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Dr. John Rae: Who Exactly Was He?

Dr. John Rae: Who Exactly Was He?

Taunton School’s John Rae Society – which recently hosted RAF fighter pilot Mandy Hickson as a guest speaker – is named after a former headmaster and prominent educationist of the second half of the last century. Who exactly was John Rae?

Dr John Rae (1931-2006) became Taunton School’s 10th Headmaster in 1966. By that time, he was already a nationally known figure in the educational world, noted for his radical views on many of the issues which came to the fore during what was in Britain a turbulent period of social history generally. The highly traditional world of the public school was coming under fire as it clashed with the new values of the ‘permissive society’. At TS, the new eager young Headmaster was determined to make his mark. Dr Rae modernised aspects of school life which were old-fashioned and ripe for change; he opened up channels of communication, encouraging staff, prefects and pupils to air their views on the issues of the day. He himself caused a stir at the School’s 1967 Commemoration by saying he believed there was no future for the public school system with its elitism and social divisiveness. However, in the face of a hostile Labour government at the time, he was always adamant about the right of parents to choose private education for their children. During his four years at TS, Dr Rae prepared the ground for the co-education which was to arrive in the 1970s by forging links with girls’ schools and inviting their pupils to take part in plays and debates at TS. He also started a Development Appeal, the first fruit of which was the Clark Centre. It was one of the first Sixth Form centres in the country, and HRH Princess Anne was invited to open it in 1970.

That was John Rae’s last year at Taunton as he moved on to Westminster School in September 1970. While there, he continued to be at the forefront of the educational debate, making regular appearances on Question Time, Any Questions? and Newsnight. As Westminster’s Headmaster for 16 years, he used his modernising skills to reorganise much of the school and place it on a much firmer financial footing. In 1986, seeking a new challenge, he became Head of the Laura Ashley Foundation and followed that in 1989 with chairmanship of the Portman Group, an organisation concerned with questions of alcohol and responsible drinking. As a member of the board of The Observer from 1986-93 he remained at the heart of topical debate about education and other issues.

John and Daphne Rae retired to Hampshire, where he died in 2006. A memorial service was held for him at Westminster Abbey, close to whose walls his ashes are buried. Through its events featuring talks by people of influence and importance in today’s world, the School’s John Rae Society aims to maintain the discussion of key issues of which Dr Rae was a past master.

John Brown
School Archivist