Let us not forget the lessons of my dad's dying breed

3rd June 2011 at 01:00

At one village school in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the head and her husband had converted the whole of the ground floor of the school house into their own personal poultry farm. When my father visited, in his work for the local education authority, he found the couple "roosting" on the landing above. He politely advised them that they had two days to get the hens off the premises.

Somewhere in a neighbouring dale, two other local headteachers (both married) suffered an even greater embarrassment. They were discovered to be having an affair when one of them accidentally posted his latest love letter in an envelope addressed to the county school meals service. His lover presumably received the school meals form.

Another North Riding head would, as a matter of routine each morning, send one of his pupils off to the village railway station on "school inspector watch". If a smartly dressed man in a top hat descended from the train, the child would cycle back at top speed to alert the head.

These are just some of my father's rich but entirely true tales about his formative experiences as an education officer in rural 1950s Yorkshire. He eventually went on to become chief education officer for Kent. He died recently and his death marks the sad passing of an increasingly rare species in education - a truly wise leader.

My father was driven simply by the desire to take the best course of action based on all the available information. It sounds an obvious way of running things, but it is becoming hard to find educational leaders in the public eye who seem to adopt it.

His intelligent, rational approach was partly shaped by four years of grim jungle warfare in Burma and, before that, by contrasting experiences at schools in pre-war Bradford and as a student at Cambridge. In his work he was (according to every colleague I have met) decisive when he needed to be, but if there wasn't a simple answer to a question he wouldn't pretend there was.

Given that he helped develop a pioneering comprehensive school system in Yorkshire and then worked in a selective system in Kent, I asked him, quite late on in his life, which of the two systems he now thought was overall best for children. "I don't yet know," he answered.

He was very clear, however, that educational initiatives based on party-political philosophy were almost invariably damaging, impractical - or both. Free schools and the whole "academies" idea therefore did little to add to his happiness in later years, to say the least. Nor did the ill-informed, complacent posturings of the politicians trying to sell such ideas.

We have moved towards a shallow, showcase educational system driven by data and spurious notions of markets and "freedom" from local authorities. All basically just words, manipulation and mischief. They are not the values of my father - nor of his son.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School, Thame, Oxfordshire.

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