Some reflections on the period 1990 to 2000


Michael Payne

Warden & Head Master

Having had my arm twisted at a recent KHA weekend, I rashly agreed to try and record some thoughts on this period, during which I had the privilege of being first the Warden then the Headmaster of Kingham Hill School. This very first sentence indicates that it was a time of change.

The Background

On reading the history of the school it would seem that there were few serious changes in terms of management and finance, apart from the steady growth numerically, during its formative years, but the change of nomenclature from "homes" to "school" no doubt heralded a significant change that would take place several generations later.

Until the 1960s no pupils were paying fees, and all were supported entirely by the Trust, or in increasing numbers by Local authorities, which at that time saw the value of placing boys with disrupted home lives into boarding schools. However this latter policy changed over the next 30 years, summarised by the catchphrase "care in the community", though one suspects that it was partially driven by finance rather than philosophy! On my arrival at the school only a handful of pupils were funded from public sources and there were none by the time I left. Another source of support that became less significant than previously was the award of bursaries from other grant making trusts that shared the objectives of the school and helped to fund pupils. On my arrival perhaps a quarter of the pupils were supported by these trusts in combination with our own bursaries, and typically they could fund a quarter to a half of the fees of each pupil. Due to the reasons outlined in the next paragraph this had dropped to a handful of pupils and typically ten percent of the fees by the end of my tenure.


Since the 1960s a number of things occurred that inevitably led to changes. I am informed that between 1979 and 1982 the school was on the brink of closure due to financial difficulties but managed to avoid this by imposing strict financial controls which took a long time to begin to take effect. During my tenure the cost of boarding education rocketed due to a combination of factors including: the increasing breadth of the curriculum which in turn necessitated more expensive facilities; the requirement for more homely living accommodation; the raft of new and expensive improvements imposed by health and safety, environmental health, fire regulations etc; and the fact that salaries were generally rising faster than income. The arrival of The Childrens' Act in the mid 90s finally enshrined a set of standards below which a school could not operate. All of these changes were of course for the benefit of the pupils, though at the time they often seemed like punitive and needless impositions!


The consequence of this was that fees had to rise at an alarming rate so that during the 1980s and 90s dozens (and it could have even been a hundred) of schools closed, and the vast majority of these were small, country, boarding schools. It was little surprise that on my arrival, despite the successful leadership of my predecessor, the numbers had dropped from a high of around 250 to 200 and were to continue to fall to a low of 160 by the end of 1991 - not a viable number!

One of the reasons that Kingham Hill was not among the casualties was the fact that the Founder's Trust enabled the school, and Oak Hill College (also suffering from similar circumstances), to ride out the economic storm. However, while the Trust at one time funded both establishments completely, the huge capital investments in both establishments, and the fact that running expenses have far outstripped the income from the investments, meant that the school must be self- sufficient. Attracting fee-paying pupils and looking for new opportunities became a priority, whilst still maintaining the aim of helping needy youngsters, who could be given a flying start in life through benefiting from the Kingham Hill experience.

In this article it is not my intention to refer to particular individuals because so many people, both staff and pupils, governors and friends of the school contributed to the unique mix that gave (and still gives) the school its defining quality, so it would be invidious of me to pick out any specific people. What I will do is to outline the major events as I see them in the hope that those reading this will recall individuals, specific activities and hilarious anecdotes to supplement this dull and factual account and so put the flesh on the skeleton which follows.

The Daily Routine

I am sure that this is engraved on the memories of all former pupils but as you recall the pattern of the day, people and events will come to mind for you to share with us all. In note form:

Starting with prefects or houseparents gently rousing you from your slumbers,( I remember one person who used a trombone for this); life in the dormitory or study, steel lockers and iron bedsteads initially replaced by trendy bed/study units - surprisingly I don't recall anyone falling the 6 ft out of bed; the stroll to breakfast followed by house jobs, then the walk to chapel often in the pouring rain or sometimes through snow; school uniform (or the ways to try and circumvent it); lessons then break then lessons (perhaps you recall some of the more lively times); lunch (initially on house tables - nobody wanted to be in the annex) followed by lessons on some days, then games/clubs/activities (of which CCF, Scouts, DofE and latterly adventure service challenge played a memorable part) and returning to the house covered in mud; choir/play rehearsals later in the afternoon; (detention!) then some free time followed by tea followed by prep, with the prefects trying to persuade you to concentrate on your work; then perhaps laundry and some socialising before finally being put to bed and the endless chatter after lights out.

