Fitting tribute to a born leader

27th June 1997 at 01:00
LIVING EDUCATION: ESSAYS IN HONOUR OF JOHN TOMLINSON Edited by Peter Mortimore and Viv Little. Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd. Pounds 25

Tim Brighouse recommends a celebration of the life's work of educationist John Tomlinson.

At the Augusta Masters earlier this year, Tiger Woods was so strikingly impressive that grizzled fellow professionals such as Nick Faldo and Greg Norman, themselves world leaders in golf, publicly recognised him as a phenomenon. They knew they were in the presence of a present and future giant for, earlier in their own careers, they were often described as merely very promising. I guess it was the same for those who played with the young Donald Bradman or Pele, or for Simon Rattle and David Hockney.

Living Education is about John Tomlinson, who, with four or five years under his belt, was described to me by a seasoned and respected older education officer colleague, as "someone for you to watch and to try to emulate even a little". By the time we met, John Tomlinson, Tiger Woods like, was a colossus influencing national education policy. His own sleeping giant of an authority, Cheshire, had been miraculously transformed to a powerhouse of intellectual curiosity and teaching energy by a clever blend of unflagging public praise, of professionally stimulating speculation and of unostentatious firm management. John Tomlinson demonstrates that he is a leader who can manage rather than a manager who can lead.

Cheshire, notwithstanding its massive size, was too restricted a stage for John. So the Schools Council became a vehicle for his creative ideas about teaching and learning about the curriculum. He enjoyed teachers and they did him. One document, The Practical Curriculum, commissioned under his period as chair (1978-82), even yet will come into its own when the damaging wrong-turning that is the primary school curriculum comes to be rewritten. How John Tomlinson must inwardly have grieved as he watched his Schools Council abolished in 1982 in an act of political spite and wanton damage that was to be a prelude to actions which have almost laid waste to the flower of the profession he loved. Indeed, it has been John's misfortune and ours that his best years have been lived under a regime that never used his sharp, cheerful and generous intellect on the scale it should have. Optimistic melancholy sometimes shone through: he was not one of them and to his credit he never compromised or pretended.

Such a book as this is, of course, and should be, more than a paean to the person it honours.

One editor tops it with an analysis of their man and the other tails it with a review of the issues raised in the book. The meat in the sandwich includes history, practice, policy, philosophy, curriculum and the future. All are characterised by analysis; a few bristle with new ideas. It is a vivid cast: Charles Handy on schools' life and work, A H Halsey on politics and education, Maurice Kogan on management in hard times (to which most of us would raise a glass), Stuart Maclure on contemporary history, Mary Warnock on value, Geoffrey Holland on rais-ing achievement; Michael Barber speculates, Tony Edwards analyses, John Mann reflects, Margaret Maden informs and Stewart Ranson theorises. Bearing in mind the review of the curriculum, I reread Denis Lawton's chapter on the mistakes of the national curriculum twice and would recommend a purchase of the book simply for that.

Although this is a celebration of a lifetime's work, John Tomlinson is not yet done. The White Paper will refer to a General Teaching Council, and 100 years from now, when they look back on this period, historians will pick his name out as one of the few who made significant and lasting contributions to improving learning and teaching.

Tim Brighouse is chief education officer of Birmingham City Council and vice-chair of the new national task force to raise standards in education

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