Obituary: Sir Roger Young, headmaster

Sir Roger Young obit
Sir Roger Young obit
Share this article
Have your say

Sir Roger Young MA, STh, MHD, FRSE, headmaster. Born in Delhi, India, in 1923. Died in Norham, Northumberland, on 16 February 2017 aged 93.

Sir Roger Young, who died at his home in Norham, was once described by a senior colleague at George Watson’s College as one of the most remarkable headmasters of his generation. Few would disagree, but he was also the most extraordinary human being in whose company it was never possible to be bored.

Born in Delhi in 1923, where his mother was Principal of Lady Hardinge Medical College and his father Vice Principal of St Stephen’s College, Roger was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, and Westminster School, London, where he was a King’s Scholar and Captain of College. As well as his academic prowess, he was a highly capable sportsman whether on the cricket, football or hockey field or on the golf course, and he pursued them all – at school, at university and throughout most of his professional career – with the same Corinthian spirit he had so admired throughout his days at Westminster. Just as importantly, there was also music, drama, literature and art, his interest in and love of which grew over the years and which were the mainstay of the hugely successful, week-long festival of the arts he staged at Watson’s in the summer term of 1985 just prior to his retirement.

Like most of his contemporaries, war interrupted the final stages of his formal education, so, on leaving Westminster in 1942, he joined the Royal Navy and served as an ordinary seaman and then sub-lieutenant until the war ended in 1945. His fleet was heavily involved with the manoeuvres to support the Normandy Landings, something for which Roger and a few of his colleagues received the Legion d’Honneur medal in 2015 on the 70th anniversary of these momentous events.

After the war, having secured a closed scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, he studied Classical Mods and Greats, and graduated in 1949 with honours and with distinction in Latin.

After Oxford, he spent time as a tutor at St Catharine’s College, Cumberland Lodge, during which time he became engaged to Mary Christie, and it became pretty clear to their families and close friends that they had both set their hearts on Roger having a teaching career. If he had been initially apprehensive about entering the teaching profession, all that had changed under the influence of two great schoolmen, one of whom, John Christie, was Mary’s uncle as well as Headmaster of Westminster School, 1937-50. The other one was Eric James, later Baron James of Rusholme, High Master of Manchester Grammar School, 1945-62. Roger was captivated by the same spell that led these men to pursue teaching as an art through which they could communicate their whole personality as well as be the imparters of knowledge. If teaching was merely the latter, Roger believed that intellectual complacency would ensue and the end result would be little better than ignorance.

In 1951 he became an assistant master at Manchester Grammar School and, from there, thanks to the foresight of Eric James, who had spotted his leadership ability, he applied for the headship of George Watson’s College in 1958. Much to his surprise, and everyone else’s, he got it – aged only 34.

He took with him to Edinburgh the firm belief that young people should not be educated for the sole benefit of qualifications. In 1962 he told the Edinburgh Merchant Company that “schools needed educated schoolmasters as opposed to trained teachers, and boys and girls need far more than exams to win in life”.

This belief was the main reason he created the institution of Projects at Watson’s which, to this day, is seen by many former pupils and staff as his greatest legacy to the school. Projects involved taking all third form pupils away to several different remote locations for two weeks of residential outdoor education and it meant that all staff – whatever their position in the school – could play their part. There was nothing he liked more than accompanying his colleagues and pupils on a climb of Sgurr nan Gillean, or canoeing across Loch Ossian or tackling the so-called easier rock climb of the Triple Buttress of Coire Mhic Fhearchair.

Roger always believed that you should never ask others to do what you were not prepared to do yourself. This is why he always chose to be a teaching head, even when there were many other pressures on his time, most especially when he was chairman of the Head Masters’ Conference (1976) and a governor of BBC Scotland (1979-84). He taught English, Latin, Greek and Religious Education, but he was just as much at home teaching knitting to a class dominated by junior school boys or helping preparatory school pupils learn to read. Yet, perhaps he was at his very best when he was teaching sixth form tutorial groups – an addition he made to the Watson’s curriculum in 1962 and a unique experience through which no pupil could pass without being profoundly influenced by Roger’s commitment to the pursuit of excellence. Allowing young people – whatever their background and ability – the freedom to express themselves in a constructive and self-disciplined manner, accompanied by the determination to strive for truth, and a generous appreciation of the needs of others, was what mattered most. If these were the guiding principles, the rest of the educational journey would take care of itself.

A man with these beliefs and strength of intellect was almost certainly bound to be active but there were times when his capacity for work appeared to be superhuman. This was something which often infuriated his colleagues, the more senior of whom had, from time to time, to remind him what life was like for ordinary mortals. It was these senior colleagues – including several outstanding deputies – on whose wise counsel he relied when he was at his most controversial and headstrong.

One of the fascinations of George Watson’s College and one of its most enduring strengths is its ability to combine the more liberal, utilitarian interpretation of education with all that is good about tradition. For many schools, there is a tension between the two; but not for Roger Young. In Watson’s, they found the best of both worlds and it was undoubtedly one of the reasons he was able to steer such a steady ship through the potentially stormy waters of merging two very different schools; George Watson’s College and George Watson’s Ladies’ College, as he did in 1974. The merger was a huge success.

Probably the best day of Roger’s life at Watson’s was whenthe Queen graced the school with an official royal visit in 1982. The happiness on her face in the portrait photograph taken on that day, and which hung in Roger’s study, said it all about what she thought of the school. It made Roger, and his family, and his staff and pupils, very happy too, as did the honour of a knighthood which he received in 1985.

No obituary of Roger would be complete without acknowledging the debt he owed to Mary, his beloved wife of 61 years who died in 2013. His success was also hers and no governing council could have found a finer headmaster’s wife even had they searched the length and breadth of the country. The combination of deep compassion and Christian conviction, integrity and loyalty, devotion to their four children Elizabeth, Patrick, Janet and Christopher – who survive Roger – plus their wit and sheer enjoyment of life made them the most durable alloy in the school community and it made Watson’s the great school which it remains today.