Obituary - Steve Marshall

26th March 2010 at 00:00


Known across the world as one of the great education reformers, Steve Marshall harboured a genuine passion for teaching and learning.

In an impressive career that spanned three continents, including being Wales' top education civil servant from 2006-08, he championed numerous groundbreaking and innovative reforms, and won many friends and admirers with his Antipodean charm.

A key belief was that schools should not be blamed for their failings, but helped into lifting standards and genuinely creating change.

It was this belief that drove his work and perhaps explains why he was held in such high regard by his peers.

Anna Brychan, director of heads' union the NAHT Cymru, called him an inspiring figure: "One of those rare people who could always lift people's eyes from the everyday complexity of life to see the bigger, brighter picture of how education can transform the lives of young people."

David Egan, professor of education at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff and a close friend, said he was "in every way a large man, whose passion for education, for children and for teachers, was only matched by his love for his family and his comradeship with his many friends".

After gaining his Bachelor of Education degree in 1976 he began his career as a primary teacher and later principal in South Australia.

Leadership positions in school boards and state governments followed, but it was as chief executive of the South Australian department of education that he really started to make a name for himself as a reformer by championing a series of major initiatives that improved literacy results and student retention.

Mr Marshall's success brought him international attention, and after three years in the post he left to take up the top education civil service job in Wales in 2006. His appointment as head of the Assembly government's education department was considered a major coup for a small country like Wales, where it was hoped he could emulate the sort of success that fellow antipodean David Moffett had recently brought heading up Welsh rugby.

Although some were cautious, Mr Marshall quickly endeared himself to key education stakeholders with his passion and enthusiasm, as well as his attempts at Welsh pronunciation with an Aussie twang.

With his frank and straight-talking nature, he soon set about shaking up the education department and championed a number of visionary reforms. Chief among them was the attainment-raising school effectiveness framework, a groundbreaking improvement policy driven by the notion of tri-level-reform - governments, councils and schools working together - which is set to be fully launched this September.

But after less than two years in the role, he left Wales for a "dream job" as deputy education minister for the Canadian state of Ontario.

As well as the many genuine admissions of shock and disappointment at the news, there was speculation that Mr Marshall had grown frustrated with financial constraints and political wrangling.

But whatever the truth, it was generally acknowledged that Wales could not expect to hold on to such a visionary reformer for long.

However, his tenure in Canada was to prove even shorter as he fell ill and was forced to leave the post after a year. He returned home to Adelaide where he died earlier this month.

As a citizen, he cared deeply about issues of equity and social justice and believed that relationships are central to getting things done.

One of his guiding philosophies was that we are only on the planet once and should strive to make a difference, which he did through the strong relationships he fostered.

Before his death, he was studying a PhD at Melbourne University on school renewal with a focus on turning around low-performing schools in challenging circumstances.

He was regularly invited to speak at international education conferences, where he inspired educationists from across the world with his dedication, enthusiasm and visionary ideas.

Mr Marshall was as passionate about his family and friends as he was with his chosen career, and enjoyed spending time with his wife Karyn, their three children and their dogs.

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