A vice-principal who like to 'see things work'


In 1984, when Margaret Rayner was vice-principal of St Hilda's College, Oxford, she was interviewed for a 'Portrait' in The Oxford Times. It appeared as 'Ian Smith, A vice-principal who like to 'see things work': Portrait Margaret Rayner, The Oxford Times (13 July 1984)'. We give a version of the article below.


Dr Margaret Rayner, Vice-Principal of St Hilda's College, loves to 'see things work'. It explains why she is an applied mathematician. But it also offers a clue to her prominent role in administration - both in the University itself and within wider horizons.

A member of Hebdomadal Council and a former chief examiner for the International Baccalaureate, and closely involved with the mathematics syllabus in secondary schools, she has extended her influence in education with her recent appointment as chairman of the Governors of Oxford Polytechnic - a post which she sees not only as part of her commitment to the support of tertiary education, but also cementing a vital link between the University and the Poly.

A farmer's daughter for whom farming was never a career option, Margaret Rayner's early ambitions were directed towards teaching and science. She was encouraged in the first by her aunt, a primary school headmistress, but strongly discouraged from attempting to break through the prejudice which tended then ("I think it still lingers, don't you?" to close laboratory doors to women.

So she would have liked to have been a physicist, but opted instead for a mathematics course. But as that has taken her into the field of applied mathematics, she feels she came pretty close to that first, abandoned priority.

Brought up in Stratford-upon-Avon, she was a pupil at Warwick High School during the 1939-45 War. Though so close to the havoc wreaked by German planes on the Midlands, she confesses to having taken the bombs somewhat for granted - recalling one day when the family packed its bags for a day's outing to view the ravages of the blitz on Birmingham.

She left school to become a student at the all-girl Westfield College in London. She had never been to the capital before, but soon immersed herself in an experience which she recalls as "simply marvellous - a very exciting time to be in London."

Already imbued with a love of the theatre in Stratford, Dr Rayner made full use of the rich theatre entertainment available in London, growing up with the developing talents of Olivier and Redgrave (one of the first plays she saw in London was Michael Redgrave on "She stoops to Conquer") and visiting every one of the city's theatres.

A seamier side of London life also contributed to her experience - when she joined a group of volunteers from Westfield to help out at a Church Army Hostel for girls in the East End. "Basically, we went there to teach them how to cook: they taught me how to play table tennis and a good deal else besides.

"The girls all used to dress the same - I don't know why - in tight black suits, with fringed jackets. They called then their "dripes." Most of them came from homes in the most appalling conditions, with one family to a room.

"I remember the first time we went up to the hostel, one or two of us missed our group and were a bit frightened when we got lost. We went into a police station. But I believe London was not as frightening then as it is now, and it was certainly a good deal cleaner."

She sang with the London University Musical Society ("I play the piano, but not in public") and remembers the day that Ralph Vaughan Williams arrived to conduct the choir in one of his own compositions. "He was very amusing and warm-hearted, and seemed to be pleased with what we were doing."

With the help of her East End friends she became quite skilful at table tennis, and also played some lawn tennis. But on the whole she tended to avoid team games, afraid of the prospect of "letting other people down."

She took her degree at Westfield in 1950, stayed on to do her M.Sc., and then stayed on as an assistant lecturer for another year.

The chance to come to Oxford as a lecturer at St Hilda's came as a result of a tip-off from the new principal of Westfield, who had previously been vice-principal of St Hilda's. As a newcomer to Oxford (a one-day bus trip from Stratford-upon-Avon was her only previous experience) one of her first reactions was to the quickened pace of the University, with its short eight week terms.

"Term it seemed, was a term in Oxford - even on a Saturday, and there was often no weekend left at all."

She soon became involved in Oxford University's social life through the graduates' club at Halifax House, and she helped organise trips to dances and to the theatre. "I like administration, because I like to see things happen, things work: things that people can enjoy."

It was, she admits, a rather different kind of Oxford in those days. With the expansion of the colleges, and mixing of the sexes, colleges tend to have lost some of their traditional characteristics, she feels. One happy aspect that she notices is that modern students all appear to be interested in music, most of them coming up with the ability to play at least one instrument.

Dr Rayner joined the curators of the University Theatre in 1974, which was to be the beginning of a close association with the Playhouse. She is now vice-chairman, and took an active part in the recent successful £250,000 appeal. Her only personal experience of the stage has been in the chorus of an amateur production of The Mikado t Abingdon "and I found myself discovering just how a theatre actually worked."

She says: "I believe the Playhouse is of crucial importance to the students, in the sense that it is a university theatre where young directors and performers can gain experience and try their hand. it would be a tremendous loss, as it is also the only place where young people can see a classical repertoire of plays."

It saddens her that there is not greater support from the townspeople: "I would love to see the city come in greater numbers - larger audiences would, apart from anything else, help our finances. It is a continual worry to know how to get more people into the theatre. But there is evidence of an upturn, and numbers are up at the Playhouse this year."

Dr Rayner's spell as vice-chairman of the university's Accommodation Committee for four years brought her into close contact with junior members, graduates and undergraduates from other colleges, and with the problems of student accommodation costs in Oxford.

"The trouble is that students are in competition with "ordinary" people in Oxford, and now the city council is restricting the use of some family houses for student lodgings."

As she contemplates the current rents of £2025 per week for minimal one-room accommodation, she recalls her own early days in Oxford, when lodgings were always licensed, presided over by a landlady, who would not allow visitors after dinner. "But in those days, of course, students were the only customers."

Ten years ago, Miss Rayner was invited to become chief mathematics examiner in the International Baccalaureate syllabus - an 18-plus school-leaving examination recognised by all universities of the world except the Eastern bloc, and supported by a network of united World Colleges.

"It was a very exciting task, drawing up syllabuses which would be acceptable to universities all over the world. I always had thought mathematics was an international subject, but understanding even of a subject like that can be different in different countries (the French, for instance, are more concerned with underlying logic, as opposed to the English emphasis on applications of principles).

"It made examining very difficult. I had English, French and German speaking examiners at meetings here at St Hilda's, and I learned a lot about mathematics. It made one think very hard."

In her capacity as Chief Examiner, Dr Rayner was invited to Vancouver Island, Singapore and Jakarta, as well as the original International School in Wales and to the headquarters of the Baccalaureate in Geneva.

Today she is still closely associated, though not an examiner of the Baccalaureate. But she is now on the Secondary Examination Council, and concerned particularly with curriculum development. "Our job," she explains, "is not to initiate any classroom revolutions, but to act as an advisory body to the Secretary of State Education."

She has warmly welcomed Sir Keith Joseph's decision on restructuring 16-plus examinations: she has long been concerned over the pressures on both children and teachers of the overlap between GCE "O" level and GSE.

Now, Dr Rayner faces her latest responsibility within the wider context of education: that of chairman of the Polytechnic Governors. She is conscious of the overlap between University and Poly, and welcomes the continuing contact, although she regrets that so much time is taken up by financial implications.

Dr Rayner, as is evident, does not believe in introspection: "I don't think anyone should stay in his or her own college, and not see what is going on in the rest of Oxford and the world."

Last Updated April 2020