Celebrating its 50th birthday in 2023, MPW began as bright idea from a gifted tutor. It has grown in line with its reputation for providing first-class teaching and support, extensive subject choices and results that set students on the pathway to success

MPW (Mander Portman Woodward) has carved a distinctive place in education and, in its 50th year in 2023, attracted testimonials and recollections from many former students (and staff) whose lives were changed by the education and enthusiasm for learning they experienced here.

It started out very small indeed. In The Independent’s 2008 obituary for Robert Woodward, written by the newspaper’s co-founder, journalist Matthew Symonds, Woodward was described as unusually gifted. “Educational entrepreneurs are a rare breed; rarer still are those capable of inspiring, exciting teaching while building and running a successful business. Robert Woodward… achieved all those things,” said Symonds.

Roots: MPW's enlightened approach to education
MPW’s London base attracts a mix of students from across the UK and further afield – there are two other successful branches in Cambridge and Birmingham

Woodward had studied at Cambridge in the hippie heyday years and, after an agreeable period drifting in Paris, returned home in 1970 and drifted into working for a Knightsbridge ‘crammer’. Teaching various disenchanted and ‘dropout’ students from his small house in Lambeth, he discovered his calling. “There they would be taught English literature and history as if they were brilliant undergraduates and Woodward a witty, engaging but ferociously demanding don,” recalled Symonds fondly, for he was one of Woodward’s Lambeth students.

“With a university-style tutor system, treating students as ‘grown ups’, MPW appealed to young people who were disillusioned with the traditional sixth form”

Three years on, Woodward came up with the idea of starting his own college – he wanted to work for himself – and got together with two Cambridge contemporaries, Rodney Portman and Nicholas Mander. While Portman became intrinsic to the mix, Mander was an absent partner and subject of various apocryphal stories. One account describes him turning up for one day and deciding then and there tutoring wasn’t for him. Another says he couldn’t even find the premises on his first day so drove straight back to Gloucestershire to spend the rest of his days immersed in reading his hero Thomas Browne.

Roots: MPW's enlightened approach to education
From the start, MPW had a fresh approach to education – a university-style tutorial system, and personalised support to help them achieve their goals

MPW initially operated from premises in Hollywood Road, Chelsea – next door to a pub of the same name where tutors and students would sometimes retire for intellectual debates. Unfortunately, this happy arrangement was curtailed when the council turned up at the college premises to talk about the absence of planning permission for running an educational establishment.

Fortunately, such was the trajectory of the venture by this stage that the college was able to relocate swiftly to a former school premises (already with requisite planning) in Wetherby Place, South Kensington. A new maths and science block came on stream in nearby Elvaston Place by 1976. This coincided with the arrival of new MPW partner Joe Ruston, brought in to build up the STEM teaching side.

It wasn’t just the quality of teaching at MPW that proved so attractive, but the whole ethos. With a university-style tutor system, small group teaching and an attitude of treating all students as ‘grown ups’, MPW appealed to young people who were disillusioned with the traditional sixth form route of those days. It was also popular with people changing academic direction, retaking exams, seeking greater academic stretch or simply broader A-level options.

M P W London
Academic stretch is there, and with a vast choice of A level options

MPW had a forward-thinking ethos in other regards – it quickly offered a bursary scheme with reduced or no-fee opportunities for able students. They rubbed along happily with academic high-fliers and exam retakers, royalty, the offspring of rock stars and actors and international students navigating their way into UK higher education. While MPW has never been an international school, it has a long tradition of welcoming students from across the globe and helping them on their way.

Richard Martin was among the many gifted tutors recruited from Cambridge who became integral to the culture of MPW London. His entertaining memoirs, now housed on its website in honour of its 50th year, include anecdotes about teaching the sons and daughters of his music heroes – Beatles, Rolling Stones and more.

Martin met one of his all-time favourites, Mick Jagger, when his daughter Jade was considering MPW London. She ended up in Cambridge – he recalls her father concluding it presented fewer temptations than the capital. He did teach Keith Richards’ son Marlon – who thoughtfully gifted him a tour-crew-only ‘Steel Wheels’ suede jacket. A snug fit, he admits, but worn with pride, including at Hard Rock Café. There, he was able to impress his future wife with a special pass that enabled the bearer to jump the long queues – that pass was also gifted by Marlon on semi-permanent loan.

Roots: MPW's enlightened approach to education
Students achieve exceptional results in art pathways – and the London location in South Kensington is perfect for broadening cultural horizons

An MPW branch opened in Birmingham in 1980 (this has greatly expanded down the years) while the sister branch in Cambridge opened in 1987. By this stage, MPW London inhabited three sites in South Kensington, and it was around this time that the partners decided to step back and let the college continue into the next phase.

The name, and reputation for ensuring university outcomes, led to a collaboration in the 1990s with publishers Trotman for MPW Guides, providing essential guidance on both courses and UCAS navigation – and still successful today. By this stage, MPW was also running intensive Easter revision courses for both GCSE and A level.

“A longstanding track record of getting students into top-rated Art & Design courses has led to the UAL Diploma, an MPW art foundation course”

In 2000, MPW London moved to Queen’s Gate, South Kensington – handily close to ‘Museum Mile’ – where it has remained at Numbers 90-92 ever since. Over the years, MPW’s academic options have grown alongside students’ interests and aspirations. For instance, a longstanding track record of getting students into top-rated Art & Design courses across London and the globe has led to the UAL Diploma, an MPW art foundation course in association with University of the Arts London.

Student demand has also led to the opening up of the college to the 14+ age group, and now with a superb new site for UK and international boarders. It’s just down the road from the college, at Queen’s Gate House, (formerly Baden-Powell House) and the swish SW7 accommodation is in a cleverly repurposed and light-filled building that also houses stunning studios for Art & Design students.  

M P W London Boarding
MPW London has a swish new boarding house, located just down the road from the college, to widen access to the 14+ cohort

MPW London has kept pace with its students’ ambitions over five decades, remaining constant in its goal of delivering top-flight teaching and preparation for university. MPW students always feature highly in the CIFE Awards, presented to high achievers annually at the House of Lords. There’s a recurring theme in testimonials gathered to mark its milestone birthday – that of inspiring teachers, an eye-opening approach to education and a life-changing opportunity to fulfil potential.

MPW mpw.ac.uk

Further reading: Queen’s Gate School’s passion for progress