Born in London in 1936, Mr Mellon was educated initially in Northern Ireland when his father joined the Air Force and his mother went back to her family in Northern Ireland. Grammar school in London, then military service, and Oxford where he was awarded a second class honours degree in modern languages at Oriel College.
I enjoyed my schooldays. It was a small school like this one. I think I enjoyed it more in the sixth-form than on the way up because I was a year younger than most of my form, and I didn't really come into my own mentally until I was in the sixth-form. I became a teacher originally because I wanted to pass on my own ideas to people, and then that rapidly changed to the idea that I wanted to help people to think for themselves. I think that has probably been my ideal in teaching. Before becoming a teacher I had a number of part-time jobs: warehouseman, labourer on a building site, painter - I think I marked out the netball courts of half the comprehensive schools in London. Salesman at Harrods was the classiest job I ever had. Asked if I had to live my life again would I choose the same career, I'm not altogether sure. I would certainly be happy to teach again although, because I am not at all financially minded, I sometimes have a fantasy of being a business tycoon.
During my time in the RAF I learnt really to grow up. A lot of worthwhile experiences which most people associate with university I associate with the services because I went there first. The sixth-form at school, particularly a small one when you are a prefect or a leading member of the school, is very much an ivory tower. In National Service I undertook real responsibility in the sense that I and others depended on the consequences of my actions. My horizons broadened so enormously that I look back on it as one of the main formative influences in my life, possibly even more formative than university. Grammar schools in particular obviously have a very long tradition of academic training and they have a concern for school societies and, very often, these have some sort of aesthetic or intellectual bias. Activities such as the scouts and CCF take people out onto the fells etc.. I think the military content of the CCF isn't really important. I don't really think of the CCF as a military training although the military context is an important part of character and training. Adventure training is, I think, one of the biggest single differences that has happened to the field of education since I was at school. Although we had CCF, that was much more tied to drill and stripping down guns and now I think it has moved out into the open and altogether provides experience that cannot be duplicated.
I think the study of languages has an important place in the curriculum, partly as an introduction to the study of language itself; partly in the same way as geography and history are a useful background of other people, therefore extending our knowledge of ourselves. The question of practical competence is probably one of the negative reasons that have persuaded me to become a headmaster. I think if you are a linguist, you ultimately have to be left with a feeling of dissatisfaction at the level of communication that you actually achieve with your classes. Particularly in England, when you compare it with Germany, though not with France, the level of achievement is pretty low and it is only when people go to university or in their own time they go across to France or Germany, that they attain the proficiency that you would hope for. So it can be rather a frustrating business trying to teach a skill when, while at school, most fail to achieve a high level or give it up at the point of breakthrough, because of our system of specialisation.
As to whether the sciences are more important than the arts, I think this is an unreal question. We need science people but non-science people as well. We need scientists in greater numbers than before so that boys have got the message that career prospects are better if you do science, and this is why there is a swing towards science.
I like very much being a headmaster, although at the moment it still has the additional benefit of novelty. I enjoy being in a very direct position to influence the policy of the school. I think in a small school you get a lot of plums as well as a lot of the administration to do. I like giving advice and being in a position to give advice. I like directing other people's efforts and, as a headmaster, you are in a unique position to do this. I think the most effective way of dealing with serious misdemeanours is co-operation between school and parent in bringing moral pressure to bear. Any means of discipline has to relate to the misdemeanour in the first place. A really serious misdemeanour is beyond corporal punishment; a trivial one is obviously below so really it is concerned with those somewhere in the middle. I wouldn't care to define which misdemeanours merit corporal punishment. I think it is something to be used sparingly and it is a means of punishment which is on the way out. I certainly wouldn't join any campaign to keep it at all costs but, while it remains, it has its uses.
I think the impression I got of the school on my first day has remained very much with me. It is one of a well-ordered community and one in which the boys take pleasure and pride in school. When you come from the London area where, I think, beneath it all boys have just as positive an attitude, they hide it under a cover of cynicism and I don't think you find that here so much. I think there is also a respect for the surroundings. I think boys here, even at sixth-form level, are a bit less ready to express themselves than they were in London. I am sure not a lack of ideas but just a certain hesitancy in expressing themselves.
A lot of humbug is spoken by politicians in particular about grammar school education versus the comprehensive system. Obviously they both have their strengths and weaknesses. I am quite convinced, though, that for the ablest children the grammar school is the best answer to the requirement that any education system should enable children to reach their fullest potential. On the other hand, it's true that they do isolate the very intelligent from the rest of the community. I think that probably in the past adequate provision was not made in some areas for schools outside the grammar school sector. On the other hand, it seems to me that comprehensive schools aren't achieving or aren't fulfilling enough of the expectations made of them. As far as drawing the balance, it seems to me you can make a large number of concessions about grammar schools before you reach the point where you justify abolishing them to bring about comprehensives.
The best future would have been to stay as a grammar school. So much depends on the circumstances in which it went independent. It clearly isn't viable as an 11-18 comprehensive school. The sheer size forbids that, and I doubt very much whether it would be viable as an 11-16 comprehensive school, so it might be viable as a sixth form college. I think it would be viable as a sixth form college and that would have the advantage that it would remain an academic school. At the same time of course it would be a departure from the tradition of 11-18 which is the attraction for people teaching in the school of this sort - they like the age range. Again there are arguments for and against sixth form colleges. So, within the state system, I think sixth form college is the main option - if that is an option - that depends on the local authority. Becoming an independent school would depend on finding a market of able children whose parents were able to pay fees. Our catchment area is quite wide so there is a reasonable expectation of that but obviously the governors will have to make quite a lot of calculations before they make their final decision.
I have never taught in a co-educational school and I wasn't educated in one but I certainly wouldn't object to either experience happening to me. I think there are social gains in the co-educational school - probably a slightly more natural or civilised community, but I don't think that there is such a striking advantage in it that I would want to abolish single schools entirely. There are problems with the fact that boys and girls develop at different rates. In small schools, perhaps, it undermines games and other outside activities and, rather surprisingly, there appears to be some evidence that co-educational schools tend to reinforce sex stereo-typing.
There are no major changes I want to make to the school. I think there will be some changes to the curriculum if only as a result in cuts in staffing. I think the main changes I would like to make are the intangible ones - changes in emphasis and atmosphere here and there, which I wouldn't want to define too closely. I have never been one for planning far ahead. I did not start teaching with the intention of becoming a headmaster; it is something which has grown out of the job, so I cannot see anything in the future that I am aiming at beyond, obviously, being successful in my present job.
Neville Mellon, headmaster 1981-1997
interviewed in 1981