Suffolk: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. It’s Simon Warr
Teacher, radio sports reporter, sometimes-controversial EADT columnist, media pundit, the man who caned Adrian Chiles on The One Show . . . and now author. Steven Russell wants to know how the larger-than-life Simon Warr squeezes it all in
ONE has to be fleet of foot to keep up with Simon Warr these days. It might be the Easter holidays, but the schoolteacher hasn’t slipped off to a sunkissed beach or put his feet up in the garden. He’s on the move, as usual. We catch up with him minutes after a live appearance on Channel 5’s topical magazine The Wright Stuff. He’s been asked for his views about whether or not computer games badly affect young people’s minds and how much influence they might have had on recent shootings.
A fixture on BBC Radio Suffolk, and a Saturday columnist with the EADT, Simon’s seen his media work really take off. He’s often heard on Radios 2 and 5 Live, giving his opinions on matters of the day, and a couple of weeks ago appeared on ITV’s Daybreak. The breakfast show had tried to get him on earlier, but teaching duties at the Royal Hospital School near Ipswich scuppered that plan.
In fact, he admits that sooner or later he will probably have to make a choice about where his future lies. Although he adores teaching French and Latin and producing plays, and loves the school, he might just have to call it a day sometime in the medium term in order to pursue the other opportunities on offer.
“I really enjoy my job and it’s just a question of, now, I’ve got to make a decision, because when these things come along you don’t want to keep saying to people ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t’; otherwise they lose interest and go elsewhere,” he says. “You have to strike while the iron is hot.”
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The latest addition to the CV is a novel called Howson’s Choice, co-written with long-time friend Michael Gold.
Very much a work of fiction in its detail, it was inspired in general by the fall of Peter Hobson, who resigned as headmaster of Surrey independent school Charterhouse in 1995 after an encounter with a 19-year-old girl from an escort agency – a liaison gleefully regaled by a tabloid newspaper.
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Hobson had pretended to be the school gardener. Unfortunately for him, Sally Henderson – from the Sophisticats agency in Guildford – had been a convent school pupil and recognised her new client as a former guest of honour who once handed out prizes!
Peter Hobson and Michael Gold were colleagues at Wellington College, where Michael started his career as a schoolmaster.
In the book, Dr Joseph Howson is a brilliant and accomplished pupil – somewhat too good to be true – who becomes a brilliant and accomplished headmaster of a private school. And then he has a series of encounters with a young call-girl . . .
Whereas Hobson had to retire in ignominy, the fictional head’s solution to his troubles is much more dramatic.
Simon says the story shows “that even the best-looking people, the brightest people, the people who seem to have everything going for them, they are not indestructible. Everyone has his Achilles’ heel.
“The more people say to you ‘You’re fantastic; you’re great’ – once you get an inflated sense of your own importance – that’s when you fall off the edge of the cliff. You have to be very careful. We’re all fallible.”
The novel, Simon says, is mainly his writing, with considerable research input from his co-author – particularly about the Nazi element to the story (Michael is the son of first-generation Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland and Lithuania).
Both men also add authentic flavour to the narrative by drawing on their extensive experiences of life within the hallowed cloisters of English public schools. Michael, for instance, has been a boarding school headmaster and Simon has taught at The Royal Hospital School for more than 25 years.
In fact, it’s hard not to engage the languages teacher in conversation about topical education matters, as he holds unequivocal views and is happy to share them.
His recent appearance on Daybreak, for instance, was about discontent at Darwen Vale High School in Blackburn, where staff claimed management was failing to support disciplinary action against unruly pupils and voted to strike unless they were given official backing.
“In general, I don’t think teachers should go on strike, because we’re dealing with children,” he tells the EADT. “That said, I think the situation has got so critical in so many schools now that I fully support the fact that even though those teachers had a responsibility to the children in their school, their bigger responsibility is sending out a message to the rest of the country that this can’t continue.
“We’ve already failed a generation of children because of our failure to address ill-discipline in schools and it can’t be left to continue.”
