David Emms, who has died aged 90, was a well-liked, reforming headmaster successively of Cranleigh, Sherborne and Dulwich.Taking the reins at Cranleigh at the age of 35, he joined a distinguished group of public school heads who were appointed in their early or mid-thirties – among them Arnold of Rugby, Edward Thring of Uppingham and JF Roxburgh of Stowe. At Dulwich one of his pupils was Nigel Farage. Emms had found the Ukip leader “bloody-minded and difficult” at school, but when Farage visited the school 25 years later Emms admitted that he had voted for him in the 2009 European elections.
The son of Archibald, who worked for the Midland Bank, and Winifred Emms (née Richards), David Acfield Emms was born at Lowestoft on February 16 1925. He attended Tonbridge with a scholarship, becoming captain of cricket and head boy. After wartime service as a captain in the Royal Indian Airborne Artillery, in 1947 he won an exhibition to read Modern Languages at Brasenose College, Oxford. He gained a Blue in rugby and was later to play the game for Northampton, the Eastern Counties and the Barbarians. Having taken a Diploma in Education, in 1951 Emms became an assistant master at Uppingham, where he was rapidly promoted to head of modern languages. From the start, imposing discipline came easily to him. Early in his time at Uppingham, his French class tried to test his mettle by placing, before his arrival, three drawing pins on the teacher’s chair. Emms duly took his seat, but to the boys’ disappointment he then stood up and walked around the class, having taken the pins on board with no sign of discomfort. In fact he was completely unaware of his punctured trouserings, because they had been made in the densest tweed by his Army tailor in India. In 1960 he was appointed headmaster of Cranleigh School, a daunting brief because it was a troubled institution. Emms pushed up academic standards while laying the groundwork for co-education (the first girls would be admitted in the early 1970s). Under his watch, there was greater involvement of parents in the school’s life, a radical innovation at the time. He also relaxed the old order: mid-week chapel was no longer compulsory, nor was membership of the CCF; fagging and corporal punishment were abolished. Not everyone welcomed these developments. Some of the old guard on the staff even disapproved of Emms’s encouragement of a production of West Side Story. Emms left Cranleigh in 1970 a school transformed: kinder, gentler, but ambitious too. The school showed its gratitude some 40 years later by naming its new £10 million mathematics block the Emms Centre. Emms reflected, with amusement, that the subject was one of his weakest. He took up his appointment at Sherborne in 1970, once again with a brief for reform. The combination of an unsupportive governing body and an obstinate common room made this task, at that time, impossible. After four frustrating years, he bowed out. In 1975 Emms went to Dulwich College as Master at a critical moment: for the school to survive, it would have to attract more parents. Success or failure was dependent on the Master. An urban, predominantly day school with some 1,400 boys, Dulwich had enjoyed a period of academic excellence stimulated by the “Dulwich experiment”, whereby local authorities paid the fees of many of the boys, but this scheme ended in 1975. Parents, however, had mostly been kept at arms’ length; Emms, a natural communicator, welcomed them. The arts flourished at Dulwich and, properly for a school founded by Edward Alleyn, Emms oversaw the building of a new theatre, and many fine productions. He left Dulwich in 1986 and that year, aged 61, he became the director of the London Goodenough Trust, a home for international postgraduates in Bloomsbury. He was a governor of many schools, deputy chairman of the English Speaking Union, chairman of the Brasenose Society, and head of his local RNLI in Sussex. Emms was elected chairman of the Headmasters’ Conference in 1984. In 1987 he was Master of the Skinners’ Company, and was appointed OBE in 1995.
Emms listed his recreations as travel and “radical gardening”. A committed Francophile, he took the family on annual camping trips to the south of France.
He married Pamela Baker Speed in 1950; they spent 26 years of their long and happy union in headmasters’ houses. She survives him, with their two sons and a daughter; another son, Christopher, died in 2008.
David Emms, born February 16 1925, died December 21 2015