The bewhiskered head with the Victorian values

7th September 2012 at 01:00
Controversial former schools minister Sir Rhodes Boyson dies aged 87

Sir Rhodes Boyson, the cane-wielding headteacher and Conservative MP, was renowned as much for his controversial views on corporal punishment, comprehensive schools and gay rights as he was for his no-nonsense approach, sideburns and broad Lancashire accent.

The former politician, who has died aged 87, with his mutton-chop whiskers and Victorian values, was a character who could have stepped straight from the pages of a Dickens novel. Even his fellow MPs gave him the nickname Wackford Squeers after the brutal schoolmaster in Nicholas Nickleby.

Born in Rossendale in 1925, Sir Rhodes was originally brought up as an old-fashioned socialist and represented Labour as a local councillor. But he turned his back on the Left after becoming disillusioned with socialism and its championing of comprehensive education.

He failed the 11-plus but still managed to attend Haslingden Grammar School, thanks to an aunt who paid his fees. It was there that Sir Rhodes learned first hand about the supposed merits of strict discipline. Although he was an accomplished reader, he discovered he could not "number", so his teacher "thumped" him for 10 minutes and "by God, I numbered within a week".

After studying Greek and philosophy at University College Cardiff, Sir Rhodes eventually went into teaching and enjoyed a highly successful career as a headteacher, beginning at Lea Bank School in Rossendale, a secondary modern, where he introduced exam courses for his pupils well before the days of the CSE.

In the early 1960s, Sir Rhodes moved to London to become head of Robert Montefiore School, an East End secondary modern, before taking up his final headship at the newly created Highbury Grove School, a comprehensive in Islington, North London.

It was here that Sir Rhodes grew his famous facial hair, as part of a deal with sixth formers who in return agreed to cut their long hair. The head brought to Highbury Grove his characteristically unflinching approach to discipline, where the cane featured prominently. Parents loved the approach so much that the school became the most oversubscribed in London.

Sir Peter Newsam, former chief education officer at the Inner London Education Authority, worked at the organisation during Sir Rhodes' time at Highbury Grove and said that, while his approach was not always approved of, he ran a very stable school.

"Running an inner-London school in the late 1960s was very difficult because there was a great deal of upheaval and change among both staff and students at the time, but he ran a very tight ship and a stable school," Sir Peter said. "His views on education were rather different to the authority's - he tended to keep his school separate from others - but the school was very popular among parents during his time there."

By the 1970s, the head's politics were firmly on the Right and he became co-editor of the "Black Papers". These pamphlets tore into progressive educational ideas and, in particular, comprehensive education, which he came to see as being lax on discipline.

In 1974, Sir Rhodes was elected Conservative MP for Brent North, and he worked on the party's education policy under Margaret Thatcher while in opposition.

When the Conservatives came to power in 1979, he was appointed higher education minister and then schools minister. He earned the nickname "minister for flogging" from the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP) because of his attempts to retain the use of the cane in schools.

But during his time in the Department of Education and Science, he failed to prevent the march of the comprehensive education movement he was so ardently opposed to.

A succession of placements in the Department of Health and Social Security, the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of the Environment ensued before he returned to the back benches in 1987 when he received his knighthood.

He eventually lost his seat in the Labour landslide of 1997, but a number of his ideas on education persist to this day, the national testing of pupils at certain ages being the most prominent.

Sir Rhodes married Violet Burleston in 1946 and they had two daughters. The marriage later broke down and Florette MacFarlane became his second wife in 1971. He died on 28 August at the age of 87.

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