Annual Events

Parents meetings - hoping that your teachers wouldn't tell your parents about all your misdemeanours. ( I remember at one speech day telling the parents that if they didn't believe everything that they heard about us, then we wouldn't believe everything that we heard about them!). Exams , which seemed to proliferate so that hardly a month was exempt (A levels, GNVQ, GCSE, Keystage tests, regular modular exams, coursework deadlines, mock exams, internal exams etc). The effort competition where the 3 weekly assessments were totalled to ascertain the hardest working house (why did the girls always win?). Open days when we tried to create a good impression. Amazingly we did! Assessment day when new pupils came to show us how clever they were. In spite of that all of you reading this got in! Science trips ; French/German exchanges with all the temptations they presented (we won't mention the time when a member of staff with all the tickets was carried away on a non-stop train in Belgium whilst the remainderof the party remained on the platform); History trips to the battlefields, art and technology visits, theatre and concert visits; rugby tours to Ireland (why did they try and squeeze an 8 ft minibus into a car park with a 6 ft barrier?); confirmation retreats - what had go-carting to do with anything?; overland trips to Romania to work with orphans, once leaving the chaplain in hospital in Germany; skiing trips ; expeditions on the chaplains boat to many destinations, culminating in the round the world epic with parties of old boys - this chaplain spending a few days unconscious in the south Atlantic having been knocked out by the boom on his boat!  Battlefield field trip CCF, Scouts and DofE weekends and camps, and the endless tales that accompanying them; the Longmoor patrol competition where we proved that even if we weren't the most academic team in the competition we were certainly the fittest and most courageous. Our girls broke new ground being the first female team to enter, and beat several boys teams. The inter-house assault course competition with the final on speech day. The Mass , not a religious event, but the house cross-country race, and the queues of pupils at the san trying to avoid it. All the House Matches in the different sports which engendered more passion than almost anything else and not a little blood. My wife and I were usually on standby to take casualties to hospital after these events and wiled many hours away at A & E. Various fundraising events such as Swimathons. Founder's day with the walk to the grave and half holiday; Confirmation; Harvest Festival ; Rememberance Sunday, with parades in Kingham or Stow. The regular and often off-beat Christian events organised by the chaplain including Christian challenge week, a rock communion, graffiti artists, escapologists, strong men etc. The Carol service became so popular that we had to run video links from the chapel to the hall to meet the overspill; the choir regularly sang mid-week evensong at Tewkesbury Abbey and Bristol Cathedral, sadly not always well attended. I seem to recall on one occasion in Bristol, apart from my wife and I, the only other person in the congregation was a drunk sheltering from the rain! A wide selection of Plays were performed with all the tension and jubilation associated with public performances. Less accomplished but equally enthusiastic was the house singing competition, better known as the House Shout . It was thought wise for this not to be open to the public, but it was very entertaining. Outings to places like Alton towers were eagerly anticipated. The year ended for many with Speech Day, which I am told was always sunny prior to my arrival, but that was all to change. On one occasion the noise of the rain beating on the marquee made the speeches inaudible. On another, there was a power cut throughout the whole region that began one minute into my speech - was someone trying to tell me something!

One or two comments on specific years follow.


Finding my feet. Looking, learning. Falling numbers. My first parents letter included ".quite impressed with the formal side of life here. Informally I get the impression that there are a number who are fighting against the system and each other, rather than co-operating within it" My first expulsion - didn't sleep for several days! Too much "borrowing" going on. What is it about fire extinguishers? Carelessness with belongings - 100 pairs of unclaimed boxer shorts sent to Oxfam. School committee restarted. Several boys had fathers involved with the Gulf war. Many heads have to contend with pupils running away, but I may be unique in having a member of staff run away - well an Aussie Gap Year student anyway. Plans to be implemented for next year included:-



The closure of Clyde house for refurbishment (nothing to do with falling rolls?). The closure of the kitchen in Plymouth house. The proliferation of highly unsuitable casual clothes persuaded me to introduce school polo/sweat shirts for casual wear. A sixth form social centre was opened in the pavilion, which included a bar!!! Three weekly assessments were begun grading both effort and achievement on all pupils. Duke of Edinburgh scheme introduced as an alternative to CCF and Scouts.

