Drummond Leslie (Class of 1963)

Drummond was at CLS from 1958 to 1963, before achieving first and higher degrees in Russian at the University of London. After becoming the first-ever sabbatical President of the University of London Students’ Union, Drummond went on to a varied career in the governance and management of UK Universities. For 27 years, he worked in a succession of roles for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP). Drummond has also served in a wide range of honorary roles in higher education and dance, including 15 years as a Governor of Sadler’s Wells Foundation.

How did you come to be a pupil at CLS?

My father and grandfather had both been at CLS. I had a chance of going to Westminster but I preferred CLS and I came here when I was 14.

I was born during the War. My father was in the Army and had to start again when he was demobbed. Life was difficult. He worked for the Cunard Steam Ship company; the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and other transatlantic liners. They had a very grand office in Lower Regent Street and eventually, he was in charge of it.

He worked Saturday mornings. Everybody did. My mother, sister and I would turn up at the office at lunchtimes on Saturdays and he would take us off to lunch.

How did being a War baby shape your life?

Well, I have photographs of my mother carrying me out of an air raid shelter, when I was a few months old. We lived in Ham, near Richmond. One morning my mother got up at six in the morning for a drink of water and went down into the kitchen and at that point an incendiary bomb came through the roof and landed on her bed. That decided her that I had to be evacuated to Grandma in Yorkshire. So I lived up there for a bit.

What are your early memories of CLS?

When I joined the school in 1958, they had taken in boys from the Mercers School, which had just closed. So there were a lot more new boys around the school than usual, which may have made it extra friendly.

Which subjects did you enjoy at CLS?

Languages were my strong point. I won the ‘O’-Level Latin and French prizes. I failed Physics with Chemistry ‘O’-Level. I nearly blew the lab up in the Chemistry practical: I mixed up the wrong stuff and the bunsen went boom!

For ‘A’-Levels, I chose French, English and Russian. CLS was one of the first schools in the UK to teach Russian. Yuri Gagarin had just become the first man in space and it was the ‘in’ thing. John Davidson, the master, wrote books on teaching Russian and was wonderful. It was a bit of a shock – learning a new alphabet with 33 letters, many of which looked back to front. It was more complicated than French or Spanish or anything like that but knowing Latin was a great help.

We also had a Russian conversation teacher – the only woman at the school at that time. She was called Mrs Lyuba Volosyevich and she had a programme on BBC Radio. She was a real character. At first, we thought she might be a soft touch but she really wasn’t. She was quite no-nonsense.

I have no opportunity to speak Russian now, but I was able to use it when I initially worked for the CVCP in the context of an academic exchange scheme with the then-Soviet Union.

Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?

In the sixth form I had a crucial part to play in the school plays – but not on stage. Nobby Clark was the English master. He was very funny, erudite and clever. He pounced on me when he organised the school play: he thought I was reliable and he made me the prompter which was quite a responsible job. When there’s a pause, you have to decide whether to jump in and prompt the cast members, at just the right volume. I had to do that five nights in a row.

I remember we did a double bill of Antigone and A Resounding Tinkle [1957 play by N.F.Simpson] – have you heard of that?! It was so funny, even I couldn’t stop laughing when I was meant to be prompting them!

I was in the CCF, which was compulsory. I was issued with the army uniforms two days after I arrived at school. On Mondays and Thursdays, after lessons finished at four, we’d have parades in the playground. We had to travel to school in our uniforms. We had to pass an army proficiency certificate within a year. We had field days twice a year, at Hampstead Heath and Hackney Marshes. We did War Games and whatever. It was hard. I wasn’t very physically strong. You had to know how to use a rifle. That was fun. I did actually manage to hit the target on occasion.

Sports-wise, I had very bad eyesight so ball games were out. So I did swimming – not very well, but I improved at university and I still swim seriously every week.

What was your first experience of work?

Helping out at a prep school as a temporary English grammar teacher, when I was 19. I only did that for a term.

At what point did you decide to pursue the career you did?

