23rd April 2010 at 01:00

Bryan Dockrell, who has died aged 81 and was director of the Scottish Council for Research in Education (SCRE) from 1971 to 1986, was a rather remarkable man.

With degrees from Manchester, Edinburgh and Trinity Dublin universites, and a PhD from New York and Chicago, he headed, literally, to the frontiers of educational research - first to north-west Canada, later to Sri Lanka, Jordan and Pakistan and, finally, to Nepal. His love of frontiers is illustrated by tales of taking his family riding elephants to chase tigers in the Himalayas and, with his guide and friend Rajesh, building an igloo to survive a snow storm.

Bryan's 15 years at SCRE covered a period of unprecedented growth in educational research. The council was set up by the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland in 1928.

At first, teachers did most of the research, including the amazing Scottish Mental Development survey, which is now approaching its 80th birthday.

But the late 1960s and early 1970s brought the early days of what became a tsunami-like surge in government control of research. Control of SCRE was wrested from teachers with an offer of a block grant, its own building, and a new director (Bryan). But soon the council's control of its research programme was eroded by the emerging "customer-contractor" principle.

Studies show that it is best if research institutes are separated from their sponsors by some 300 miles; otherwise the bureaucrats interfere. But what to do if the separation is a mere 300 yards? What Bryan did was let the bureaucrats have their say but take little notice. He got money for one purpose and used it for another. Naturally, this infuriated some of the bureaucrats. So, of course, in the end, they found a way to get rid of him. But not before he had kept alive work on the, by now unfashionable, topic of "intelligence" and simultaneously promoted work on the assessment of wider aspects of competence.

His pursuit of the unconventional but important went with him to Newcastle. With his son and daughter, he raised funds for an inventive evaluation of an educational programme designed to stem the spread of HIV infection.

Bryan's contribution of more than 70 publications of papers and books is hard to summarise, but his mark is left through On Intelligence, Parlett and Hamilton's Beyond the Numbers Game, Dockrell and Broadfoot's Pupils in Profile, Dockrell and Hamilton's Rethinking Educational Research, Hope's As Others See Us and my own Managing Education for Effective Schooling.

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