Obituary - Richard Barker, 1939-2009

1st January 2010 at 00:00

School business studies courses have become so commonplace that they are now unremarkable: last year, more than 31,000 pupils took the subject at A-level, making it one of the most popular options. But in 1966, when Richard Barker pioneered the business studies A-level, it represented cutting-edge modernisation of the academic curriculum.

Mr Barker was not initially a business specialist. As a teenager he read chemistry at Trinity College, Cambridge, before transferring to study economics and economic geography.

After graduating, he joined the staff of Bedales, the Hampshire boarding school, as a geography teacher. There, he quickly progressed to head of department. Then, in 1966, he was selected by the charitable Wolfson Foundation to establish a national programme to increase school pupils' awareness of the role played by business in society. Mr Barker, however, was convinced that any such programme should have academic credibility: he wanted a full A-level.

Then, as now, many people were sceptical about the value of this. But, when Mr Barker joined public school Marlborough College as head of department, he found an ally in the Wiltshire school's headmaster, John Dancy, who allowed him the time and opportunity to set up his A-level course.

To work out the structure, he studied at the London Business School, where he was inspired by the undergraduate curriculum. He believed that A-level pupils, like their older counterparts, should tackle genuine business problems to develop their understanding of broader business principles. He wanted his A-level pupils to become fluent in the language of business so they could communicate easily with future employers.

Eventually, he persuaded Cambridge University to accredit and examine the course. But he needed trained business studies teachers to deliver the new A-level. So he began to lecture trainee teachers at London University's Institute of Education, equipping them with the necessary skills for the subject. And, working together with a small number of independent and state schools, Mr Barker drew up a series of classroom resources to accompany the course.

During this time, he continued to work full-time at Marlborough, eventually being promoted to housemaster. Then, in 1981, he was appointed head of Sevenoaks School. He brought to the Kent boys' school a style of leadership that reflected his keen interest in business. He introduced staff appraisals and performance-related pay, both still relatively unknown in education. And he was notoriously plainspoken to staff members: an early-morning walk with the headteacher was not an invitation to be relished.

But he was also fair. An enthusiastic tennis player since his own schooldays, he was a firm believer in the importance of extracurricular activity. He therefore insisted that both staff and pupils became involved in out-of-school clubs. But he also ensured that a range of activities were on offer: sports teachers, he felt, should not be the only members of staff forced to work over the weekend.

He also valued pupil choice, promoting the International Baccalaureate within the school, running it in parallel with A-levels. Similarly, he believed that the Sevenoaks education should be available to boys and girls alike. Despite opposition, he built a girls' boarding house, and supervised the transition to fully coeducational classes.

This was not the only building programme he oversaw. As well as repairing the damage done to the school in the 1987 hurricane, he raised money for a new science block and covered tennis courts.

Mr Barker retired from Sevenoaks in 1996. But his involvement within education did not diminish: he subsequently spent a year as governor-in-residence at the British School in Colombo, Sri Lanka. On his return, he was appointed school governor for three secondaries.

He was, however, forced into full retirement in 2002, when progressive Alzheimer's prevented him from continuing. He died on December 5.

Richard Barker is survived by his wife, Imogen, and their two sons and one daughter.

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