A review of
The Rise and Demise of an English Prep School
by Dale Vargas
Published in The Harrovian
Vol. CXIX No.11
7th December 2005
Dale Vargas, Director of the Harrow Association, is hardly the first to have undertaken to write the history of his old school. Though this may be a genre weighed down with some fairly tedious and largely irrelevant volumes, this book is propelled to success by two major benefits.
Firstly, as readers of many sports tour brochures penned by Dale Vargas over the years will know, he is absolutely not a dull writer. His story moves along at a sharp pace, and wisely focuses on details likely to be of interest to the general reader. It also aims to spot trends and offer genuine explanations for how things were, rather than just list prize winners, or names of pupils and masters.
This is a genuine history, for all the writer’s disclaimer that he is “neither an historian nor an author”. Secondly, this is an entire story. Readers can trace the history of the school from its Edwardian beginnings, through the troubles of two world wars (and an exciting period in the 1940s when one faction of the school was evacuated to Nassau in the Bahamas, while another retreated from its south coast home to Lichfield) to its wreck in the financial storms of the early 1970s.
Dale Vargas wisely notes that he has the advantage of writing about events that ended over 30 years ago. The passage of time has allowed the author the necessary space to tell things how they were, and since the educational sphere (not to mention just about all others) has changed hugely in the years between, we can look back with the inevitable mixture of nostalgia and horror.
The justification of this story that it is an important fragment of the social history of the twentieth century is validated by many themes included by the author. Those who wonder how it was in those days when seven and eight year old boys were sent off to boarding schools will read accounts from those who loved it, as well, of course, from those who found the experience traumatising. The book deals openly, and as honestly and factually as it can, with the activities of the last headmaster of the school, who would clearly be imprisoned today as a dangerous paedophile.
The economics and business side of running a school are also surveyed with surprising humanity. This book is itself a small part of the social history of our own times, as many former pupils have been kept in touch with each other through a smart website kept by one of their number. One result has been that the author has been able to include many vivid first-hand accounts of the events he describes. The internet is slowly becoming a more mature entity, and is beginning to fulfil its promise as a useful means of communication between members of a farspread community.
Do not dismiss this book as just one for former pupils who want to look back to their roots. It has plenty to engage anyone who is interested in education, and the world we traded-in for business strategists and assessment targets.
Although most readers will perhaps be glad that the old days have gone for ever, the book does not preach and will allow you to decide for yourself. It is well illustrated, and stylishly designed and printed.
There is an entertaining foreword by Dennis Silk, former Warden of Radley College and one time teacher at Belmont Hassocks.