Obituary

25th June 2010 at 01:00

Mike Ullman, 1947-2010

Mike Ullman's pioneering teaching method was first developed as a way to cope with his pupils' impenetrable accents. By the time he died, however, it was the award-winning selling point of an entire school.

Born in Glasgow in 1947, Michael Ullman was the son of a Hungarian mother and a British father. The family later moved to Leeds so that his father could take up a professorship at the university.

In defiance of his father, who had more academic ambitions for his son, teenage Mike enrolled in a CertEd course at Leeds' Carnegie College. Teaching was a passion: in later years, when administration work filled increasing amounts of his time, he would unwind by returning to the classroom.

Having grown up in the Baptist Church, he applied for a missionary post in Cameroon. This failed to materialise; instead, he was offered a job teaching French in Birmingham.

He had spent time in France as a young man and developed a love of its language and culture. The decision to devote his life to language teaching was not planned. But it was a natural fit; it took over his life.

While leading a French exchange with Hodge Hill School, he met his French wife, Nicole. They were on opposite sides of the exchange; she later moved to Birmingham to be his assistante.

After ten years at Hodge Hill, Mr Ullman took a job at Coseley School in Dudley. Ever the thwarted missionary, he was keen to work in underprivileged areas. But in the depths of the Black Country, he found that he struggled to understand his pupils' accents. So he hit on a solution: if he could not understand their English, he would make them speak French. Thus, his trademark method of teaching - through full language immersion - was born.

Eventually, this would become a developed theory. "You wouldn't spend half of a science lesson teaching maths," he would say. "So why would you spend half a French lesson speaking English?"

In 1992, he applied for the post of head of languages at Hockerill Anglo-European College, in the Hertfordshire town of Bishop's Stortford. It was during this job interview that he first mooted what he called his "silly notion" - that non-language lessons could also be taught in a foreign language.

To his surprise, the headteacher bought into the idea and he got the job. Not long afterwards, Hockerill's first bilingual section opened, with history and geography lessons delivered in French. On Mr Ullman's insistence, no English at all would be spoken.

By 2001, a parallel German stream had opened. Today, of the 120 pupils in each Hockerill year group, 90 receive bilingual humanities lessons. The remaining 30 receive full-immersion language lessons and take their French GCSEs a year early.

Immersion lessons were backed up with regular exchange trips. The primary purpose of any language, Mr Ullman believed, was communication: exam results came second. It was vital, therefore, that pupils were given regular opportunities to make use of their language skills: exchange trips, he said, were the language department's equivalent of the science practical.

He believed firmly in cultural as well as linguistic education: he took a group of pupils to see Les Miserables every year that he was at Hockerill. And he established a link with schools in the then Francophone Rwanda, organising pupil sponsorship as well as schemes to train local teachers.

In fact, teacher training was another key interest. He relished the chance to welcome new staff to Hockerill, pass on knowledge to them, then watch them go on to classroom success.

As language took on increased importance at the school, Mr Ullman was appointed assistant head. In 2005, his achievements at Hockerill were recognised more widely when he was named teacher of the year at the Teaching Awards.

There was not much free time. He and Nicole lived on campus, and he was regularly to be found at his desk until 9.30pm. Holidays were most often spent on exchanges.

He was in the middle of organising several exchange trips when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in February. The trips went ahead without him; he died on May 13.

Mike Ullman is survived by his wife, Nicole, and his children, Anna and Jeremy.

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