Marlborough College's new Master aims to broaden the intake with more bursaries

Written by Tony Millett on .

Louise Moelwyn-Hughes, was born in Dublin and brought up on a council estate in Northern Ireland.  She went to a local primary school and a grammar school and then crossed the water to Cambridge.  Now, in her mid forties, she is Marlborough College's new Master.


So it is not entirely surprising that when spoke to her, she made it very clear that one of her two main aims is to expand the access to the high academic standards and great facilities that the College can provide. 

Who for? "For children and families who couldn't afford an education like ours - for those who would thrive here and would relish the opportunity."

She emphasises that the College already awards 110 per cent bursaries and has established links with local secondary schools to take pupils into the sixth form - particularly Pewsey Vale and Swindon Academy.


She certainly doesn't want anyone to think they are handing out goodies: "People choose us - it's not that we're handing them a swan on a plate. I'm a working class girl - we at Marlborough want these kids - we want them in our cohort - they bring something to us.  That comes from my experience - I think I brought something extra to my school."

"They bring personality and ability and determination.  I want them all to achieve something - but I want them to want to achieve something."  And she can lead there by example - the example of her own career.

'Goodies' or not, might some of this expanded intake feel a bit like poor relations?  "I never felt different at grammar school."  Though she did surprise fellow students when she told them her family did not have a car and she came to school by bus.  "I was a bit different - and I was proud of it and it really didn't matter."

Her other main aim is to strengthen the academic profile of the College: "Marlborough's exam results are stunning, they're great, they're super.  But we don't communicate that very effectively."  She is determined to change that. 

She has taken over as Master from Jonathan Leigh in an auspicious year - it marks the 175th anniversary of the College's foundation and the fiftieth anniversary of its introduction of co-education. Also, of course, it is the centenary of the end of the world war that cost the lives of 749 Marlburians.  That is being marked by The Memorial Hall Festival 2018 - held mainly in the newly refurbished Memorial Hall.

Another landmark for the year is the opening of the new girls residence - Dancy House just opposite the main gates - the design for which has raised a few eyebrows in the town. 

There no plans for further new buildings on the table at the moment.  They are concentrating on the refurbishment of the 1935 Science Block.  It is a Grade II listed building of revolutionary design and construction - built largely with reinforced concrete.

Mrs Moelwyn-Hughes is no stranger to Marlborough - she taught Latin and Greek at the College between 1992 and 2005 and was a Housemistress.  And she is glad that once again she is in Marlborough - the town and the College: "I'm delighted to be back in Marlborough." 

I mention a feeling among some in the town that there is a bit of a wall across the west end of the town - separating town from gown: "I'm very happy to break that wall down."  Once fully settled into her new role, she wants to take part in town events and encourage a greater openness towards the town for the College's 967 boarding students.

Mrs Moelwyn-Hughes' husband Owen - they met while both were teaching at the College - is still teaching in Canterbury.  He is head of politics at King's School and can only get to Marlborough for weekends: "I hope he finds a job closer to us!" 

They have three young children - two, four and six - and Mrs Moelwyn-Hughes' parents are living with them in the Master's Lodge and looking after the children: "They are over the moon at being in Marlborough - they absolutely love it - town and College."

In fact it is quite a family gathering as the Master's brother, Gareth Playfair, is head of philosophy and religious studies and a housemaster at the College.  A triple hockey Blue at Cambridge, he is married to Emma (also a triple hockey Blue at Cambridge) and they have two young children.

When she became Head at St Edmund's Canterbury, there were eleven female heads among the 285 schools of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference - the professional association of public school heads.  (Strangely that organisation is still known by its old - pre-headmistresses - initials: HMC.)

However, among the country's leading public schools only two have female 'heads' - Oundle and now Marlborough. It is very easy to view Marlborough College's new Master first and foremost as a 'first' - making seismic break from a 175-year line of male Masters. It is not a view that can last beyond the first five minutes of conversation with her.

But wondering whether 50 years of co-education was rather a long time for the College to be without a female Master, I had to ask whether she felt she was 'breaking the mould': "It's quite a big deal - not for me, I go on meritocracy - but it's a big thing for this community - and they've been brilliant about it."