Artist who inspired a generation of teachers

16th April 2004 at 01:00
We had a message recently from Ken Pritchard, retired deputy director of education in West Sussex, reminding us that Robin Tanner, HMI, was born on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1904. He suggests that maybe we should mark this centenary.

Probably lots of readers won't have heard of Robin Tanner - but it is equally likely that they've been influenced, perhaps at second or third-hand, by his work.

He was a remarkable man - a teacher, lecturer, inspector and artist (his etchings, mostly of rural subjects, are exquisite) who believed, above all things, in the importance of creativity in education: "...activities to be explored rather than knowledge to be gained", is how Ken Pritchard puts it.

As a teacher at Ivy Lane school in Chippenham in the Thirties, Tanner inspired many children to produce remarkable artwork. Then, as an HMI, from the mid- Thirties up to his retirement in 1964, he was one of a group of of educational leaders (Christian Schiller was another, along with local advisers such as Edith Moorhouse in Oxfordshire).

He set down, both on his courses and in his school visits, a basic belief in the importance of art in primary schools that continues today, in the face of all the recent pressures. After retirement, up to his death in 1988, he continued to reinforce his values in a range of projects and courses.

For a long time, Tanner's "patch" was in Oxfordshire - where, in the Sixties, some remarkable strides were being made in primary practice.

Don Williams, then an Oxfordshire primary head, remembers his first encounter with Tanner.

"He appeared at my school and spent the whole day. He visited every single teacher, and they all felt positive about what he left them with - in fact he always left any school or teacher feeling a little better. I was a teaching head and we'd started some work on the locality. He stood in my classroom and looked out at our lovely view of the Thames and said, 'I'm glad you've realised that out there is the best textbook in the world'."

All who remember Tanner are at pains to emphasise that he was no wishy-washy, Sixties liberal. Ken Pritchard says: "He believed children should learn the disciplines of work - of materials, skills, techniques."

Don Williams adds: "The principles he stood for - that children are individuals, that they learn best from first-hand experience, and that the involvement of parents is vital - are still the ones that Ofsted recognises in successful schools."

The Robin Tanner collection of children's art is in Salisbury library.

Tanner's autobiography, Double Harness (Impact Books 1987) is out of print, but there are second-hand copies available.His etchings can be seen at the Ashmolean in Oxford and at Bristol Art Gallery.

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