Troubador A Lifetime in English Education

Released: 01/10/2012

ISBN: 9781780882963

Format: Paperback

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A Lifetime in English Education

Philip Vennis from Pupil to Principal in Post-War Britain


A Lifetime in English Education is a reminder of how important a good school can be in providing pupils from all backgrounds with a rounded education that can only strengthen the bonds of society.

This unique insight on the history of post-war British education, tells the personal journey of Philip Vennis – a crusading educationalist, whose long career started at Dulwich College, after which he spent a short time at Bletchley Park as an intelligence officer. Following his degree from Cambridge he taught for nine years at East Ham Grammar School for Boys, became a Deputy Headmaster at Ounsdale Comprehensive School in Wombourne, and then a Headmaster at New Mills Grammar School, Derbyshire, finishing his career with almost twenty years as Principal of one of Hampshire’s premier Sixth Form colleges at Itchen College, Southampton.

As his career develops so does his conviction in a belief that a wide ranging education should be provided by the state for all. Philip’s career spanned the post-war education acts, and the rise of the comprehensive system, right up to the cultural changes of the eighties. His belief in public service, his passion for the arts, and his conviction in the power of education to help people transcend their backgrounds is completely different from the primary experience for most current Heads, that of managing a budget and making schools more cost-effective and running them like a business. This book, written by his wife, Diana Vennis, should be an inspiration to all progressive educationalists.

In a contemporary environment where the co-ed, comprehensive, open access philosophy seems to have lost out to a market-led educational system, this book is a timely reminder of the journey British education has taken in the post-war period.

Southern Echo

As a pupil of New Mills Grammar School in the Vennis era (I left in 1967), I just had to buy this book, which I find extraordinary for the amount of detail included and explanation of the history of the times. Perhaps it could have had a little more editing, and in the Kindle version I find it difficult to distinguish which are the author's words and which are quotes from others, due to the lack of the customary indenting.

Mr Vennis was memorable character and totally dedicated to his job, although he and I did not always seem eye-to-eye as I didn't want to go 'as far as who goes furthest.'

I am amused and flattered to find that Mrs Vennis has seen fit to include in full a 'humorous' piece I wrote (at Mr V's instigation) about the 1966 production of 'Antony and Cleopatra'. Unfortunately he wasn't over-impressed with the result, but it was the first thing I ever had 'properly printed.'

Certainly I still greatly value the fine the education I received at NMGS.

Charlie Hulme
[email protected],

by Charlie Hulme

The life of a former Hampshire College Principal has been celebrated in a new book. ‘A Lifetime in English Education ‘ tells the story of Philip Vennis’s journey from a scholarship at the prestigious Dulwich College in London to his time as the Head of Southampton’s Itchen College, where he was Principal for nearly twenty years. The book, written by his widow Diana Vennis, herself a former further education lecturer and Ofsted Inspector, charts his crusading efforts to ensure state education is available to everyone as a way of helping transform lives. Mrs. Vennis, from Fareham, said “Philip was an inspirational and exceptional teacher whose life touched many different people, students and teachers alike. My hope is this book will help to keep his ideas alive so that they can add to the continuous debate around the central ideas of education in today’s society.”

by 10th November 2012.

‘I have just read the excellent account of Philip Vennis’s career in education: it brought him back to me most vividly. He was, as everyone recognised, a larger-than-life character and an educational icon. I particularly liked the fact that the book gave a ‘warts and all’ picture of him. Philip and I had similar aspirations for our 16+ Colleges and I believe our periodic exchange of views re-enforced our convictions that we were right in what we were trying to do. We saw eye to eye on most aspects of managing a school or college, although I think that Philip considered that I needed to be more vehement and aggressive in championing our cause. There was an occasion when I believed that I had acquitted myself quite well in a TV interview in which I extolled the virtues of the Hampshire Comprehensive Colleges. A few days later I met Philip and he told me that he had seen the programme. “What did you think?” I asked. “All right” he said, “but it wasn’t a hard sell”. Happy days!

by Eric Macfarlane

I cannot begin to express how impressed I am by the quality of the penmanship and the amazing way the many and varied contributions have been collated. The book covers enormous changes in education and I admire Philip Vennis for his attitudes, dedication and integrity. I hope many ex-students will read and enjoy remembering Philip’s influence on their lives.

