Obituary - George Baines

6th November 2009 at 00:00


A pioneer, an idealist and an educational revolutionary, George Baines was at the heart of the 1970s educational transformation and his legacy is now inspiring future teachers.

Never afraid to take risks, George, who as a Quaker shunned titles, transformed the way primary pupils were taught and influenced the design of classrooms for a generation.

He helped to make radical changes in Oxfordshire throughout the 1960s and for two decades afterwards by not organising primary children into classes through age. Pupils were encouraged to direct their own learning rather than being dictated to by teachers.

The national curriculum put an end to such experimentation, but new moves to increase personalised learning mean George's work is again considered important. Echoes of it can be found in the recent Cambridge Review, while the Institute of Education has set up a Baines Archive, full of lesson plans, children's work and guides for teachers.

George was the youngest of 13 children born into a farming family in Buckinghamshire. His father died when he was four and his mother was disabled. He was brought up by an older sister and was the only one of his siblings to get to grammar school.

While working as a bank clerk he started running clubs for boys in his spare time and teaching PE in schools. George became fascinated by the different ways in which children learn and quickly realised that each was a unique individual with different needs.

After his talent was spotted by a headteacher, he signed up to one of the post-war "emergency" training courses at Newland Park College in Buckinghamshire, aged 25, with English as a specialist subject. Poetry remained a lifelong interest and George continued to write throughout his life.

His first job was at Rickley Junior School in Bletchley, and he quickly demonstrated his individual approach to teaching. He worked on each child's strengths and interests, helping them to gain confidence and to enjoy learning.

During this time Edith Moorhouse, another radical pioneer, was the senior primary adviser in Oxfordshire. She also thought children should be taught in purpose-built spaces dedicated to activities, not age. While busy building schools following this theory she met George and recognised a kindred spirit.

Ms Moorhouse recruited a group of talented young people to be her new headteachers, including George. He took over at Brize Norton Primary in 1962 and quickly set about pulling down doors and buying new furniture at jumble sales so he could use his new "open-plan" approach. Architects from the then Ministry of Education visited the area and his efforts influenced school design around the country.

In 1966, George was made headteacher of the new Eynsham Primary School near Oxford. He arrived a year before classrooms were ready in order to train teachers in the new approach. Judith Purbrook, inspired by seeing George at work in Brize Norton, joined the staff at this stage. She was later to become his deputy and, later still, his wife.

The work at Eynsham also attracted national attention, with much of George's time taken up with showing people around the school and travelling the country as a speaker. At Eynsham, pupils were charged with directing their own learning, which taught them self-discipline and helped boost their self-esteem. Teachers taught as a team, meeting at the end of the day to discuss pupils' progress.

Illness forced George to take early retirement in 1983, but he became well again and was soon called upon to run in-service training at Bishop Grosseteste University College in Lincoln.

He and Judith later moved to the Isle of Arran, where he retired properly, filling his time with community work and running poetry groups. George was diagnosed with stomach cancer at Easter and died at the end of September.

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