How easy can it be to pursue your education at a place where your father is busy establishing a legend as an English teacher of close to genius, not to mention an inspirational director of plays and an enthusiast for all things pertaining to cricket? Not especially, is the answer, according to Matthew Batstone, son of John and recipient of occasional brickbats from those who were not fully paid-up members of the Batstone fan club.
“No, it wasn’t always plain sailing,” Matthew agrees a touch ruefully. “Dad was a great, inspirational teacher and a presence that you couldn’t ignore but he also liked bright students who applied themselves and were willing to engage intellectually with the subjects that he loved. He had absolutely no patience with anyone inclined to be lazy and there was occasionally a bit of grief from those who had fallen out with him. Oddly enough, Dad was also adamant that none of his three sons should ever follow him into teaching, at least partly because it was a notoriously badly paid profession, particularly back then.”
Bedales during the 1970s and 80s was enjoying one of its many peak periods of academic excellence. Matthew, delighted to escape the tyranny of sport, was a willing recipient of such high-powered intellectual stimulation. “I was tall and rather scrawny, entirely lacking in physical presence at that time, so sport was a late-developing interest of mine apart from the family curse of supporting Portsmouth Football Club,” he admits. “Dad’s cricketing genes completely missed me and instead, I was one of the kids who helped to build the Sotherington Barn. He did cast me in a minor role in Ayckbourn’s Confusions but that was on the basis of my reliability, rather than my talent.”
“A lot of my inspiration therefore came from things like Civics,” Matthew continues. “People such as Max Beloff, Peter Brooke and Erin Pizzey would come and talk to us at events which were always hugely well-attended and would deliver messages that still resonate with me. Academically and intellectually, the school was so strong while I was there – Jonathan Watson in Geography, Don Spivey in Chemistry and John Armstrong in Maths were among many teachers of my time who instinctively understood that the secret of good teaching is to get people to want to work for you and to develop their interests across the broadest possible spectrum.”
Just like a certain Bedales English teacher, of course. “English is basically in the Batstone genes and it was almost inevitable that it would be the subject that I pursued at university,” Matthew concedes. “It was a bit cowardly of me and I slightly regretted it for a while but there it was.” By the time that he had secured a place at Clare College, Cambridge, Matthew had already crowned his Bedales career by being appointed the school’s Head Boy. “One of Patrick Nobes’s last decisions as Headmaster, I suspect,” Matthew reflects. “I thought I was supposed to be something of an enforcer for the teachers but in reality, I felt that Bedales could have been a bit more radical in devolving responsibility to its pupils and in that regard, I reckon, looking back, that I could have done a lot more with the role.”
I’m incredibly grateful to have been at a school that espoused liberal values, that tolerated and encouraged mavericks and that has so informed everything that I’ve gone on to do with my life
By comparison with life at Bedales, Matthew was to find Cambridge a disappointing experience, certainly on the academic side. “My experience tended to be that the academics regarded teaching as an impediment to their research,” he observes. “I got on well with a couple of my supervisors but there were a number of tutors who didn’t seem especially concerned with the intellectual development of their charges.” Despite this, Matthew did not neglect his broader Cambridge education, helping to assemble a football team of variable standard and editing the university newspaper Stop Press, which won the Guardian/NUS award for the quality of its journalism under his stewardship.
A number of options confronted Matthew on leaving Cambridge: “A lot of my peers were going to become writers and journalists and one of my choices was to join The Economist. I also had an offer to do a postgraduate degree at Yale; the third possibility was to become an account director at J. Walter Thompson (JWT). Ten years later, when I was doing an MBA at INSEAD, I learned that you can apply creativity and originality to a spreadsheet just as readily as you can to a canvas or a clarinet. It was only then that I understood that my decision to join JWT in 1986 had been the right one.”
So began seven and a half years of life as what Matthew modestly describes as “Britain’s worst account manager.” He amplifies this rather bleak assessment: “I learned plenty but you needed a big personality, bigger than I possessed at the time, to mediate between the creative types and the clients. Getting stressed out by Walnut Whips isn’t always good for you!”
Matthew’s antidote to the experience was to set up his own product placement company, specialising in placing the products of his clients in British films. “I could see the opportunity there and in a somewhat Bedalian spirit, decided to roll the dice,” he reflects. “One of the great things about having your own business is that you can’t fire yourself! It went pretty well but it was quite a grind at times and I was happy enough to sell it after a couple of years.”
When Matthew joined Carlton Communications in 1997 to launch the company’s internet and interactive TV businesses after taking a year out to gain his MBA, he was once again at the cutting edge of something new and significant: “In effect, I’ve been working in this area since its inception in the UK and although I couldn’t write a line of code at the time, I could visualise its possibilities for the future. We won a BAFTA but the real opportunity came later. I’ve always felt that if you’re not constrained by convention, you can turn your hand to almost anything.”
