Good future citizens

Photo: Marks

All schools have rules. Sometimes it seems that the older the school, the more rules it is likely to have accumulated. Tim Hands examines the ethos and wisdom underlying the rules at prep schools.

My redoubtable mother-in-law, an Oxford law don, knew her own mind; and she scrupulously trained, without taking hostages, the minds of her students. Former pupils include eminent judges, and even (until recent Euro-ructions) one member of the Cabinet.

But to her family, this formidable lady was not beyond teasing. Her opening question of candidates at interview was unfailingly courteous yet always the same: 'so, may I ask you, what is law?' Amongst those who knew the lady best there was an enduring conviction that only one answer to this fruitful opener would really do, videlicet: 'Law is a set of rules, enabling individuals to relate, and societies to function.'

All schools have rules. Some schools have very long rules. Sometimes it seems that the older the school, and the more senior its pupils, the more rules it is likely to have accumulated. But I'm not always convinced that those schools possess the best of British bylaws.

Simple systems are usually good systems. Recently, my own school has been consulting about new admissions procedures. I entertained 21 Heads from local feeder schools in order to invite comment on our new system, the current procedures lacking, shall I say, a little of my mother in law's clarity. I begged from some of them a favour in return. Please would they send me their rules? Discerning readers will correctly guess my motive, for much of my time is spent in summarising documents which are too long. As Pascal had it, 'I apologise for the length of this letter, but I didn't have time to make it shorter'.

Dr Tim Hands, a former Chairman of HMC, is Headmaster of Winchester College.