Obituary

6th February 2009 at 00:00

Graham Last 1948-2009

Graham Last, who first drew attention to the "long tail of underachievement" in England's schools, controversially tackling it through whole-class teaching, has died at the age of 60 following a heart attack.

With a fascination for all things German, he was the first educationist to compare English schools with those in Germany and Switzerland and to find them wanting.

Flying in the face of 1990s educational fashion, he advocated continental methods of whole-class teaching as the only way to improve standards in maths. While many criticised these methods as reactionary and illiberal, he proved they could help disadvantaged pupils to achieve.

Last began his career as a primary teacher, becoming head of two schools, first in Cambridgeshire, then in Hertfordshire.

In the early 1990s, he was a senior school inspector for Barking and Dagenham, in east London. It was there that he revealed the talent for innovative thinking that was to characterise his career.

Last's background was in languages. He spoke fluent German and had a lifelong enthusiasm for the country, its systems and schools. While the English education establishment looked across the Atlantic for inspiration, he preferred to turn his gaze to the other side of the Channel.

Studying German and Swiss pupils' performance in maths, he became aware that they were far ahead of their English counterparts. Most notably, the gap between the highest and lowest-performing pupils was very small. By contrast, while the best English pupils achieved high grades, many more were being left far behind. It was this "long tail of underachievement", he said, that teachers needed to address.

At the time, at least 90 per cent of teaching in England was individualised, with pupils working on their own. Last introduced what became known as "the Barking and Dagenham U" to primary maths: pupils spent the majority of their lessons sitting in a horseshoe, taught collectively.

This raised hackles in the profession. But the conventional assumption that whole-class teaching was conservative and old-fashioned was challenged by Last's irrefutable achievements with his borough's many disadvantaged children.

In the lead-up to the 1997 general election, many key figures in national policy-making visited Barking and Dagenham. Education Secretary Gillian Shephard, her parliamentary shadow David Blunkett and chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead all went to see how continental practice might be used in English classrooms.

After Labour's landslide win, Last was invited to help draw up the new national numeracy strategy for English primaries, extending his methods across the country. He later worked for the standards and effectiveness unit of what was then the Department for Education and Skills.

Latterly, he was appointed chief education officer for Bedford borough council, where he helped to prepare for the reorganisation of council boundaries in April this year.

He was described by those who knew him as unyieldingly determined; it came as little surprise to colleagues that he eventually succumbed to a heart attack.

He did everything with wholehearted commitment. Left-handed himself, he took a keen interest in how left-handed people write. He knew exactly the right pen grip and nib angle to ensure that writers did not smudge words: President Obama's awkward penmanship would have upset him greatly.

Tough and uncompromising, he was resolutely academic in his approach to education, preferring his opinions rooted in empirical evidence rather than ideology. And he was always prepared to do battle with seasoned classroom practitioners to defend what he felt was right for pupils. It is the nation's pupils, many believe, who will miss him most.

Last is survived by his wife, Rosemary. They had no children.

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