Obituary - Norman Evans, 1923-2010

25th February 2011 at 00:00

On exchange trips abroad, Norman Evans always instructed teachers to take only hand luggage: waiting for suitcases just wasted valuable learning time.

This, in fact, was the education academic's approach to life as a whole: everything was a resource, everything was a learning experience, and nothing should be wasted.

Norman Harland Evans was born in north London in August 1923. Growing up, he attended Rydal School in Colwyn Bay, where he was made head boy.

When the Second World War broke out he joined the Navy, serving as an officer on torpedo boats in the Mediterranean. Here, he would successfully manoeuvre his flotilla as volleys of bullets rained down around him.

After being demobbed, he was set up on a blind date with Rachael. The couple went on to marry and have three children: Richard, Mark and Harriet.

Mr Evans also resumed his education, reading history at Christ's College, Cambridge. During the war he had served with people from across the social spectrum. This was a valuable lesson: he was fortunate to have survived, he knew, but he was also fortunate in his upbringing and education.

This awareness led him to consider the flaws in the education system. The 11-plus, he believed, decided a child's future at far too early an age: something needed to be done. So, on finishing his degree, he enrolled in a teacher-training course.

His first job, in 1950, was at Bedford School. A few years later he moved to Sir William Nottage, a Kent secondary modern. Then, in 1957, he was appointed head of nearby Senacre secondary modern.

From the start, he refused to accept the notion of the 11-plus as a determining factor for the rest of a child's life. Now, as a young head, he challenged educational orthodoxies. Exams were not everything, he believed: other skills should be valued, too. The pupils who had been branded failures at 11 could learn and grow through everyday experience.

Long before it was fashionable, therefore, he established a pupil council and invited its members to play an active role in running the school.

But, much as he enjoyed working with pupils, he realised that his influence as headmaster was limited. If he wanted to change the educational world, he would need to change the teachers who taught in it. And so, in 1967, he took up a post at Culham College of Education in Oxford.

Three years later, he was appointed director of Derby's Bishop Lonsdale College of Education. In an echo of his earlier pupil councils, he appointed students to the college's governing body. Just because they were students, he believed, did not mean they had nothing to contribute. Besides, his trainees would eventually be working in schools, dealing with governors. College provided a safe place for them to learn from their own mistakes.

His belief in challenging orthodoxy and protocol extended beyond education. He was one of the founder members of the SDP: social democracy encapsulated his belief that everyone had something to contribute.

On Mr Evans' instigation, Bishop Lonsdale was eventually merged with another college to create Derby University. He had, essentially, negotiated and merged himself out of a job. And so he returned to Cambridge, before eventually becoming senior fellow of the London-based Policy Studies Institute.

At the time, teachers trained at university, then went out to work. If they wanted to do any extra learning, they were expected to leave their job, sign up for another course and only return to work later. But Mr Evans had a different idea: he wanted teachers to learn on the job, to learn from experience.

And so he set up an organisation - the Assessment of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) - to promote the value of all learning, regardless of where and how it was gained. He organised exchange trips between APEL and a similar body in the US. Participants in these trips recall being instructed to travel with hand luggage only: Mr Evans did not want to waste vital learning time at the baggage turnstile.

He applied similar principles to his own life. There was no downtime: his home was scattered with books. He played piano and cello and was an active gymnast and sportsman.

In later years, however, such activities became increasingly difficult. Rachael had died several years before; now his own body gradually shut down. First there were circulation problems, then lessening physical capabilities. Eventually, it just gave up altogether.

Norman Evans died on 22 November, aged 87.

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