Giles Woodforde talks to Dr Timothy Hands, Master of Magdalen College School

Dr Timothy Hands has been Master (as the head teacher is called) of Magdalen College School (MCS) since 2008.

But while MCS’s new academic year begins today, it will be Tim’s last in charge. In September 2016, he will become Headmaster of the prestigious Winchester College, founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham. Winchester’s announcement of the appointment reads: “The Warden and Fellows approached Dr Hands due to his successful track-record at two leading independent schools.”

This suggests that he was headhunted, and as we talk in his MCS study, Tim Hands confirms this was the case – remarking along the way that recruitment consultants are increasingly becoming involved in school staff appointments. But what, I ask, attracted him to the job?

“Both foundations have a lot in common, with a very early interest in the concept of a new kind of education, and, in current times, a commitment to education beyond the exam syllabus. From an even earlier time than Waynflete’s Magdalen, Wykeham’s Winchester was showing a single minded pursuit of the best possible education, and it seemed to me when I was shown around, to retain that idealism now. So that was a special attraction for me.”

There are those who would take offence at my next question, but Tim is not that kind of man. He roars with laughter when I suggest that, at 59, he’s quite old to be taking on a major new job. Was he expecting a further career move?

“No I wasn’t. There’s the example of Oxford University, which has its hallowed Employer Justified Retirement Age of the 30th September before your 68th birthday. But medically and legally, attitudes to age are changing. Personally, I’ve never thought I’d stop at 60, and I thought very carefully about Winchester’s approach in that context. Also, I was recently asked by an educational magazine: ‘How long should heads stay?’ I replied that a decade is about right, because if you’ve worked hard you will have made a difference in that length of time. A new head here will correct things that I have not improved as much as I should have done. That’s good.”

Tim’s father was a teacher too, and became headmaster of one the country’s largest comprehensives. He did not, Tim reveals, entirely approve of his son’s decision to work in the independent sector.

“My father enthusiastically embraced the comprehensive ideal. I think he’d be astonished about my accepting the Winchester headship: very pleased, but also troubled and amused.

“He has only recently died, and I’ve just been working through his papers whilst preparing his memorial service. There’s lots of material I’ve never read before about education in the late fifties, sixties, and early seventies. It’s seriously interesting, idealistic stuff – and includes his view that education authorities need to appreciate teachers who stay inside one school, rather than moving around. I read those words with a certain amount of interest, and they are going to appear in the memorial service.”

So did Tim himself go to his father’s comprehensive school?

“No,” he explains. “My father had a deal with my sister and me that if we got scholarships, we could go to a direct grant school, as they were called in those days. Otherwise there was no chance. My sister did get a scholarship – she’s much cleverer than me. I failed: I remember the feeling of despair when I saw the exam papers, I’ve never forgotten it. So I was educated at a state grammar school between the railway lines at Clapham Junction.”

Tim Hands has continued to take a particular interest in the ever-changing relationship between state and independent schools. As Chair of the HMC, a leading association of heads of independent schools, he has been involved in robust public exchanges with the Government, over the importance, or otherwise, of GCSE and A-level exam league tables, for instance.

“My father had a deep belief that schools are there to serve their communities, and I feel exactly the same. I have found out that some of the things I believe in are not valued, especially by politicians. I feel passionately about my beliefs, and, therefore, that I should speak out about them.”

Although Tim Hands comes from a family of teachers, he might have become a classical musician instead – he studied violin at the Guildhall school, but decided against a career as a professional musician. Instead, he became a lecturer at Oriel College – and conductor of the internationally famous Schola Cantorum of Oxford choir from 1982-85. There he met and married choir secretary Jane, who now works as a solicitor in London: “We quite often pass on trains going in opposite directions,” Tim remarks cheerfully, as he reveals that their two sons are both thinking of following their father into teaching.

Tim’s love of music, and the performing arts in general, led him to found the now well-established Portsmouth Festivities arts event in the late 1990s, when he was Headmaster of Portsmouth Grammar School. In Oxford, he has built the MCS Arts Festival into a major event. But Winchester already has an arts festival, so presumably he doesn’t feel the need to start another one? There’s more laughter as Tim replies enigmatically: “When I was interviewed for the job here, I was told that the one thing Oxford did not need was an arts festival! As it happens, ten years ago I judged a singing competition at Winchester, and the standard was fantastically high. But there are always opportunities for growth in any arts festival.”

Meanwhile, Tim has a full year’s work ahead at MCS. There’s the fire-damaged sports centre to repair, and planning permission has just been granted for a brand new sixth form block: it will include, Tim tells me enthusiastically: “That delight of every irate mother, a new lost property facility.”

But he will, he confirms, most certainly miss Oxford when he leaves next July.

“You’re educated here, you acquire your values, and you go out and share those values. In the end, Oxford’s unique, isn’t it?”