Obituary

27th February 2009 at 00:00
Ronald Dearing 1930-2009

Lord Dearing, the Government's go-to man for seemingly intractable education problems, has died at the age of 78.

Often referred to as education's "Mr Fix-It", Dearing was responsible for cutting back the national curriculum, introducing university tuition fees and, most recently, suggesting an overhaul of language learning.

Ironically for someone who had such a significant impact on education policy, Ronald Dearing left his Doncaster grammar school at 16. At 18, he joined the civil service and, as he progressed through its ranks, went on to take A-levels and a degree at University College, Hull. But a keen respect for on-the-job learning and vocational skills remained with him throughout his life.

Eventually, he was appointed chairman of the Post Office, leading to a knighthood in 1984. He held this job for seven-and-a-half years, sitting beneath a large picture of the boxer Muhammad Ali, which had been painted by one of his postmen.

He still had the painting when he was appointed to the Council for National Academic Awards, his first job in the education sector. It was chance, rather than design, that led him there. But his role at the council gave him responsibility for polytechnics and their degrees, the vocational skills he felt so strongly about.

Then, in 1993, he was asked by the Government to look at national testing. At the time, most teachers felt that the national curriculum was a straitjacket, binding them with a series of impossible demands. Unions encouraged boycotts of the tests, and teachers readily agreed.

From this stalemate, the Government asked Dearing to create consensus. He travelled the country, consulting teachers with a transparency and honesty that created new trust. The resulting report, removing the strictures on post-14 education, was the first sustained attempt to re-examine the national curriculum.

Following this, he was asked to look into higher education funding. Dearing recommended the introduction of Pounds 1,000-a-year tuition fees, but also the retention of student grants. The Government agreed with the former, but ignored the latter - a matter of considerable personal grievance for Dearing.

His detractors regularly accused him of finding political quick-fixes rather than genuine solutions. But he was a pragmatist, rather than an idealist: he knew that there was no point in arguing for something that would never be implemented.

In 1998, he was made a life peer: Lord Dearing of Kingston-upon-Hull. In this role, he regularly sponsored House of Lords debates on education.

But he had not abandoned crisis management: the Government brought him in to review post-16 qualifications in 2000. Ministers, dissatisfied with his recommendations, demanded further consultation. Had they listened to him sooner, many feel the A-level marking debacle of 2002 might have been avoided.

Languages were latest on his fix-it list. Despite the progression of the cancer that was ultimately to kill him, this month he published a review revealing that the stress of oral exams was putting pupils off studying foreign languages.

In fact, cheerfulness in adversity was his hallmark. While, inevitably, there were those who disagreed with his reports, it was rare to find anyone - teacher or minister - who did not like and respect him.

Integrity and statistical rigour characterised everything he did. One colleague recalls being woken by a phone call at 6am on new year's day. "I've got these new statistics ..." said Dearing.

But this perfectionism was born out of a genuine belief in the importance of a strong education system. The future of school pupils and university students was, he felt, worth his utmost efforts, right to the last.

Lord Dearing is survived by his wife and two daughters.

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