Four years later, Matthew would be on the move again and proving the truth of his own words. “I do prefer the early stages of enterprises, rather than managing mature businesses, but The Economist is a unique institution and hard to turn down,” he suggests. “When I moved there as Group Marketing and Strategy Director, it was a squaring of the circle, in a way. Before I’d joined JWT, I’d gone for an interview with a chap called Gordon Lee at The Economist, who had taken to me to the extent that he offered me a job literally as I got out of the lift because he liked the way I introduced myself. When I chose JWT instead, I was so callow that I never thought to write to Gordon to thank him and decline his offer, which had always left me feeling somewhat guilty. He was pretty ill by the time I finally arrived at The Economist but at least I was finally able to apologise to him in person.”
Here was another place with a comfortingly Bedalian spirit for Matthew to enjoy. “Bedales and The Economist are very similar in their cultures of independence and challenging authority,” he agrees. “On Monday mornings, anyone, from the highest to the lowest, could advance an argument for what should appear in the following week’s paper. You’d be challenged on your thinking and no prisoners would be taken but if you could make your case, it would be accepted.”
With circulation at The Economist rising gratifyingly, Matthew was off to pastures new once more after seven years, this time as an investor in and COO of iAnnounce, the European leader in online personal classifieds, which the team sold to its US competitor after a few years of very rapid growth. However, arguably his greatest professional challenge still lay ahead. Matthew was introduced to the renowned philosopher A. C. Grayling by fellow Old Bedalian Peter Hall (see Peter’s profile on this site) and they got on extremely well. “Anthony, who became a Bedalian parent, is extremely charming and insightful. We had lunch and started talking about a variety of things, fuelled by his intelligence and a good bottle of Barolo! Anthony had an idea for a new, very different kind of university. Most especially, we discussed what constituted the right ethos for an educational establishment, what it was that universities should be seeking to achieve and why it was that so few of them in Britain, America or Australia appeared able to develop in their graduates the basic necessary criteria – cleverness, curiosity and the gumption – to succeed in a century that is likely to see greater, more rapid change than any other before it.”
Bedales has certainly influenced me more than any other institution
The conversation was to be turned into reality by the foundation of New College of the Humanities (NCH) in 2011. An independent, primarily undergraduate college in London, NCH initially offered tuition in Economics, English, History, Law, Philosophy and Politics and International Relations for undergraduate degrees with the University of London International Programme and now runs its own degree programmes, modelled on American liberal arts college courses. Undergraduate students are additionally required to work towards a Diploma by completing courses drawn from applied ethics, critical reasoning, science literacy and LAUNCH, NCH’s own professional development programme.
A.C. Grayling duly became the first Master of NCH. Matthew, meanwhile, as a co-founder of the college, decided to move from the business side and, resisting the advice of his father, took up a teaching role of his own, preparing students for the LAUNCH component of their diplomas. “It’s about getting students to develop the basic capabilities and mental attitudes that will help them to excel in almost any field,” Matthew explains. “I teach them to take a brief, form a hypothesis, test it and pitch it. In true Bedalian style everyone must make something; at NCH it is a website or app. The idea is to challenge students in an area that is not necessarily their comfort zone and to give them the confidence to develop or create stuff for themselves and thrive while doing so. It is the most gratifying thing I have done in my career.”
“I’m slightly appalled to find myself behaving in the same ways as my father,” Matthew adds with amusement. “There are times when I’ll look over my glasses at a student who has said something to me and muse sternly why I’ve been asked that particular question! Also, like Dad, I don’t deal very well with the occasional less motivated student. We have a wonderful programme here and a tremendous roll-call of academics to facilitate what we all firmly believe is the great cause of a liberal arts education. I want people who are committed to this cause.”
It is a cause that takes Matthew back to Bedales once again, a place that he sees as an integral part of the tradition in which NCH is so firmly rooted and one which he has continued to serve, initially as a Governor and latterly as a Trustee of the John Badley Foundation. “I’m incredibly grateful to have been at a school that espoused liberal values, that tolerated and encouraged mavericks and that has so informed everything that I’ve gone on to do with my life,” he says. “Bedales has certainly influenced me more than any other institution.”
Matthew believes that Bedales is now more important than ever. “2016 was an extraordinary year with Brexit and the election of Trump. In some ways it was like the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 in that it challenges a complacent liberal view of the inevitability of progress. It revealed that there are two views of the world: one comfortable with gay marriage, feminism, the digital economy, internationalism….the other wanting us to return to the 1950s. People on the progressive side cannot assume that our view will prevail. It is incumbent on us to use our money, our time and our intelligence to support liberal values. In this context Bedales is a small but important institution. And that is why I continue to support the school with a monthly gift and have made it a beneficiary in my will.”
Having enjoyed a life that has been full of challenges, Matthew is happy to look ahead to more of the same. “There’s one specific task that I would still like to achieve at NCH, which is to help this place to be accepted as of the same value to the creative industries as the London School of Economics is to the City. There is an obvious opportunity to accomplish that. After that, I would like the time to do a PhD in which I could make the instrumental case for the teaching of the humanities. I’ve always believed that if you show the right path to Government and other centres of power, they will follow it.”
“Finally, I want to get back to some writing of my own,” Matthew concludes. “One of Dad’s great qualities is his tremendous sense of humour, which is something I like to think that he has passed on to his sons. I’ve enjoyed writing the odd story for children but I would love to have the chance to do more and to inject into them some of the fun that I’ve had from life.”
Matthew Batstone was interviewed by James Fairweather in December 2016