John Christopher Dancy, JCD, was a powerful contradiction to George Bernard Shaw’s spiky aphorism, “Those who can, do: those who can’t, teach”. For throughout his long life JCD both “taught” and “did”. And this is particularly true of his time here at Marlborough, which surely remains the high-point of his career and on which I shall concentrate.
Shaw does however beg one important question: why did JCD choose to become a schoolmaster? A star scholar at Winchester and then at Oxford, John was a brilliant classicist and a rounded individual. He could have excelled in many walks of life.
At least part of the answer lies in his wartime experience in Normandy. Tasked with interrogating young German prisoners, indoctrinated adolescents of the Hitler Youth, he was deeply shocked by their brainwashed minds – totally lacking in morality or fear. These encounters left a lasting impression and subsequently pointed him towards teaching – and to teach, not at a university where his intellectual abilities would have found a natural place, but at the school level at which his brutal experience in Normandy suggested that enquiring, challenging minds are moulded.
His learning curve post war and post Oxford was rapid and steep. After a couple of years teaching at Wadham and five years in the common room at Winchester, he was appointed at what now seems the extraordinarily young age of 33 to be Headmaster of Lancing, where in his own words he learnt much and made many mistakes.
And so to Marlborough in 1961.
Of the eight hundred or so boys who greeted him with some desultory curiosity that autumn, this particular one standing before you today was just entering his second year. I was starting in my senior house B1, taking possession of my horsebox in Upper School, playing Colts rugby, and beginning to enjoy Maths in the Fifth Form. Perhaps I was particularly ready for a new dawn. But my new dawn was accompanied by Dancy’s winds of change.
And how they blew. For those who experienced these years there was a heady sense of awakening, liberalisation and change. Fragments of personal memory perhaps capture this excitement.
- An end to the hairy tweed suits on Sundays,
- daily Chapel became optional as did the CCF,
- there was better food in Norwood Hall and a wonderful new Art School below,
- a daring showing of Psycho at the Film Club,
- an unbeaten First Fifteen at rugby,
- the revival of the school’s strong mountaineering tradition,
- the introduction of exeats allowing me and a friend from B3 to visit a jazz club in London which had a warm-up act called the Rolling Stones.
This was after all the start of the Swinging Sixties and Marlborough was in the Zeitgeist.
Other more learned experts could expand on how JCD changed Marlborough education over these years.
- How he built on the existing strong intellectual and cultural foundations of the school
- How he developed and widened the curriculum for example with the Schools maths project and the introduction of Business Studies
- How he strengthened the Common Room.
But he also had wider ambitions. He had a greater vision – to address the closed exclusivity of the whole Public School system – to adapt it to the explosion of post-war social change. I mention three milestones as he travelled this road.
The first was his membership of the Public Schools Commission set up in 1966 which produced a report advocating much closer integration of the independent and state education systems – a challenge which, in my view regrettably, the then Labour government did not explore further.
The second was his stab at practicing what he preached on broader entry with what became known as the Swindon Experiment where some twenty boys from Swindon State Schools joined Marlborough in the sixth form. This experiment did not catch on, but I am sure JCD would commend the school today as it continues to address this issue, including launching an ambitious bursary scheme next year.
The third milestone was of course the introduction of girls at Marlborough, crucially assisted by his wife Angela. This in time has led to the hugely successful co-educational powerhouse which is the modern Marlborough College of today. Indeed his courageous decision changed the whole face of the public school system over the following years. It was this move more than anything that will ensure that John Dancy will always be remembered as a successful educational reformer with a social agenda.
Perhaps his life post-Marlborough was always going to be something of an anti- told he might have wanted, nor did an Oxford College headship, to which he might have been well suited, fall his way. He was however far from idle. St Luke’s College, teaching the teachers, was a logical move and he later went back to academia through his writing.
But let me end on a personal note to explain why I readily accepted the invitation to be standing here today. I got to know JCD in my last year and one of my last conversations with him was in the summer of 1964 as I was preparing to leave Marlborough to join the Royal Navy – I came from a Naval family and was keen to follow that calling. I recall JCD advising me in no uncertain terms that I was making a big mistake and I would be much better off first going to university. I responded that my mind was made up. I duly joined Dartmouth that autumn.
Two years into my service in the Royal Navy the Admiralty in its wisdom decided to send me to Oxford to get a degree. Once there I realised that JCD had been so right – there was a big, wide, intellectually-challenging world out there. But by then I was obligated to the Navy to give six years of return of service for my degree. It was quite a dispiriting period for a young man trapped in a profession which held no long-term interest. There was plenty of time to recall the advice I had been given. John Dancy had understood me far better than I understood myself.
This brings me to conclude with Aristotle rather than George Bernard Shaw, and I hope JCD would approve of my ending with Aristotle. For Aristotle wrote “Those who know, do; those that understand, teach”. John Dancy knew and he certainly understood.
- He knew and understood the strengths and weaknesses of the Public School system;
- he knew and understood Marlborough; and
- he certainly knew and understood me.
It is an honour to remember him this afternoon.
Lord Robin Janvrin (B1 1960-64)