Obituary - Tyrrell Burgess 1931-2009

15th May 2009 at 01:00

The idiosyncrasies of the British education system are not the most reader-friendly of topics. But, for teachers trained in the 1960s and 1970s, Tyrrell Burgess's A Guide to English Schools proved an unexpectedly accessible introduction to the profession.

In a career spanning 40 years, Burgess also championed the devolution of power to individual schools, founded a governors' association and pioneered the pupil-led curriculum. And in between, he served as news editor of The TES.

Born in Essex in 1931, Tyrrell Burgess was head boy at Royal Liberty Grammar, before taking up a scholarship for modern history at Keble College, Oxford.

Quick to grasp complex ideas, but also able to convey them in simple terms, he naturally gravitated towards teaching.

But his ambitions always lay beyond the classroom. He wanted to influence public policy, to direct the course of education for more than one small group of pupils.

And so, in 1957, he joined The TES as a reporter. By the time he left, in 1960, he was news editor. He later became assistant editor of New Society magazine and education correspondent of The Guardian.

His ability to comprehend and condense was well suited to journalism. At the time, education policy was largely devolved to local authorities. So in his A Guide to English Schools, published in 1964, he outlined the peculiarities of each authority, clarifying a complex system for a generation of trainees.

While working in journalism, Burgess met his wife, Joan. He was travelling overland from Entebbe in Uganda to Cape Town; she was South African. Her initial delight at being given his address soon diminished when she saw his notoriously bad handwriting. But Burgess persevered, and they were married five months later.

Their eldest son, Russell, was born in 1960 (and died in 2004), followed by Marc, Tanya and, finally, Radha in 1972.

Meanwhile, Burgess was increasingly dissatisfied with merely writing about policy; he wanted to change things from within. In the 1964 general election, he stood, unsuccessfully, as Labour candidate for Croydon Central. After his defeat, he accepted a post at the London School of Economics.

In 1968, he moved to North-East London Polytechnic (Nelp), where he branched out to areas as diverse as the NHS, the Indian forestry commission and Maltese local government.

But he was not someone who could be defined by any one job. Instead, he would take the lessons learnt in each and absorb them into an adaptable body of knowledge.

This often led him to views at odds with the establishment. For example, at a time when schools had to apply to the council for all expenditure, Burgess believed schools knew best what their pupils needed and that they should be accountable only to senior management and governors.

It was in pursuit of this goal that he founded the National Association of Governors and Managers in 1970 (he delighted in the appositeness of its acronym - Nag 'em).

He also established the School for Independent Studies at Nelp, encouraging undergraduates to draw up individual study programmes.

He believed these ideals could be applied in schools. He wanted pupils to have a greater say in their curriculum. Academic ability was less important to him than willingness to try; he was a firm advocate of the Victorian ideal of self-improvement. Indeed, his own drive for self-improvement led him to pursue interests in architecture, art and music. And he wrote copiously. There were more books about education, but also comic poetry for his children and witty (if illegible) postcards to his friends.

He was still sending these when he was wheelchair-bound with prostate cancer. Until the end, former colleagues remarked that they rarely laughed - or thought - as hard as they did in his company.

Tyrrell Burgess died on April 24. He is survived by his wife and three children.

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