company set up a training scheme for high levels apprentices because there are shortages across the economy in skills so my thesis is that we should all try and get all the people we can into a school like The King’s School if they’ve got that potential, because we cannot afford as an economy to miss out on people of whom we haven’t got enough. And the competition is getting stiffer; I see the Chinese getting very good on the railways and the Indians are producing huge volumes of really competent graduates in the IT sphere, so if we are to survive as a country, we need to have a way of making sure that if you have a good primary school head teacher who thinks somebody might actually benefit from somewhere like King’s, there is a route to get that person into the school. That’s where I come from and we should all work on this and some people are able to do more than others.
CM: Were you aware when you were at King’s that you and other pupils had received financial assistance to be at the school?
SW: Oh yes. We didn’t have a label on, but you knew and picked up on it. The only time you did notice it was on the trips, whereas other people might go on a trip to Rome, I just couldn’t do that. King’s now has a fund for this, don’t they for this?
Yes, there is the Mike Stevens Fund, set up by Patrica Stevens, his widow, when Mike passed away. At King’s, if there is someone who needs to go on a school trip to St Ives, or somewhere like that and the family cannot afford it, there is a fund that supports them.
CM: Simon, you’ve given very generously to the King’s Bursary Appeal, do you think that bursaries are more important now than ever?
SW: I do, I think that because there isn’t the government Direct Grant scheme there, because there is social layering. Certainly if you look at the geography and the statistics, social inequality has worsened since the 1970s. I went to a talk from the Oxford Social Geographers on this and they nailed the statistics. And that is a worry about British Society as a whole so it seems to me to be all the more important that we try and find a mechanism for people who can benefit, being at King’s. If Henry VIII thought that he needed 40 boys, without friends, to get an education then I reckon there might be those in Worcester and elsewhere that might try and do our bit to help children get into a school like King’s, partly for their own sake but there is a social inequality part of it and then another side of it, as I’ve said earlier, the country needs the skills and we shouldn’t let slip people who have the potential to get skills that the country needs for a competitive advantage.
CM: What would you say to anyone who might be considering giving money to a bursary at King’s?
SW: I think I would say that if you want to do something, like to make a contribution which helps society, for a societal problem in Britain, which is a good investment in the sense that if you’re a business person, there is decent evidence around that says providing that education will give a return to the economy, the Treasury do it because they get 30% back in tax, this is an investment worth making and most business people will tell you that they invest in their own people already and this is another way of doing it and one level beyond that. That’s the argument I would use, that it is a good investment. It’s not charity but it is a good investment for the economy and society. And actually it helps The King’s School because then the school gets a wider range of society inside. It ensures you get people from a wider range of backgrounds and should mean that The King’s School’s own performance will improve.
If you’ve been fortunate in life and have a bit of money to invest somewhere, this looks like a traditionally good return that’s gone on for some time with success and it is just a genuinely good contribution to both the needs of the economy but also a societal problem, which has emerged in Britain over the last 20-30 years.
CM: One last question, what advice would you give to anyone at King’s about making the most of their time at the school?
SW: Possibly because I have teenagers of my own at home, I would try and avoid the pressure of exam grades to become completely dominating and all the other things you can do, particularly in terms of debating and sit around arguing things out. Spend some more time learning how to present yourself and your ideas at the expense of less time on producing screen-based outputs. Less input time on screens and more time projecting and debating and there is a shortage amongst graduates. We find it hard as a company to find graduates who we can put out there who are good at presenting. That would be how I put it.