by Janine Feber

The book contains a massive amount of research. There is so much that I did not know about Philip. Good heavens he worked so hard in his first post at East Ham Grammar School for boys and prior to that, not much time for fun and just the privations of rationing and desperately freezing uncomfortable living must have made it so hard to study anything at all. We are all so unbelievably lucky now. I realise it’s quite possible even probable I would not be where I am if not for his kindness and the education from New Mills Grammar School. Some people can be that life changing, and he was one of these. The whole book is absolutely moving and fascinating. I had not realised how long Philip was at Itchen College and how much he had done there. Enough to wear anybody out even someone with his energy and enthusiasm, battling for everything.

by Dr.John Worthington

I am full of admiration for the research, time and effort put into writing this book. Philip would have been incredibly proud with this completion of his biography. And what a story! We young teachers at New Mills had no idea of his service in the war or his time at previous schools. I enjoyed the section on New Mills which brought back many happy memories. The East Ham Grammar School was very interesting. I was moved and humbled about Philip’s story and naturally reflected on my own forty seven years in education and still counting! I hope he would have been pleased and proud of the success of his ‘young Turks’ in New Mills. We all stand on the shoulders of giants – he was our giant.

by Professor David Woods, CBE

The marshalling of facts and the selection of texts and the analysis comes across really well and I have learnt a lot about Philip that I did not know. I did not know that he wrote poetry and the pieces selected are really good. I did not know that he had written and kept so many of his speeches or essays or early thoughts. They were a superb repository of detail and general philosophical statements from him. I think his writings about sixth form education were far in advance of the time because at that moment he was running and arguing for wider technical and vocational opportunities for sixth formers, whereas the predominant orthodoxy was to preserve and not dilute the so called academic excellence of the gold standard of A Level within the selective sixth forms of the grammar schools. He was in the progressive forefront. I never encountered him being called Phil; either at New Mills or in Hampshire, but some of the contributors refer to him in this way. At New Mills, where for me he was always an older man to my 22-26 years of life, and a leader and authority figure, he was always Mr. Vennis or Philip Vennis. At Hampshire Secondary Heads Conference where I was reunited with him he was Philip Vennis.

by Dr.Alan Leech

I think that ‘A Lifetime in English Education’ is an excellent book and an important record of change in English education. It must have been a huge project and I am so pleased that it was completed for the New Mills School Centenary celebrations. In some ways I wish I had been born eight years later, and experienced the sweeping changes Philip made to New Mills Grammar School. I know that some pupils say the he was autocratic and a bit scary, but the benefits he provided for them would be unimaginable for 50s sixth formers. Our choice was mathematics, physics and chemistry or three Arts subjects and the general rule was Science for boys and Arts for girls. To have the huge choice of subjects procured by Philip would have seemed paradise to us. The speeches and notes, which reveal his emerging plans for going comprehensive, are a unique record and I hope the book gets on the recommended reading list for students of Education.

by Chris Furness

A Lifetime in English Education’ is a splendid testimony to a memorable man. I was chairman of Southampton Secondary Heads for a number of years during Philip’s tenure of the chair at Winchester and of course many of my Bitterne Park pupils moved onto Itchen College for their sixth form years. How well I remember those Evenings of Music and the Spoken Word at Itchen, as well as Philip’s not infrequent spats with those in the LEA who were perceived to be dragging their heels. On receiving one instructional letter that distanced itself from educational reality, he telephoned the author to say that it would be filed in the Itchen system under H for Hoax! He was a very special person.

by Barri Hurford-Jones

Enthralling, inspiring, uplifting, humbling and finally, overwhelmingly saddening – just some of the words that came to mind on reading ‘A Lifetime in English Education.’ At first I thought I would just ‘cherry pick’ and read the parts that had some relevance to me, but I started at the beginning and, once involved, became hooked and simply wanted to read, and learn, more and more. I felt there was a considerable similarity between my life and Philip’s in the early years, - working class background, direct grant school, classics curriculum, National Service, University, the teaching profession, a belief in being able to change the world, reasonably rapid progression through the pay scales to become Head of Department and then Deputy Head of a Comprehensive school. At this point similarities end! I am realistic enough and honest enough to know beyond any shadow of doubt that I could never have come close to providing the energy, drive, passion and creativity which were the hallmark of Philip’s leadership.
There could be no greater testimony to the positive influence that he had over so many lives – staff and pupils – than the feelings expressed in this book by everyone who had the privilege of working for him, or being one of his students. And how many thousands more, now far removed from their student/schooldays would want, given the chance, to express those same feelings?
I wrote ‘overwhelmingly saddening’ earlier on , because of Philip’s death, of which I can scarcely begin to conceive the grief that his family and friends endured and there is no more poignant scene than the ‘Greek Tragedy’ described at the end. He had me in tears on this reading of his final years and days. What a wonderful tribute to an exceptional and extraordinary man.

