Cut above the rest

17th November 1995 at 00:00
Lucy Hodges meets Peter Mortimore, director of the London Institute of Education

For an education professor Peter Mortimore, 53, is awfully stylish. He dresses in pinstripe suits - carefully cut, mind you - pink shirts and natty ties, and wears a spikey hairdo. So, he's not just cutting an intellectual dash as director of Britain's flagship educational research institute but a sartorial one too.

As boss of the London Institute of Education, where he made his inaugural speech a year ago, Mortimore is making waves, speaking at conferences, talking to education ministers, hosting his own conferences, above all putting his outfit on the map. It is a class political act, and his reputation and that of the Institute is burgeoning in Britain and abroad.

Former director of research and statistics at the Inner London Education Authority, where he established himself as a formidable researcher, Mortimore wins plaudits for the quality of his work, particularly in his chosen field of school effectiveness - how schools can make a difference in pushing up standards.

"He has made an outstanding contribution to London in this field by virtue of his research and his commitment," says Frances Morrell, who was ILEA's Labour leader and Mortimore's political master during much of the 1980s.

Lady Blackstone, master of Birkbeck College, London, formerly a senior officer of ILEA, is equally fulsome. "He's a very able researcher indeed," she says.

Note, both admirers are female. Mortimore is the kind of fellow women like - open, friendly, chatty. Some of his former male colleagues are less enthusiastic. But they probably see him as a rival, someone who is too ambitious by half.

What makes Mortimore interesting is that he is a lot more than an ace researcher. Yes, his work into how schools can make a difference is important and well done, but he has had experience also as an administrator, and is ambitious in all senses of that word. He wants to improve himself, improve his institute, improve education in Britain. To do that he needs to be seen about. He needs to make friends and influence people.

Mortimore is good at that. With his wife, Jo, he entertains bigwigs and staff in his tied cottage, a Georgian house in Bloomsbury. And together with his wife, who was once a primary school teacher, he has also conducted much of his research. For years they have formed an unusual and successful husband-and-wife research team.

Today she is to be found at the Institute working with him on a project on the use of non-teaching staff in city technology colleges. Some of the Mortimore's former staff at ILEA's research and statistics branch have also come to work at the institute, for example, Pam Sammons and Louise Stoll, both key players in school effectiveness and improvement.

It helps that Mortimore is an effective speaker. At a recent conference on under-achievement I watched him deliver a speech which was interesting and made the audience sit up and take notice. His voice carried like any good teacher's. He talks quickly, and not in particularly grammatical sentences, but that doesn't matter, because he has an urgency and enthusiasm that carry you along. After his talk, he was beseiged by people wanting to chat and shake him by the hand. On to each one he turned his beaming grin. He remembered them, listened to what they had to say and gave them a generous chunk of time and attention.

Mortimore is not a daring thinker, not an intellectual like Professor David Hargreaves at Cambridge who is prepared to toy with heresies such as school- centred teacher training. His strengths lie in his powers of communication and vision.

Born in the outskirts of London during the Second World War, Mortimore was a grammar school boy, who followed in the footsteps of his musician father by training as a music teacher at St Mary's College, part of London University. Mortimore senior was a trumpet player in the Coldstream Guards who wore a bearskin hat and strutted about outside Buckingham Palace. Mortimore junior learnt the flute and conducted a madrigal choir. He started out life as a music teacher in south London where he remained for nine years.

During that time he became interested in educational issues and decided to study for a psychology degree at Birkbeck College. From there he took a course in educational psychology, intending to end up as an educational psychologist, but fortune intervened. He was recruited onto the research team of Professor Michael Rutter's Fifteen Thousand Hours study.

"It changed my life," he says. Mortimore went from being an anonymous foot soldier in the great army of London's teachers to a researcher in an exciting study at the Institute of Psychiatry. The study asked the question: can an individual school exert a particular influence over its pupils? It found it could.

Some schools were much better able to promote the achievement and development of their children than others. The good schools had quality leadership, consistency, a common culture and aims among the staff, and an established system of rewards and responsibilities. Children in their classrooms were expected to perform well. They were challenged to think.

Up until that time, sociological research had found the individual school was impotent and that a child's performance depended on family background and the characteristics of that child.

For Mortimore, the study was three-and-a-half years of hard and exciting work.

"It was a wonderful opportunity to be in a range of schools and see the differences between them, to learn about research and to learn about the details of collecting data, analysing it and interpreting it," he says.

Published in 1978, the study caused a furore among researchers. What was a medical doctor, albeit an eminent child psychiatrist, doing pontificating about schools, they asked.