Visit of Douglas Hurd (Foreign Secretary)


Photo: Rt Hon Lord Hurd of Westwell CH CBE PC Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher.



Arrival of the first girls! The start of letting the school premises during holidays to generate income - understandably not popular with residents.

Very wet spring term, the swimming pool bubble blew down (a habit that continued until my departure). The gym used for sport on an hourly rotational basis. Flu epidemic with up to 80 pupils affected at one time. Was it a coincidence that I received a letter from France addressed to Kingham Ill School? First year of comic relief.

A film company used the premises for some scenes in "The Rector's Wife" with several girls as extras.

Visit of the Central Band of the RAF. Start of dormitory refurbishment programme. Some of the school buildings starting to subside and root barriers installed in several places. Top School porch needed dismantling and rebuilding.


Some scenes for the filmThe Rector's Wifewere shot at KHS.


Numbers up to 200 again! Change of title from Warden to Headmaster. Too many people associated warden with warder. "Why does your school need a warden?" was a frequent question. Former Chaplain's round the world sailing expedition set off with a service of blessing on the boat in Falmouth. First Romania trip with 2 minibuses and 56 ton truck full of supplies plus £8,000 of aid. EFL department increased with the growth of overseas pupils, mainly from Hong Kong at this stage. Refurbishment of Bradford and Durham houses. OFSTED inspection - good report. Rugby club and 6 th form dinners began.


The publication of league tables on raw GCSE results began for the first time. Whilst being well above national average, Kingham Hill didn't look good compared with other independent schools. The main reasons for this being that we did not exclude any pupils from taking exams even if we knew they would not do well, and several pupils were a year behind (particularly overseas students who had to master the language first) and these pupils were accredited with no GCSE passes even if they gained a string of top grades the following year. I produced a detailed analysis for parents showing that a pupil with an IQ of 95 at KHS would gain 5+ GCSEs while nationally an IQ of 105 was needed to achieve this. However it made us think about the alternative course for 6 th formers and we decided that GNVQs should be introduced next year to supplement the A level subjects. A lot of work was required by many members of staff to implement this. Greenwich house needed some structural work so would close at the end of the year to reopen as a second girls house. Barings Bank collapsed, and though the founder was a member of the Baring family the Trust did not have any investments in the bank. A daughter of the Housemistress of Severn house was born in the house during the Christmas party and joined the party at under an hour old, to the delight of the girls, who had been unaware that she was being delivered and kept asking where their housemistress was!


The year started with a record number of girls, 46. Twenty six 6th formers began GNVQ courses. Refurbishments began on Sheffield house. Because of the increase in girl numbers 3 rd form boys lived in Plymouth House but enjoyed all the privileges of senior house members. To try and deter smokers Saturday night detentions started (2 hours copying out anti-smoking publications). We held a 24 hour famine for the whole school and a 24 hr pianothon by one pupil raised money for Romania. The SLD (Greens) department's reputation drew many people to the school and they moved into new, dedicated premises.

SLD department



Sixth form study bedroom extensions were opened in Durham and Norwich houses. Due to the generosity of KHA the organ was rebuilt and a performance of Vivaldi's "Gloria" marked its completion . A program of activities was instituted for Sunday afternoons. There was an HMI inspection, which went well. One girl contracted meningitis and this necessitated precautionary measures throughout the school. To our relief she recovered fully in a short period of time. We hosted the African Children's Choir for a week. These children, orphaned through war, sang for us and enriched our lives by their exuberance and humour. We in return could accommodate and feed them, and let them have the use of laboratories etc, facilities not normally available to them.



