Obituary - Lawrence Norcross, 1927-2010

26th February 2010 at 00:00

Lawrence Norcross was a man of contradictions: a communist who became one of Margaret Thatcher's key education advisers; a cultural elitist who loved Benny Hill. But he was also one of the most consistently outspoken headteachers of his day, championing the need for working-class children to be educated as effectively as those from the upper classes.

He was born in 1927, the son of a middle-class engineer and the servant he impregnated. Lawrence's father died when he was seven, forcing his mother to return into service in order to support her two young sons.

To ease his mother's burden, 13-year-old Lawrence enlisted in the navy in December 1940. He was sent to Burma, where he served as a signalman.

Invalided out of the navy in 1949, he returned to his mother's Surrey home, undertaking a succession of casual jobs. One of these involved delivering beer: he later commented that this was the most enjoyable job of his working life.

By the early 1950s, however, a friend had persuaded him to enrol at Oxford's Ruskin College. He then progressed on to Leeds University, obtaining a degree in English.

While at Leeds, he studied under the Marxist lecturer Arnold Kettle. This, along with his previous experiences among unionised labourers, led him to campaign on behalf of the Communist party throughout the 1950s.

It was also at university that he met Margaret Wallace, a grocer's daughter. She was the first of the two great loves of his life: both women shared the same first name and background. He and the lesser-known Margaret married in 1959, shortly after the birth of their first son. Three more children later followed.

On graduation, Mr Norcross found work as an English teacher at a secondary modern in south London. This was a deliberate career move: he passionately believed that working-class children should be offered the same educational opportunities as their more advantaged peers. And he was an unapologetic fan of old-fashioned teaching: streaming, houses and corporal punishment.

In 1963, he was appointed housemaster at nearby Battersea County School. He remained there for nine years, until Rhodes Boyson, the outspoken head of Highbury Grove School, in Islington, north London, appointed him is deputy in 1974. A year later, Mr Boyson resigned to become a Conservative MP, and Mr Norcross succeeded him to the headship.

Having become disillusioned with the Communist party after learning of Stalin's purges, Mr Norcross had joined the Labour party. Now, however, he began to fear that Labour's policy of egalitarianism - creating large comprehensives in which streaming was outlawed - would inevitably result in educational dumbing down.

Guided by Mr Boyson, he joined the Conservative party, and was a major contributor to papers produced by the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies. Together with other prominent educationists, he helped pioneer grant-maintained schools, and promoted school vouchers for poorer pupils.

In 1988, he was one of the major contributors to education secretary Kenneth Baker's national curriculum. He firmly believed that only a standardised curriculum could prevent poor children from being fobbed off with what he sneeringly referred to as "an A-level in EastEnders".

In 1987, he took early retirement from Highbury Grove: he had been hounded out by the "lefty lunatics" at the Inner London Education Authority, he said. But retirement also allowed him to ease into a less demanding schedule, alternating education quangos and Conservative think tanks with lengthy lunches at his club.

And - ironically for a man who used EastEnders as shorthand for all that was wrong in the world - he alternated an abiding love of John Donne's poetry with a fondness for Benny Hill.

His early career in the navy had bequeathed him a heavy smoking habit. He had suffered from emphysema for decades: in 1959, his mother had predicted he would not see Christmas. Forty-one years later, he was still coughing. But it was an aneurysm that finally killed him.

Lawrence Norcross died on January 31. He is survived by his children Matthew, Alastair, Joanna and Daniel, and by two grandchildren.

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