Obituary - Tony Abrahams, 1923-2011

27th May 2011 at 01:00

Tony Abrahams did not suffer fools. He may have set up the Centre for British Teachers, providing professional structure, practical support and general guidance for British teachers working overseas, but he did not mollycoddle them.

Anthony Claud Walter Abrahams was born in June 1923, the son of a QC. Educated at Bedford School, he was drafted to Bangalore in 1942. This was followed by service in north Africa, Italy and Greece, where he secured a mention in despatches.

But it was his experience in India that was to have the longest-lasting impact. Before the war, British officers of the Raj learnt local languages in order to communicate with their troops. The war changed this: inexperienced officers were drafted in and local troops were expected to learn English. For the first time, Tony began to consider the challenges of teaching English as a foreign language.

He returned to Britain after the war, studying law at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Building on his wartime experience, he started taking groups of undergraduates to Scandinavia over the summer to teach English. He had chanced upon an untapped market: by the time he graduated, he was responsible for selecting and training hundreds of English tutors working in Sweden.

In 1950, he married Laila Myking; they subsequently had three children, Anthony, Paul and Viveca. He was called to the bar in 1951.

But he also saw the potential of his Swedish scheme, and in 1954 set up the British Centre, an agency that provided British teachers to Swedish schools.

At the time, teaching English overseas required no training or qualifications. "People say, 'I want to go to Thailand - what can I do there?'" Mr Abrahams would say. "They either become an au pair or they teach English."

He wanted to change this. Working with the Royal Society of Arts, in 1964 he helped introduce a certificate for teachers of English as a foreign language.

Many of his summer-holiday recruits went on to become stalwarts of this new profession: at one time there was no British university offering postgraduate TEFL or linguistics courses which did not employ one of Mr Abrahams' erstwhile Swedish tutors as a lecturer.

Then, in 1968, he was asked to recruit 30 British graduates to German schools.

Remembering his own Swedish experiences, Mr Abrahams wanted to provide these recruits with practical support, so that they could devote their attention to their work. He therefore arranged for teachers to be given advice on finding accommodation, opening a bank account and paying bills, as well as basic language lessons and guidance on local culture. And thus CfBT was born.

Mr Abrahams expected his staff to take the initiative: the phrase "didn't suffer fools gladly" comes up repeatedly in CfBT teachers' recollections. If a teacher criticised a particular text book, he wanted to know what alternative materials they were producing, what conversations they had had with government ministers. He had unwavering faith in people: if staff doubted their own ability, he would meet their doubts with a stern "Yes, you can do that".

Indeed, appraisals with Mr Abrahams could often be an unexpectedly intimidating experience. Teachers were subjected to his barrister's questioning on the plans they had, the skills they were acquiring. When one teacher described a lecture as "interesting", he snapped back: "What does that mean? That means absolutely nothing."

But he also cared about his staff. He would happily stay up, drinking into the small hours with new recruits. As CfBT spread to Malaysia and Morocco, he began encouraging young couples to marry, to ensure successful careers in conservative schools.

He also set up the Platov Awards, to fund teachers' postgraduate study. Platov, he told credulous backers and government ministers, was a renowned Eastern European educationalist. It later transpired that it was an acronym, made up of his wife and children's initials.

In 1982 he married again, to Liz Bryant, then general manager at CfBT. He stood down as director to become the organisation's life president.

At the age of 64, he decided to set up a legal practice in Brunei, representing murderers facing the death sentence. He returned to Britain in 2000, where he continued to attend CfBT meetings, scouring the annual report for fodder for his barrister's questions.

Tony Abrahams died at home on 22 April. He was 87 years old.

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