60 new pupils joined the school. A new computer system was installed for the administration of the school. Lighting was fitted on the roads to Plymouth and Severn. There was an upgrading of the Design and Technology department including a Plastics workshop. The library had a facelift and was designated the Resources Centre being equipped with banks of computers to replace some of the rather ancient and unread books. The assault course in the "planny" behind Severn no longer complied with new health and safety regulations, so after much research a new course was built on the field behind the Library, based on current army designs. I was fortunate to be invited to go to Japan to visit the school that had regularly been sending pupils to us for a one year placement and to meet parents of these pupils. A photograph did circulate of me standing on a railway platform, looking rather nervous, beside a group of Sumo wrestlers.


The results of our first GNVQ cohort were excellent with pupils gaining places at a wide range of universities. Yet another OFSTED Inspection. Apart from these inspections, in common with other boarding schools we were regularly inspected by the fire service, environmental health, health and safety, and social services in accordance with the children's act.

The reception area was refurbished to give a more welcoming feel for visitors to the school. For the first time our normally robust staff succumbed to the various bugs that were circulating and we had several occasions when we were stretched to cover all the commitments. Plymouth house was refurbished. KHA generously started a scheme to award bursaries to sixth form pupils.


Plan 2000 plus was launched which was an ambitious development programme to make the school competitive in terms of its facilities. The first step was to move the SLD department into a purpose built two-storey extension to top school, which then vacated their premises for use by GNVQ students. The dining hall annex was extended and turned into a social centre for 6 th formers, which was really appreciated by them and also used for other social occasions. Plans were drawn up for an all-weather area for hockey, tennis etc on the field opposite Swansea House, and this was implemented as I left. The final phase was to dispense with the oft replaced bubble over the swimming pool, giving it a permanent building and to develop the whole area of the under-croft for sport and associated uses. Those who have visited the school recently will know what a wonderful facility has now been created.

To everyone's relief Mr Martin Morris took over as head in August 2000.

Michael Payne sailing in retirement

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  • School Days

    School Days - Tuesday, 16 June 2015

    Dear Elizabeth

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences of The Hill. I'm sure your whole family had a very positive influence on the lives and futures of the boys and girls you all came into contact with.

    We are sorry for the loss of Alan. He will I am sure be missed by so very many people who will carry the memory of him and his influence with them for the rest of their lives.

    Your family are an integral part of our history, as much a part of us as we and The Hill are now a part of you! We treasure these memories, so many years from now people can remind themselves and reflect. Do get in touch if you would like to publish an article about your lives on and off The Hill or perhaps an obituary for Alan.

    I would also like to warmly welcome you into the Hillians on School Days, we wish you all a happy future that we hope you'll keep us up to date with.

    Simon, for School Days

  • Elizabeth Emberson - Tuesday, 26 May 2015

    My husband Alan moved to Kingham Hill as Head of Maths in September 1987, bringing with him me and our three children, one of whom (Tim) was barely four months old. It was a wonderful time for us, and our children appreciated the freedom of living in such a remote(!) area of Oxfordshire. James (our eldest) eventually came to KHS as a Day Boy; on leaving school he enlisted in the Light Division as bandsman, enjoying some years on the move, before settling near Witney. He now has a lovely wife and family. Tim also attended KHS, leaving when Alan accepted a post at Dixie Grammar school in Leicestershire. He is now a student at Birmingham Conservatoire, studying singing, and is gaining an excellent reputation as a performer; he recently sang in all four services at Leicester Cathedral to mark the re-interment of Richard III, and has already got a full diary for 2016.

    When Alan moved jobs, I continued to teach singing at KHS for a couple of years afterwards, eventually leaving when I was offered a full time job at Headington Girls' School in Oxford, and I continued to commute, using a camper van as accommodation! I am still there after all this time, but now live a bit closer, near Lechlade, a much easier journey.

    Sadly, Alan died in October 2011 after a short battle with Pancreatic Cancer. Needless to say, it was a devastating blow for all of us; he had been relatively healthy up until the July, but deteriorated quickly after that. We only had the diagnosis just a couple of weeks before he died, and just a week after James was married.

    Alan gave fifteen years of his life to KHS, believing totally in the ethos of the School. He devoted his entire time there to helping and guiding hosts of boys and girls, whether in educational terms, or in his role in the CCF. He and RSM Les Peake made a formidable team, steering the troops in the Longmoor competition and taking them on wonderful Summer camps.

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