Keith Robinson, senior economics master

[By Chris Meakin, KES 55-62, Nov 2005]
TKR in 1957

There were many fine masters at KES - by the late 1950s Nat Clapton could just about take his pick. OEs from those days each have their favourite and look back in gratitude - chemists with enduring admiration for Jock Mackay, mathematicians for Jack Birkinshaw, linguists for Jo Oppenheimer; the trick seems to have been a nickname beginning with J.

I was never a scientist, nor a linguist, not by a long chalk, but way back in the second form a toughie maths master called Dickinson once derided 'some peculiar A Level combination of mathematics, geography and economics' which in that moment had sounded just the thing for me. So with O level thankfully behind me that's what I chose in 1959. Whatever its oddities, that A level combination meant working with two of the most inspiring masters teaching the arts sixth - Bert Towers for geography (see elsewhere) and Tick Robinson, senior economics master. And Flinkie Jackson took us for maths.

Senior masters without any nicknames were lacking something, but I suppose it was inevitable that a master with initials TKR became Tick and it was not until 1999 did I learn his real name was Keith. He was, by near-universal agreement among the boys of the upper school, about as good an egg as any on the staff. At the time of writing Keith Robinson lives an enjoyable and rewarding retirement in Buxton and he is often to be seen at OE gatherings.

Today he looks nothing like old enough to have done so, but it was way back in 1954 that TKR was recruited by Nat Clapton - despite opposition from a few staff room traditionalists - to develop an economics sixth form at the school. The subject was not then widely taught in schools anywhere in the country. His particular success was to attract a large number of boys from studying more traditional subjects. To anyone else that might have been an uphill task, for economics was the one subject in the school not taught at all below "A" level.

In fact Tick Robinson built far and away the largest and most successful economics sixth form in the country. Just six years after his appointment, the Examiners of the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board were moved to write to him about their 1960 nationwide "A" and "S" level results for Economics and Political Science. They explained that in their collective wisdom they had awarded just 25 distinctions throughout the country, distributed around leading public and state schools alike. Of those distinctions, 13 had been awarded to the sixth form at King Edward VII School. They're all there in the 1960 Speech Day leaflet and one of them, Chris Brearley, went on to become a high ranking civil servant; another was Barry Cheetham, about to become Head Prefect. Our year following was not so successful, although its four distinctions would probably have delighted any other school in the country.

Tick Robinson, together with Josh Hemming, also did much to organise school cricket, normally in the superior surroundings of Whiteley Woods. So it was devotion indeed for him to stand umpire in a lowly game at Castle Dyke; the 1000ft contour runs straight though those pitches on the fringe of the Peak District national park - ask a geographer. Looking due east, they are the highest land for 2,500 miles.

As a stiffish breeze swept in from the Urals, Tick was the only person in four years ever to offer a compliment on my modest off-spin bowling, a technique developed using a handy lump in the pavement outside our house two miles further down Ringinglow Road. His passing comment was real encouragement, but one shortcoming about KES sport was the virtual absence of any form of coaching. Small wonder, perhaps, that as the school's 2005 biographer John Cornwell noted, KES never produced a Cricket Blue. In years to come Manchester Grammar would produce Michael Atherton, while Silverdale would produce Michael Vaughan. Even at my less exalted cricketing level I would have welcomed being taught how to develop that embryo bowling technique into something better.

Coaching works. It certainly did in economics. Because the school completed "0" level for most boys in the fourth form, and "A" and "S" levels just two years after that, that left a third year in the sixth to sort out university entrance and scholarships. However that also left an awkward hole in the teaching syllabus: What do you teach argumentative boys once all the "A" Level and "S" Level material has been exhausted?

Tick had his own way of dealing with that. At the start of the third year sixth he put the names of a lot of philosophers, economists and their ilk in a hat, from Plato onwards. Each of us drew a name, and our task was to beef up on our selected Thinker, in order to teach the class about him for one lesson. We worked through them in historical order. Simplicity itself, especially for Tick. All he needed was a hat. For those particular lessons he moved into the desk of the chosen pupil while the one-lesson expert took over his desk at the front of the class. Very good psychology. It stood me in good stead. A newly-acquired ability to rabbit on ad-lib about both Plato and J M Keynes talked me into Oxford University, far more than any exam paper I ever sat, in December 1961.

A few years later, when the degree results appeared for our university year it dawned on me just where Tick's Hat Trick had been leading - we left KES with at least half a degree already in our pocket. Five Old Edwardians were in the Oxford PPE Schools list of 1965: Bob Mingay at Trinity; Al Foster at Corpus; Bob Oates at St Peter's; Joe Lucas at St Cath's and me. All five OEs got Seconds, I suspect thanks in considerable measure to TKR. Most others at my own college did not.

That was achieved despite the fact that I for one, and I strongly suspect Bob Oates for two, did barely a scrap of work. Both of us spent most of our third year gracing the Oxford Union bar instead. In our final term, together with president of the union Tariq Ali and his tutorial partner at Exeter, the four of us anxiously organised a series of bootleg tutorials in the President's private office to try and bluff our way through the philosophy bit of PPE. The other two still got Thirds.

Many Old Edwardians seem driven to decry the school nowadays because of its supposed elitism. Personally, whenever I hear an ism I reach for my Oxford dictionary, but it does seem the school was achieving the very thing which left-leaning politicians crave. It provided a ladder to the best universities in the country for boys - admittedly only boys - irrespective of social background. It really did not matter two hoots whether your dad was professor of Latin at Sheffield University, a bus-driver or someone who packed peas at Batchelors. Who cared? No-one ever bothered to ask.

The socially-blind grammar schools were dismembered in the 1960s and now the politicians who did so are incessantly exercised by the alleged social exclusiveness of Oxford. They really cannot have it both ways. There was nothing remotely posh about the vast majority of boys from King Edwards. Quite the contrary. As I arrived at Keble College, I paid three shillings and sixpence to join an obscure Oxford University society called the Seventh Club. Its membership was closed to old boys of KES. When I joined it had 82 undergraduate members, in those days about one per cent of the whole (male) university, and all from a sixth form about half the size of those at Manchester Grammar or Eton. The Senior Members of the Seventh Club in Michaelmas 1962 included, among various others, the Savilian Professor of Geometry, two Fellows of Trinity College and the Warden of Rhodes House. So I suppose it ultimately fell to an earlier Old Edwardian to admit a young Bill Clinton to Oxford. I hope Sir Edgar Williams CB CBE DSO DL would have been gratified by his prophetic selection.