by Anonymous

My brother and I knew PHV personally... what a character!!
We were among the privileged number not only to know him, but also to experience his exceedingly supportive, strong, yet very gentle side, at a time when it was SO valuable to us. We were 18 and 16(6th-formers at NMGS) at the time our father died(and I failed all my A-Levels!), and PHV, without any sloppy sentimentality, supported us both in a way that only he knew how. Thanks Philip.. if only you knew how much you helped us in your own inimitable way... and we came through the experience, a couple of MUCH stronger lads.. one with his A-Levels, and one without.. BUT.. both of us treated with full supportive respect in our differing outcomes. And yet we BOTH, because of PHV's example, inspiration and support, went on to careers in education, both of us hoping to be able to emulate in even the smallest way, the example set by this incredible man!
PHV will continue to live on in the lives of all those who were fortunate enough to come into contact with him... and although some of it was tough, it was ALL good! :-)
Read this book... it is fascinatingly informative, whether you knew him personally or not. Believe me... this was one VERY special man!

by Andrew Rolls

Fascinating for those who were a part of Philip Harvey Vennis’s (PHV) regimes. However, as a book this is rather poor and would have benefitted from some serious professional editing. The thread and flow within and between chapters is sometimes confusing. Large tracts of text are reproduced verbatim from one chapter to another as though each chapter was written as a stand-alone article. The extensive poetical and theatrical quotes are unnecessary and should have focused on the bottom line whilst referring the reader to an Appendix for the full text. The letters and speeches of PHV, typically a hand-waving diatribe of turgid prose, should have been edited down to the essential points being made. Most importantly, this book has a sanitized feel , with quotes and contributions from former pupils and colleagues carefully selected to enhance the greatness of the man, whereas in reality PHV had as many detractors as he had admirers.
My own experience in the 6th form at New Mills Grammar School (NMGS) is illustrative:
I was in all the plays (Antony and Cleopatra, Pirates of Penzance, A Man for All Seasons , Macbeth), I did my community service, I liked going to school, perhaps more for the banter and debate within a superb peer group than anything academic. Occasionally there would be a glimmer of my true potential, a perfect score in Derbyshire County Council’s experimental Scholastic Aptitude Test, a top result in the Use of English exam. However, when 1967 came along with the Summer of Love I embraced that with gusto. One might have thought that PHV would have appreciated the theatre of walking down the street in a gold satin shirt, a red 19th Century Colonel’s Military jacket and shoulder length hair. Wrong ! He viewed that with disdain and disgust, and from then onwards I was a marked man. As the Upper 6th began I was playing regular gigs with a blues band in the Manchester area and sometimes I would take an early train to see my sister in the UMIST Science Library, where she worked, before meeting up with the band. It was a small step from here to realize that the Sciences we were being taught at NMGS for A levels were not aligned with University Entrance requirements in the late 60’s. In a memorable lab meeting I challenged the then Head of Chemistry (Earp) at NMGS, regarding these observations. He blew a fuse. There were further consequences, with Earp (Chemistry) and Sears (Physics) refusing to teach me from that point onwards. I should have emerged from NMGS with straight A’s but ended up with two C’s, a D and an E, scraping into a 4-year Chemistry course at the U. of Liverpool. During that introductory year at Liverpool I learnt everything that Earp and Sears had not been teaching in the Upper Sixth and was back on track. Interestingly, many of my peers on the Science side from the class of ‘69 also underperformed in their A levels. How on earth PHV let those two old curmudgeons (Earp and Sears) get away with failing to keep up with syllabus changes I will never know ! I went on to get a First from Liverpool, a Ph.D. from Manchester, a Royal Society Overseas Research Fellowship at the ETH in Zurich, successive positions of increasing responsibility in the Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Industries in Paris, London, San Diego, Beijing, and San Diego again.
“As far as who goes furthest”. I’m one of the few who has, but Philip Harvey Vennis had little, if anything, to do with that !
Dr. Nigel R. A. Beeley, San Diego, CA, USA

by Nigel Beeley

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