After just a term at university I was asked if I would stand for President of my constituent College Students’ Union. That was quite weird. But I won the election. I’ve no idea why. I then progressed to be the first student to have a sabbatical year as President of the Students’ Union for the University of London as a whole.

In that year, I got to see how the University worked and I dealt with the Vice-Chancellor and other senior management… it was a whole world that would be quite hidden to the other students. And I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind helping to sort this out.’

So, after my MA, I applied for jobs in university administration and got a job on the national body of Vice-Chancellors. I stayed in that organisation for 27 years, doing six different jobs before going on to other jobs in higher education.

What were your proudest achievements in that time?

For five years I dealt with international matters, going to meet with the EEC, to talk about higher education and help frame directives on professional qualifications and so forth. There were disagreements. The other European countries had different concepts of education to us. Their ideas were very quantitative: they said if you did 5000 hours study, then they qualified as a doctor or vet – we didn’t think like that. We thought you had to pass an exam to show you were competent.

At the time of the student protests of the late 1960s, I was working for the UK universities and I had to sit down and negotiate with the national student representatives. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was part of my job to support the vice-chancellors in meetings with a succession of Secretaries of State for Education including [ministers from Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative governments]. Kenneth Baker, Kenneth Clarke, John Patten and Gillian Shepherd,

At other times, I was closely involved with the negotiations on university academic salaries on a national basis. We had to talk to the unions, then talk to the funding councils acting for government, which eventually had to foot the bill.

When I was on the governing body of Birkbeck, University of London, I would give the closing speech to students at their graduation ceremonies. I did that for a few years. Sometimes twice a day. Roughly the same speech every time, with a few topical things added in. A few jokes. I have videos but I’ve never dared watch them.

You have a Russian degree and have been around education for your whole life: why do you think we are so poor at learning languages as a nation?

When I was younger, if you went to France, you had to speak French. But English has become even more the world language in my lifetime. It makes us lazy as a culture, because we don’t have to do it. The Scandinavian countries all have English as their second language. So when they go to Spain or Germany they have to speak English, because no-one would speak Swedish or Norwegian.

It’s a great shame. We don’t have the confidence; we feel embarrassed. But for most other countries, it’s a necessity to learn international languages. I mean, think of the internet and technology – people need to know a lot of English.

Tell us about your extra-curricular work in higher education.

Over time I have served on the governing bodies of five Colleges of the University of London as well as the governing body of the University itself, in addition to the national university organisation for my day job. I think that extra, voluntary work was what I received the MBE for.

How did you get involved with Sadler’s Wells?

I was always interested in dance. My mother taught dance and elocution before the War; before she had me and my sister.

There had been a connection between the Sadler’s Wells Foundation and the University of London since the 1930s; the University nominated one of the governors of the Foundation. So, I did that for 15 years. It was so enjoyable, so different from my day job. From 2001 I was a Trustee of the Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund for 15 years too.

I love ballet. I still go at least once a month. People think it is just Swan Lake but nowadays there’s such a range of stuff beyond the well-known classical repertoire now – and there are so many dance companies in London.

Because I was a trustee, I get invited to the private rehearsals. That’s a privilege, so I think I should pay and go to the actual performance too, so I am sat at my computer when the tickets go on sale, like everyone else!

You came back to CLS for the recent Pride event. Did that make you reflect on how school and the world in general has changed since you were here as boy?

When I was at CLS I knew I was different. I never let on, but I do recall one particular boy being teased about certain “tendencies”. Even at university it was difficult, and it wasn’t until I graduated with my BA in 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalised. I reached 35 in 1979 before I decided to be myself openly.

Returning to the school on 24 June last year for the Pride event was so refreshing. Just meeting other alumni and talking with the Headmaster, School Staff, Head Boy and other senior pupils and listening to the various speeches addressing LGBTQ issues was very emotional and uplifting.

It’s wonderful that the law and attitudes have changed since I was at school. I’m really proud that CLS is able to bolster the vital role that education has to play in showing that all people are different and should be treated with equal respect whatever their diversity.

The 2020 CLS Flag Raising event for London Pride will take place on Tuesday 24 June. Please book your place here.