When Chris Lowe retired in 1999 after 29 years as principal of Prince William School, a profile in the Times Educational Supplement said he was the longest serving secondary head of a single school in the country, and “might also be the most famous head in the world”.
During his career, Mr Lowe sat on the board of the Royal Opera House, was president of the UK Secondary Heads Association, and visited 43 countries as one of the founders of the International Confederation of Principals. He was awarded a doctorate, a fellowship, a professorship in Australia, and a CBE by the Queen.
So how did Chris Lowe find himself at the helm of a brand-new school in 1971 at the age of 33? I spent an hour with him via a Teams call to discuss his remarkable career as an educator.
He was born over a grocer’s shop in Newcastle under Lyme, grew up in a terraced house on the outskirts of Stoke on Trent, attending Wolstanton County Grammar School. The lofty heights of Cambridge were never part of his family’s plans. “I had never really heard of Cambridge. All my connections with public schools and universities were through schoolboy books,” he said.
As with many promising pupils, it was a teacher who raised his aspirations. “And then I had a wonderful teacher of English. I didn’t even know I could write. And he was a teacher who brought it out of me in the sixth form. He said, you are going for an interview at Cambridge.” And sure enough, after accumulating the sufficient funds, he was on a train to Cambridge for three days of entrance exams and interviews.
After Cambridge he studied for a law degree, thinking it would be a good career for making money. He taught in a school during the day to support himself and his new wife and found it thoroughly enjoyable. “The last thing I wanted to be was a teacher, until I discovered it was really rather fun.”
He taught for several years, when he saw the advertisement for a head teacher at a new comprehensive school, known then as Oundle Upper School. “It was a very attractive proposition to just build a school up gradually. I said I’d stay for something like seven years to see it all through, and I ended up staying for 28.”
The first year was far from easy, there was barely a school to be the head of. “We opened on September 6th, 1971. Unfortunately, the school wasn’t built, most of it was only about six bricks high. There are photographs of the Sunday night before we opened of the caretaker and I standing in the rubble. But the Chief Education Officer insisted, because he’d told the parents it was going to open, we had to open. I think we could be the only school in history, possibly anywhere in the world that opened at 9am and was shut by 9.30am. The pupils arrived, the buses were kept there and after a long assembly they were all sent home again. After a week, enough of the school was finished, but it wasn’t truly finished for the whole of the year.”
The school was named in memory of Prince William, the eldest son of the Duke of Gloucester from Barnwell. He had opened the school but was killed just eight weeks later in the King’s Air Race. “His mother, Princess Alice, and the Queen let us know that they would like the school to be the memorial to him. We had a letter from Buckingham Palace saying the Queen commands that its name be changed to Prince William School.”
Of course, the creation of a comprehensive school attracted many antagonists and presented challenges to the development of the school. “There were those who said we would never get physics teachers to teach in a comprehensive school. We’d never get anybody to university, but we did. They then said, well, you’re never getting anyone to Oxbridge, but we did. The only way to meet the doubters is to say, okay, well, you may be right. But let’s see. And I can’t think of any of those whose doubts were ever confirmed. We just met them by saying, give us a chance. And that’s what they did.”
Another challenge he faced was the ever-changing educational acts that were pumped out almost annually from 1986-2000. In total there were 12 different acts going backwards and forwards between both Labour and Tories. “I was in the middle of it because I had originally been a lawyer. And so, I was the honorary legal secretary of what was then called the Secondary Heads Association. It’s now called ASCL.” Mr Lowe found this especially challenging as those charged with making decisions were not particularly knowledgeable about education. “It was painful, really. Because they had been to a school, they all thought they knew what a school should be like.”
He always had an international outlook, stemming from sharing his bedroom with a German exchange student in the 1950s when no one else in the town would host him. The banner in the PWS entrance hall “A school for Europe” was introduced by Chris Lowe. He said: “The only way humanity can grow is by working together.” Over the years he introduced links with twelve schools, in America, Eastern Europe, Australia, Gambia, India, all of which they visited.
Professionally, he found his skills in demand internationally, as well. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Mr Lowe travelled across Eastern Europe and started heads associations in countries from Bulgaria to Ukraine. “And you may ask what was happening back at Prince William School? Well, I had three very, very good deputies. They pretty well ran it for my last five years. I was in and out,” he admitted.
His time at PWS might best be remembered by pupils for his focus on the arts. One highlight was the school’s collaboration with the Royal Opera House and a performance of Carmen on four consecutive nights. He remembers every detail. “In the final scene in Carmen, we made the stage like a bullring and put 150 children in the chorus on the stage. And what happened was that every night they started to cry, they were so taken up with what was happening artistically in front of them. It was to make them understand what the feelings are when you get absorbed into any sort of art, whether it’s pop or classical. If you really get absorbed, it does something physically, as well as mentally, to you.”
One important characteristic about the town of Oundle is the presence of a large, well-financed private school. Whilst this could have created tensions, true to his pragmatic nature, Chris Lowe said: “Independent schools exist, and because they exist, you have to work on those terms. In strict terms of education, youngsters have a right to be educated wherever they go to school. It wasn’t for me to be interfering. And we got a lot of benefit from having such a school in the town.”
In the 1980s Channel 4 came to Oundle to do a half hour programme about a town that had both a state school and an independent school. They interviewed pupils from both schools to probe different attitudes about each other. “A lot of it turned out to be about respect. Respect for difference.”
Chris Lowe has remained in close contact with many former pupils and is proud of what they have achieved. He not only helped build Prince William School up from “only six bricks high”, but he has watched thousands of children grow up and go out into the wide world of opportunities.