It’s a national problem, he says, stressing there are many fine state schools in East Anglia and that there isn’t a problem at his own. But, around the UK, he says indiscipline is a canker.
What would he do?
“It will take a generation. I don’t think there is respect for authority – not just for teachers. There’s no natural respect shown by children for adults. We’ve got to get into their heads that ‘Look, you’re having a free education. Not every country in the world will provide you with a free education. Treasure it. This is your one and only chance. You’ve got to take it.’”
Parents need to get more involved with their child’s school and support its work and stance, he says, while he’d also ban mobile phones from schools. There’s no need for these tools of distraction.
Pupils would also be taught and encouraged to take greater responsibility for their learning.
“At the moment, 100% responsibility is placed on the shoulders of teachers. If a child fails at school, it’s not just the teachers’ fault, I’m afraid.
“This idea that children, because they’re children, have no responsibility at all is palpable nonsense. We need to get that message across to children: If you don’t do well at school, the chances of you succeeding afterwards are more remote. The normal equation is ‘Failure at school, failure subsequently in life.’ School is critical.”
If disciplinary problems were corrected, schools would again attract skilled graduates, he suggests, arguing that many are deterred from becoming teachers by the requirement to control a class before they can start formal teaching per se.
We also have to stop some people believing that one of a teacher’s main duties is to be entertaining.
“What are we: teachers or circus performers?” he trumpets. “We’re not there to entertain the children. Parts of the educational process can be quite boring; that’s the way of the world. Your job, I would imagine, has great parts; but some of it is probably boring, but you know you have to do the groundwork, and that’s not always entertaining.
“Of course, they do need to make the lessons as enjoyable as possible, but it’s not the primary thrust.”
So where did it all go wrong?
“It went wrong with the Children Act in 1990. We don’t want to go back to the old days of the 1950s when teachers ruled the roost and children had absolutely no say in their education at all, but what happened is the pendulum swung 180 degrees and we’ve got to a point where we were encouraged to – and this is the phrase used in schools – ‘get alongside children’.
“Unfortunately, we have got alongside them and they now treat teachers as if they were their equals. Well, they’re not. We are paid professionals.”
Children need to know where they are in the hierarchical structure, where the boundaries lie, the consequences of crossing them, and what is expected in terms of behaviour, attitude and effort. “We haven’t set boundaries; the Children Act has given children mixed messages.”
Simon also says it has been made hard for state schools to expel disruptive pupils, with the authority of head teachers sometimes undermined by the appeal system.
His own life perhaps shows what can be achieved despite less-than-ideal beginnings. Simon was orphaned at six when he lost his mother to cancer in the February and his father died later that year – of a heart attack, he says, brought on by everything that had happened.
Simon’s brother, 10 years older, ostensibly left for school one day but took a train from south Wales to London, got involved with drugs and prostitution, and later went to prison. His father spent the last three months of his life looking for his son in London but never saw him again. He returned to Wales and suffered the fatal heart attack. Simon’s brother later died of an overdose, in his 20s.
Simon was fostered and, because his father had been a Freemason, boarded at the Royal Masonic School for Boys, near Watford – starting on his eighth birthday. (The distinctive facade of the now-closed school is used on the cover of Howson’s Choice.) Later, he remembers hitchhiking down the M4 to Cardiff in the 1970s, pocketing the money his foster family had given him for the train!
Acting was always fun, and after leaving the Royal Masonic he had a spell at drama school in London. Simon thought about pursuing it professionally, but it was a precarious career and he was steered significantly by the wishes of his family and his late father to follow a more academic route.
He read modern languages and education at Goldsmiths College in the capital and then in the early 1980s landed a job at the newish St George’s School near Stowmarket – the first time he’d set foot in the county. Head Derek Slade offered a salary of �9,000, trumping by �2,000 what Simon had been offered the previous day by a school in Kent.
Even before the new recruit started, a BBC Radio 4 investigation in 1982 by Roger Cook and the Checkpoint team had probed Slade’s use of corporal punishment. The head left soon afterwards – and last autumn was jailed for 21 years after being convicted of abusing pupils during the 1970s and 1980s.