But there began a good debate about how you could study the effectiveness of a school, according to Mortimore, how you could tease out the differing factors that bear on children's achievement. Mortimore argued that schools did not begin at the same starting line - they were not getting children coming in with the same abilities - and that had to be built into the analysis.

"Just to compare one school with another without taking account of the radically different intakes is ludicrous," he says. In the late 1970s Mortimore was briefly a member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate, but chucked that in to run ILEA's research and statistics department, a bigger and more demanding job. "That was a wonderful opportunity to do educational research in a large department, well supported by the ILEA," he says. "It was just a fantastic job."

During his six-and-a-half years in that post Mortimore made his mark. He produced routine statistics as well as important research studies, in particular the junior school survey, School Matters, which did for primaries what Rutter's study had done for secondary schools.

But Mortimore developed his research techniques in the light of debates over Rutter's report. He and his ILEA team followed children coming into the junior years of schools in 1980, tracking them for four years. They also followed children into secondary schools to see how the transition worked.

As with the secondary study, the authors of the primary report found schools in which children were not stretched in the classroom. Mortimore thinks the lack of intellectual challenge is still a problem in primary schools. He and his team advocated a range of teaching styles - individual, small group and whole class - and met with resistance from some teachers.

At that point Mortimore made what many thought an odd jump. He became number three in the ILEA administrative heirarchy, assistant education officer responsible for policy advice, planning and the funding of inner London's 150 secondary schools. "I wanted a change, I wanted to try other parts of the education job," he says.

What is not widely known is that he applied for the top officer's job in ILEA when Peter Newsam departed, but was considered insufficiently senior to stand a chance. (The job went to Newsam's deputy, Bill Stubbs.) The fact that he had a high opinion of himself was not lost on his colleagues. They regarded him as ridiculously pushy. "He is incredibly ambitious," said one. "He loves the sweet smell of success."

After doing time in ILEA's administrative machine, Mortimore could probably have got a chief education officer job anywhere. In the event, chance intervened again. He was offered the professorship of education at Lancaster University. It meant he could escape ILEA before its final dismal days.

Looking back on the Inner London Education Authority now, Mortimore admits it had its bad as well as its good points. It had good staff and loads of money. And it put questions on the table - equity, gender and race. "ILEA played a key role in making those debates acceptable," he says. "It achieved some success but it got some things wrong."

In particular, its style of bossing headteachers and others around was out of keeping with the times and out of keeping with the London tradition of devolution, he thinks. "The interfering, rather pushy new tradition caused tension," he says.

Mortimore was given the task of educating new ILEA members on the issues of race, sex and class. That exercise mushroomed over the years until Mortimore found himself addressing 3,000 teachers and headteachers on the issues in the Festival Hall. They had been ordered to attend. "That was quite a difficult assignment," he says, chuckling at the memory.

Mortimore was happy at Lancaster, but not happy enough to resist the lure of London. When Peter Newsman asked him to apply to be his deputy at the London Institute of Education, he jumped at the chance. Three years after going north he was back in the capital. Lancaster was not best pleased.

Within the Institute, Mortimore has set about restructuring. This has not endeared him to all his colleagues. The departmental barons have lost out because it was agreed their departments led to duplication and to too much internal rivalry for students. In their place are 19 academic groups containing staff who contribute across the four programmes of teacher education, master's and diploma courses, research and new initiatives. Four deans head each of these programmes.

"It's been very exciting developing that," says Mortimore. "It sounds easy but it actually took a lot of agonising. We are concerned about educational change and this has been a chance for us to do it ourselves."

There were a handful of early retirements. Some of the remaining academics shifted around. Not everyone at the institute has taken to Mortimore's style, some find him ingratiating, for example.

Sensible people agree that Mortimore is doing the Institute a deal of good. For example, he is successfully ensuring it is no longer seen to be in bed with one political party. Mortimore has invited Gillian Shephard and her junior ministers to visit, and he is successfully raising the Institute's profile. "We are very careful to be independent of politicians," he says.

He is also making sure that it reigns supreme in the research field (he has just hired Michael Barber, the education-professor-of-the-moment) and that it is intimately connected with schools and children in the classroom.

The issue he talked about most passionately was shortage of money. While the Institute ranks among the top for quality of research, it comes low in the league table for funding. Mortimore believes the funding formula worked out in the last few years by the Higher Education Funding Council is killing it and that something should be done urgently.

If the formula isn't changed, his vision that the Institute should be one of the world's centres for the study of education will come to naught. That would be a shame. His colleagues give him high marks for having a vision. What will count in the end is whether he can hussle the money. He certainly works hard enough.

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