Skip to main content

Mesmeric champion of pupils' learning;People;Profile;Martin Lightfoot;Obituary

MARTIN Lightfoot, who has died of cancer aged 57, was a tall, gangling, handsome man, writes Christopher Price. Intellectual and behavioural precocity made his schooling hazardous.

He proved rather too much for a progressive establishment, St Christopher's in Letchworth, but blossomed at the more orthodox grammar, The Tiffin, in Kingston upon Thames. This propelled him towards English literature at Downing College, Cambridge, where he became one of FR Leavis's last pupils - an experience which informed much of his later life.

His impact on the English educational environment of the 1960s and 1970s was profound. Penguin, where he later became director of Penguin Education, enabled him to redefine the English textbook. Voices, his poetic collaboration with Geoffrey Summerfield, was a wholly new curricular experience for many teenagers in the early 1970s; while his willingness to publish American "deschooling" texts by John Holt, Everett Reimer, Ivan Illich and Paolo Freire kept alive a radical educational agenda which will surely reappear one day.

When the accountants closed Penguin Education in 1974, he took his talents to educational administration at the Inner London Education Authority, where he consistently championed children's appetite for learning over bureaucratic tidiness and municipal self-importance.

He brought the same empathy for children's delight in learning to the Schools Council Industry Project and the Commons select committee on education, where he was an adviser and drafter of meticulous documents. (The 1982 report on the Secondary School Curriculum and Examinations, some of the best bits of which he wrote, helped persuade Sir Keith Joseph to merge O-levels and CSEs.) In the 1980s he presciently turned to racism and the police, leading a Home Office-sponsored project at Brunel University.

His career prospects were never enhanced by his persistent refusal to suffer fools in high places gladly.

All his enthusiasms - jazz, poetry (TS Eliot and WB Yeats), computers - bubbled with a restless intellectual energy. (He was a word-processing wizard in the 1970s, when most offices were stuck with manual typewriters.) His languid manner, acerbic wit and intellectual certainties could mesmerise circles of admirers; and to many individuals, his own personal integrity made it possible for them to trust their own instinctive beliefs above the prevailing orthodoxies of the day.

Christopher Price is editor of The Stakeholder and a former vice-chancellor and MP

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you