A pioneer who loved a good story

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Sir Wilfred (Bill) Cockcroft, author of the landmark report 'Mathematics Counts', died on September 27, 1999 aged 76. John Marshall recalls his achievements.

Bill Cockcroft's name became a byword when his report, Mathematics Counts, was published in 1982. His deep interest in children learning mathematics had made him the obvious choice as chairman of the government's enquiry into maths teaching.

Professor of pure maths at the University of Hull from 1961, he became vice-chancellor of the New University of Ulster in 1976 and chairman and chief executive of the Secondary Examinations Council in 1983, where he pioneered the introduction of the GCSE examinations. He was knighted in 1983.

Bill Cockcroft's outgoing personality coupled with his passionate interest in people made him an ideal storyteller, especially when that story was his first love - mathematics. Some who had listened to his storytelling over the years would say that the Cockcroft Report had been written long before 1982.

It gave him great pleasure to know that his report was an influence on the future of maths teaching at home and abroad, and that it laid the foundation of many subsequent guidelines. At times, though, he did wonder if some "have read Cockcroft as I intended". He was perennially anxious that all children shuld have a better deal.

A passage from Your Child and Mathematics, written in 1968 when he was chairman of the Nuffield Mathematics Teaching Project, shows his vision:

"Whether we like it or not, our children will be concerned in the future with more 'abstract' mathematics than were their predecessors. The world of computers and computer programs, of all the automatic production line processes, or of operational research by managements, is a far cry from the world of the 19th-century clerk, mill-hand, or small industrialist. Our most important task must be to teach children to think mathematically for themselves.

"From a gradual awareness of the patterns of ideas lying behind children's practical experiences, there must be built-up a willingness to accept the underlying mathematical ways of thinking which are proving so vital in the development of modern technological society."

His family and many friends will miss him deeply. Those who worked, and wrote, with him will find it difficult not to be able to call for the advice and help always so willingly and enthusiastically given. Thankfully, he left a lot to read and even more to remember.

He is survived by his second wife, Vivien, and by Tim and Barnaby, his two sons from his first marriage to Rhona, who died in 1982.

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