At Westminster -- Hamlet and a finely tuned old piano

Hamlet and his ghost had a proper going-over by a "top" class in the sixth form at Westminster School, overlooking a small patch of green in one of the Abbey courtyards during my visit to the class.

The boys (and two girls) freely exchanged ideas with one another and their lively instructor about, first, what the ghost meant and, second, what Hamlet meant.

Mr. Stewart, warning the students not to include the following story on their external examination papers, said that lore has it that the reason the ghost's speech was so long was that Shakespeare himself, having played that part in the original production and finding the trapdoor stuck, had to improvise while he stomped for a stagehand to come and repair the difficulty.

The teaching was a model of the use of Socratic questioning -- and also of the use of interest and praise on the part of the teacher. After considerable speculation and discussion on one point, one of the uniformed young men (black wool suit, white shirt, tightly knotted black tie) was bursting to give his interpretation.

Before he had gone far in his statement, his teacher interjected, "That's brilliant." Ah, smiles all around the room, and the discourse went on. At its close, the instructor charged" "Brilliant. Now say it all again in one or two cogent, well-phrased, and articulated sentences."

This accomplished, the teacher was off again with questions leading to yet more questions and calling for yet more recall of what had been written by others, and what had come before the scene being studied in that class period.

After the discussion, a reading by two of the young men, one as ghost, the other Hamlet, each now reading the identical lines with which he had begun the period, but this time with more feeling and meaning.

It seems that a government form was sent around to all independent schools, and on the form it was asked whether a place of worship was connected in any way with the school. To which, of course, John Rae, headmaster of Westminster School, could answer, "Yes." The second question asked if the place of worship was used for any other purpose. The story goes that Dr. Rae, history in cheek, noted "coronations."

While it may have been a bit true in prior years that boys were admitted to Westminster School "at birth," today, Dr. Rae explained, "parents are shopping." This, he said, makes the schools more competitive than previously, and also calls on them to be clear about just what it is they do -- and do particularly.

A recent educational report (known in the United States as "15,000 Hours" and in the United Kingdom as the "Rutter Report") stated that the ethos, or atmosphere, of a school was all-important, and could mean success or failure for those who chose that environment.

With this Dr. Rae agreed wholeheartedly. As he explained, "There are probably some 12 boys' public schools which might be called 'the best,' but one is really not better than another in the sense of quality, but different. One must," he insisted, "look at ambiance, style, and offerings."

As an example, he admitted that Westminster did not have large playing fields nor a great emphasis on competitive school sports, and that boys wanting and needing these activities might well want to apply to another independent school.

As for Westminster, he feels its academics are of the highest order, and that the instruction goes far beyond that required to pass university-entry examinations. He cited youngsters who have written their own plays, their own music, their own novels.

And he made a distinction between what he sees as "academic" and "intellectual." It is Dr. Rae's feeling that what goes on in the classrooms (as well as in individual projects undertaken by the students) is essentially intellectual.

Girls are new to Westminster, and are only accepted in the sixth form, that final two-or three-year period of preparation for acceptance at a university. Each applicant must pass an examination set by the Westminster staff, and each must spend a day at the school undergoing interviews. If music is the area in which one wishes to specialize, he must perform.

And what does Westminster do if it has made a mistake -- if the girl once accepted is having a very difficult time of it? "We'll see her through," Dr. Rae asserted. "After all, it was our mistake."

He explained that the girls generally come from schools that don't have the same opportunities -- particularly in the physical sciences and mathematics -- that Westminster can offer.

That assertion is heatedly denied by head-mistresses of girls' schools with strong sixth-form programs. They argue that Westminster is "poaching," and that the only girls Westminster will accept are those already attending fine and well-equipped schools.

But Westminster has proved popular, and some 70 of the 570 there are girls. And curiously, the girls do not wear a uniform, with slacks as acceptable as skirts and dresses.

This makes the inner courtyard where students gather in class dressed in suits like "little men," and the girls looking much more natural. Yet, at the 16-to-19 year age, the girls display a physical sophistication greater than that of the boys.

Dr. Rae assured me that the question of uniforms for the girls or no uniforms for the sixth-form boys is up for frequent debate. Most of the independent all-girls' schools, I was told, require uniforms for younger girls, but not in the sixth form, and that trend, it is suggested, is what governs the Westminster policy.

What, I asked Dr. Rae, is the heart of Westminster School? Is it the tradition and the history? "No," he said, "even though they play an important part. It is after all, the teachers. They are the heart."

And what about the main task of the headmaster of such a glorious and grand institution?

"He is faced with a grand piano. A very fine old instrument which it takes time to know and which needs only to be tuned."

Westminster played very well indeed the day I visited.

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