Simon’s stay at St George’s was short – about 18 months or two years, before he left for the Royal Hospital School, where today he teaches French and Latin, is head of drama productions, and is responsible for extra-curricular activities. For many years, too, he was also a rugby coach and ran teenage sides for Suffolk.
Media work began after an appearance on the BBC show Noel’s House Party in 1997, where he thought he was due to take part in a phone-in about education but was Gotcha-ed. To cut a long story short, he ended up appearing on stage with The Glitter Band – dressed as Gary Glitter in high heels and belting out, rather well actually, a medley of glam-rock hits.
Later, he was asked by BBC Radio Suffolk if he would like to be its rugby correspondent, and started in the autumn of 1999.
Nowadays his voice is heard on the station as he reports from local soccer matches on Saturday afternoons. Simon also has a weekly slot called The Warrzone, where he talks about topical issues. He pens a similar column for the EADT, and pops up regularly in other media: such as discussing the welfare state with George Galloway on talkSPORT.
He’s in his mid-50s and professes to have more energy than many folk half his age, but how does he shoehorn it all in?
“I’m not a workaholic as such, but I do believe you’re only on the Earth once and you must try to get as much out of it as you possibly can. It’s a travesty that people go to their graves with all sorts of talents they’ve never tapped into – and that’s the majority of us.”
He did marry quite young, not long after leaving university, but is now divorced. “The reason I’ve been able to achieve so much is probably that I haven’t had children to worry about!” he laughs.
Returning to the start of our conversation, is he really suggesting he might be in the autumn of his teaching career? Well, he admits it has been in his mind to leave the classroom sooner rather than later, to devote more time to media work, though there’s much about teaching that is enjoyable and fulfilling, and the school is wonderful. It’s perhaps 50:50 at the moment.
And this larger than life persona . . . is it his genuine personality or is he playing to the gallery?
“I’ve so many reasons to be sad and morose about things, but I am at RHS considered the common-room buffoon. I’m the joker. That’s actually my character; naturally, I’m a comedian. But everyone seems to think – because I do The Warrzone and am always issuing forth about various weighty matters – that I’ve got no sense of humour. Exact opposite is true, actually. I’m very light-hearted, comedic, and that’s my natural state.” (While not taking any nonsense from his pupils, of course!)
Simon says he’s lucky to have enjoyed good health, not losing a day to sickness during a teaching career spanning about 30 years. “I eat well, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink very much, and I have a happy disposition. This idea that comedians are hiding their inner angst . . . I should have that angst, with all the things I’ve had to put up with, but I let it all out. And that’s my recommendation to most people: don’t store it up; let it out!”
And don’t let the grass grow under your feet. It’s time for Simon to move on to his next engagement: after a quick change into his suit he’s due at Lord’s cricket ground, where he will meet Don Topley – the Royal Hospital School’s sports development manager – and have a look at the revered Long Room.
Former Essex all-rounder Don’s son, Reece, is playing for Essex against Middlesex [and the teenager, studying for A-levels at RHS, is doing rather well as we speak – on his way towards his second successive five-wicket haul in only his third match for the county].
“Reece was my tutee last year,” says Simon, clearly looking forward to his visit to the home of cricket. “So teaching does have its perks!”
n Howson’s Choice can be bought for �9 via the websites of Amazon and WHSmith. Web link: www.howsonschoice.co.uk
Simon Warr’s media appearances include:
• Mastermind, with Magnus Magnusson, in 1981
• Noel’s House Party, with The Glitter Band, in 1997
• Rule the School, a five-part series on BBC1, in 2003
• A teacher on the Channel 4 series That’ll Teach ’Em the same year
• The role of community leader on Nightmare Neighbours (also Channel 4) in 2004
• The headmaster in That’ll Teach ’Em in 2005
• Caning presenter Adrian Chiles on The One Show in 2009, during a debate about corporal punishment
• He divides his time between Suffolk and a flat at Osterley in west London, ‘near Sky’s offices’
• Web link: www.simonwarr.co.uk