20 November 2007

John Ashurst at opening of Ashurst Building

And Steve White was there too ...

Hampshire Chronicle News

19 November 2007


Ashurst Centre opened

Report by Kit Neilson

THE still-abundant hair is white and the figure a little stooped, but the eyes are as sharp as ever and the voice, honed by robust northern vowels, remains crisp and authoritative.

John Ashurst, rising 85, was making a rare return to Winchester for the commissioning of the new Ashurst Learning Resource Centre at Peter Symonds College, where he made such an indelible mark a generation ago during its twilight years as a grammar school. He was only at the helm for eight years, but his contribution was every bit as significant as those of his longer-serving predecessors, Telford Varley and "Doc" Freeman.

He blew in, like a force of nature, at the start of the 1963 summer term, galvanising a school that had perhaps grown a little too comfortable under the urbane stewardship of John Shields. Dissident elements were identified and neutralised. Uniform was prescribed, long hair proscribed.

And it was not just the boys, your correspondent included, who sat up: the new man also concentrated the minds of the staff and those he considered not up to the task did not last long.

The "Swinging Sixties" notwithstanding, he turned Peter Symonds into an academic hothouse. Exam grades soared and university entrance went off the graph, reigniting the process of educational excellence that has continued to the present day.

But he was a dinosaur - and proud of it. Co-education and sixth-form colleges were not for him and in 1971, job done, he moved to the less egalitarian environs of East Riding to head the independent Hymer's College, Hull, where he saw out his career before retiring to nearby Beverley.

The college's current principal, Neil Hopkins, paying his own tribute, said John Ashurst represented "a whole section" of the proud history of Peter Symonds and so it was especially fitting that the new wing should bear his name.

"In fact, there is a wonderful tradition here, which I warmly commend, of naming buildings after heads, There've only been six since the school proper opened in 1897, so it's been possible to keep up fairly well. And the governors seem to realise they have to keep us a long time. They can't afford enough buildings to be able to sack us too often!"

*This latest building combines the concept of independent learning with a range of resources that support and reflect the curriculum. As well as being a library with 16,000 books (including Harry Potter - in Spanish), 900 DVDs, journals and newspapers, it offers internet and online resources.

Students have access to 200 computers linked to the college network in three IT classrooms and two suites. There are also two seminar rooms and a silent study room, as well as individual study areas, staffroom, staff work areas and an audio-visual room. A team of 10 qualified and specialist staff provide a university-style service and students are encouraged to utilise the resources to their maximum capabilities. The ground floor houses seven teaching rooms, a staffroom and a careers library, with professional advisers and library assistants.

Mr Hopkins revealed that the new centre had cost 짙4.2m and been funded from various sources, including a 10 per cent grant from the Learning and Skills Council and 짙300,000 from the Mercers' Guild. "Peter Symonds was a member of this company in the 16th century, so we are especially grateful. Without the Mercers' help, our campus would be far less attractive than it is."

Another funding factor, he added, had been prepayment of boarding fees by the Falklands Islands Government. "In fact, we must be the only college in the land whose building project was to some extent dependent on the squid harvest in the South Atlantic."

He said the scheme had been delivered on time and within budget. "And even more importantly, we actually like it."

Guests, among them former maths master, Steve White, 90 next birthday, were given guided tours before the building was officially opened by the Master Mercer, Frederick Hohler, who said the success of Peter Symonds down the years had been due to key individuals, among them John Ashurst, whose leadership and drive had been crucial. "Now Neil has built on those foundations to produce this outstanding college. To send 47 students to Oxbridge last year was a remarkable achievement, both for Winchester and nationally."

Fittingly, the last word went to Mr Ashurst, who said he was "spellbound" by the building and the great honour of lending his name to it. He added: "When I left, there wasn't a computer to be seen. And I was particularly struck by the recreation area, where students can chat, read magazines and relax. They didn't relax in my day."

12:59pm Monday 19th November 2007


  1. A fine man, John Ashurst. He was head during my time at school, and I realize in retrospect that on more than one occasion I was party to his impressing his seniority over certain members of staff who believed that they held ultimate power. It must take a huge strength of character to take charge in a school so steeped in tradition and impress one's own values... perhaps not always supported 100% by an "old guard" but JA was up to the task and did a sterling job.
    Long may he continue to enjoy a well earned retirement.

  2. I attended the opening myself and it was good to see JA looking so well and sounding just like he always did. He is as unreconstructed as he was in the 60s! He still has that walk of his, with hands in jacket pockets, looking slightly downwards from side to side (probably for people with shoes that need cleaning!).   His remark, reported in the Chronicle, that 'nobody relaxed in my day' was delivered with all the timing of a top comedian, except of course that it wasn't a joke, it was true!   Ex-staff (and one member of current staff) also present at the opening were:-   Chalky White          Tweedy Harris Rev R C Clarkson Austin Short, who joined in ’69, and is still teaching at PS Peter May  Roy Wyeth, the lab technician, who only retired in July 2007, having come to PS in 1967  Brian Fletcher, aka Penguin, who retired from PS in 1999 Elaine Rouse, who was JA's secretary Liz Cooksey   All in all, a bit of a surreal experience, seeing so many people you remember from donkey's years ago together in one place.   Mike Hedges (1964 - 1971)

  3. Hello Mike, remember me? Did you or anyone take any pictures of Mr Ashurst or the other teachers on that day? I'd love to see them if you did. Thanks for the report!

  4. Hi Bernie, hope you're keeping well.   No, I didn't take any pictures, but there was an official PS photographer there and I should think there will be pictures on the college website in due course.   Everybody was still recognisable, although of course a bit saggy in the face and white/grey haired in some cases!   Chalky White doesn't look 90, he's in very good shape.   Mike

  5. Just read this article and the messages following it.   Logistically impossible, but I would have given almost anything to be there and see the people listed in Mike Hedges' message. It was wonderful just to read the list of names and to learn that they are still with us. I've had a few moments reflecting on the impact which, between them, they had on my life.   On my first day at PS, during a latin class with JA, I sat at the front row and, whilst he was pacing up and down the aisles, I combed my hair. I did not regard it as a wrongdoing. JA put me right with an assault from behind that left me looking like Tufty the Squirrel suffering an electric shock! To this day, I have never felt it proper to comb my hair in public. It is a testament to the man that I remember the incident with affection. As an adult, I realise that his task was to instill the disciplines and attitudes that would enable us to go out into the world and flourish where others less well prepared failed. I am delighted to hear that his name will live on.   Best wishes to all site members.

  6. Chalky White          Tweedy Harris Rev R C Clarkson Austin Short, who joined in ’69, and is still teaching at PS Peter May  Roy Wyeth, the lab technician, who only retired in July 2007, having come to PS in 1967  Brian Fletcher, aka Penguin, who retired from PS in 1999 Elaine Rouse, who was JA's secretary Liz Cooksey       WOW !!!!!      


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