Forty years at the chalkface a lifetime polishing diamonds

6th July 2007 at 01:00
Peter Richards has been nominated for an award named after Ted Wragg, the teacher who inspired his career. He talks to Nick Hilborne

religious fundamentalism is something Dennis Richards understands because he has lived it. Raised in a Plymouth Brethren family in Yorkshire, he tried to convert his German master by inserting religious tracts into his homework. But it was the teacher who changed Dennis's life.

That teacher was Ted Wragg, the TES columnist, later professor of education and teachers' champion, who died in November 2005. As a young teacher, Ted spoke to Dennis's family and overcame the hostility many Brethren parents feel towards universities.

Had it not been for this, Mr Richards would not have gone on to teach for 40 years, become head of a top-performing comprehensive, been awarded an OBE or been shortlisted for the Ted Wragg award for lifetime achievement.

"Ted was the only teacher to have a glimmer of understanding about my working class background," said Mr Richards. "I owe it to him that I went on to grammar school and became a teacher. In no sense did he rubbish what I believed in or make me feel small. I was only 17 and very much an outsider at the school for religious and social reasons. I thought it was my religious duty to convert him and everyone else. His response was: 'Very interesting.' " From Queen Elizabeth Grammar School at Wakefield in Yorkshire, Mr Richards studied German and French at Manchester university. He taught at comprehensives in Grimethorpe, south Yorkshire, Holmfirth in the Pennines and Enfield, north London. Mr Richards said he felt out of his depth in London. "It almost killed me," he said. "I felt like a yokel." So he moved up to Kettering in Northamptonshire, becoming deputy head at Bishop Stopford CofE high. Five years later, in 1989, he became head of St Aidan's CofE high in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

By this time he had joined the Church of England. "You could say it was about a search for respectability or about wanting to be accepted. Those would be the negative reasons. I love the Church of England because of its breadth. Its great strength is the way it attempts to find a home for everyone."

Under Mr Richard's leadership, an ecumenical sixth form where St Aidan's and the local St John Fisher Catholic high combine has grown to the point where numbers this autumn are expected to exceed 1,000.

Mr Richards said: "Ted believed, and I believe, in the unique value of each individual. His unique skill as a teacher was to draw the best out of people and shape and polish it like a diamond. It's the quality of relationships in a school, the way the staff work as a team that make it a success."

Faith also played a crucial role. "I believe the role of faith schools in these difficult and dangerous times is to lead children towards a path of religious literacy where they understand what it is like to stand in someone else's shoes."

Mr Richards believes his childhood was not so different from a Muslim fundamentalist upbringing. He said: "Literalistic interpretation of religious texts can have terrifying results, as we have seen. Education is our lifesaver."

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