Obituary - Hugh Lawlor, 1943-2010

10th December 2010 at 00:00

Hugh Lawlor's first love was science. His second love was teaching. Over a 40-year career, he managed to combine the two, devoting his working life - and, skilfully, other people's money - to ensuring that pupils received high-quality science education.

Hugh Lawlor was born in Ireland in 1943, the middle child of a dye operator. When he was five years old, the family moved to Bradford: here, young Hugh quickly developed a keen sense of Yorkshire loyalty.

He attended St Bede's Grammar School before going on to train as a science teacher at St Mary's College of Education in London. He and his siblings were the first generation of his family to go into higher education; all three eventually became teachers.

On graduation, he took up a post as science teacher at an east London comprehensive. Here, he immediately demonstrated natural aptitude for the profession: within a year, he had been promoted to head of chemistry.

But this was the 1960s: the world was opening up. So, looking to do something different, the young Mr Lawlor left for Libya, where he had been appointed head of science at the British Council's Tripoli College.

It was in Tripoli that he met Margot, who worked for Esso Libya. She and Hugh were married in 1970; shortly afterwards, they moved to Sao Paulo, where he was again appointed head of science in a British school.

As a teacher, and later as a teacher-trainer, he was renowned for his charisma. He was a naturally entertaining public speaker, liberal with humour and personal anecdote. For example, he would talk about the time he represented Brazil in a rugby match against Argentina: he was on the team, he said, purely because there were only 14 other people in the entire country who knew the rules of the game.

The years abroad sparked an interest in the theory of education: in 1973, the couple returned to Britain, and Hugh enrolled at Hull University, completing a PhD in the reform of Brazilian science education. This was the beginning of an academic career that was to culminate in a professorship.

After a decade training teachers, he was appointed schools inspector for Kent local authority. Here, too, his natural charisma quickly impressed the teachers he worked with. He was enthusiastic about all the elements of his job - science, schools, learning, leadership - and this enthusiasm was infectious. Never solemn or pompous, he had a penchant for apposite nicknames. A sallow director of education was christened "the prince of darkness"; Michael Gove, meanwhile - for whom Professor Lawlor had little time - was dubbed "the leprechaun".

But he took his job seriously. Visiting troubled schools, he would grow dismayed at the educational opportunities being denied to pupils, and would put great personal effort into finding the resources necessary for improvement.

This, in fact, was a great talent: he was a keen strategiser and enjoyed finding creative solutions to difficult problems. Colleagues called him a "wheeler-dealer": where others struggled to drum up financial support for their ideas, he knew exactly where - and how - money was to be found.

One problem he never did master, however, was IT. Despite his science background, he always struggled with email: one Kent colleague recalls being met with abject gratitude when he finally showed Professor Lawlor how to delete five years' worth of accumulated messages.

In 1995, he was appointed director of continuing professional development at the Teacher Training Agency (now the TDA); he also advised Whitehall on science education policy.

Then, in 1997, he was approached by Zeneca Pharmaceuticals, a large company looking to support British science education. Professor Lawlor suggested that the company might endow a charity specifically to support the continuing professional development of science teachers. Shortly afterwards, he became the first director of the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust. He remained in the role until earlier this year.

He had first been diagnosed with prostate cancer 10 years ago. During the years of treatment, he volunteered for six drug trials; one of these drugs has since been approved for clinical use. It was his last gift to the world of science that he had spent his career promoting.

Hugh Lawlor died in November. He is survived by his wife, Margot, and their daughter Stephanie.

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