Dr. Mel Vlaemincke, known to generations of Moseleians as Meriel Gaskin, offers a unique perspective on her father’s headship of MGS and life in what was then a male dominated enviroment
My father took up the headship of Moseley Grammar School in January 1956 after a spell in charge of Henry Thornton Grammar School in South London. He endured four miserable months living in a hotel before the family (Mum, my sisters Celia and Kathy and I) moved to Birmingham at Easter. As kids, we couldn’t believe that we were going to live in the huge Headmaster’s House at Moseley, with its towers and turrets, multiple rooms and storeys, and long echoing corridors all freezing cold. As we grew up, we came to appreciate the on-site gym, the sloping site (roller-skating), the school hall (badminton), the school field (a bit of athletics), the grass court in our ‘garden’ (tennis), the playground (learning to drive) and, in due course, the proximity of around 800 adolescent boys.
Dad approached his new job with boundless energy, commitment and idealism. He was genuinely egalitarian in his outlook, and had a deep-seated commitment to trying to make the world a better place. He had ‘done his bit’ during the War, in the tank regiment, and afterwards actively supported UNESCO, including representing the UK at a seminar in Paris in 1951 to discuss the teaching of History as a means of developing international understanding. He went on to maintain a long-standing commitment to the Campaign for Education in World Citizenship, organising talks and events for school students in Birmingham and an annual New Year conference in London.
At Moseley, he worked tirelessly to make the school more inclusive, broadening the curriculum, the range of clubs and societies, and the systems of recognition and reward, along with developing less ‘beefy’ sports, such as cross-country running, hockey and tennis. During his headship the school achieved remarkably high standards in all areas. Looking back, I believe he was totally free of prejudices at a time when that sometimes meant standing against prevailing opinion; he gave maximum support to his three daughters, whatever we aspired to do, and he actively encouraged minority ethnic youngsters in the early days of Commonwealth immigration.
He did have strong opinions on many issues and both spoke and wrote eloquently, always backed up by evidence and understanding. His annual Speech Day address was carefully prepared and well reported in the local press I still have a cutting from the Birmingham Evening Mail of 16 October 1972 reporting that at Moseley’s 50th Speech Day, “one of Birmingham’s most outspoken headmasters announced his retirement to a standing ovation”, although people did not believe it because he “looks nowhere near his age, 63”. The article commented that “he had earned a reputation as spokesman for the less bright child”, and was known for ticking off older generations for bothering too much about youths with long hair – “Too many older people equate virtue with a short-back-and-sides” he said. This was an aspect of his philosophy of prioritising what really mattered and concentrating on fighting important battles, which also, I think, enabled him to go along with standard school religious observance, despite his own atheism.
His strong left-wing leanings were less easily conceal-ed. As was normal for an Oxford graduate, his teaching career was wholly in selective and/or fee-paying schools (in Plymouth, Newcastle upon Tyne and London before Moseley), but his driving motivation was to extend opportunities for all. He welcomed the coming of free compulsory secondary education (to the age of 15) after the war, and then became increasingly concerned about how arbitrary the 11+ selection process was. Through his contacts within the National Union of Teachers and the Labour Party he got involved in the team responsible for drafting Birmingham’s 13+ exam and was then fully behind the growing national movement for the abolition of the 11+. He worked to devise various comprehensive reorganisation schemes for Birmingham, which, because of the repeated changes of political control in the city, took years to bring into effect. He very much regretted that by 1972 he was, he felt, too old to lead a comprehensive Moseley School.
There is no dispute that Dad was intellectually gifted. His degree was in History but he was interested in and passionate about many things, and knew a lot about most of them. He read voraciously the newspapers cover-to-cover every day and up to 100 books a year, mainly fiction, history and politics, all carefully listed in a notebook. He loved art, theatre and music, with a treasured collection of classical and jazz LPs. He wrote poetry and a novel and had an amazing collection of jokes and funny stories (some quite risque!) delivered with a great command of regional accents. He loved foreign travel, both with Moseley school trips and without, always learning some of the language beforehand. And he loved sport. He was very, very good at tennis (and patiently taught the three of us to play to a good standard) and had also been good at hockey, cricket, badminton and most other sports. This made it no hardship for him (and usually us, too) to watch Moseley’s teams in action virtually every time they played, senior and junior, home and away.
Life with Dad was never dull. He slept little, had a constantly questioning mind and was a perfectionist. I remember his meticulous attention to detail, reading and commenting upon every boy’s school report, and checking all test and exam marks and being very frustrated with errors and their perpetrators. But he also possessed great warmth, humour and optimism, and was unstinting in his respect for the gifts and efforts of others, both staff and pupils. A lifelong disregard for material gain made him incurably generous and scrupulously honest.
For the 17 years we were at Moseley, Mum, herself a graduate qualified teacher, was closely involved behind the scenes in the fortunes of the school. She heard the school’s news at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, attended all school functions, and she remembered the names of all the staff’s wives and children. Dad had total respect for her opinions and judgments, a number of which found their way into Moseley’s policies and progress. For example, it was she who was the driving force behind getting ‘listed’ status for the wonderful old building.
The extraordinary location of our home just the other side of a door from the school corridor and looking out on the main front access and all the activities on the school field meant that we were all involved in Moseley’s affairs in a unique and unforgettable way.