Obituary - WH Petty - 1921-2011

17th June 2011 at 01:00

Exposed love affairs, murder and children who were terrified of foreign visitors were all part of the idiosyncratic world of local authority education in which WH Petty worked.

William Henry Petty was born in Bradford in September 1921. The son of a wool-dyer and a primary teacher, his upbringing was decidedly middle-class. So it was a genuine shock when he was confronted by ragged, impoverished primary school classmates, many of whom saw Christmas presents as an unattainable luxury.

He progressed to Bradford Grammar, after which he studied history at Peterhouse, Cambridge. But the Second World War intervened and, after a year at Cambridge, he was drafted into the army. He subsequently spent three years fighting in the jungles of Burma. On one occasion, he was given temporary leave of absence to have a tooth pulled; that day, his gun was blown up and his stand-in killed.

After the war, he returned to Cambridge and completed his degree. As a pre-war student, observing the rise of Nazism in Europe, he had been in sympathy with the Soviet Union. Now he became a quasi-socialist, eager to work in public service.

And so, on graduation, he took a job with the London education authority. Teaching had not been a temptation: his strengths always lay in management, rather than in classroom interaction.

Shortly before the war, he had met Margaret Bastow during a game of doubles tennis. They waited until William's graduation before finally marrying, in 1948. Two daughters and a son - TES columnist Stephen Petty - followed between 1953 and 1959.

After several years in London and Doncaster, Mr Petty was appointed assistant education officer for the North Riding of Yorkshire. Here, his job was to visit local schools, checking that they were being run properly.

And so began his introduction to the often idiosyncratic world of rural schools. In one school, for example, two local headteachers were discovered to be having an affair when one of them accidentally posted a love letter in an envelope addressed to the county school meals service. In another - somewhat isolated - school, pupils reacted to Mr Petty's Nigerian guest by cowering under their desks in fear.

This job suited Mr Petty perfectly: he was a fond observer of life's quirks. In later life, he and Margaret holidayed with a couple who repeatedly referred to themselves as "from north Essex". The implication, Mr Petty believed, was that the "north" tempered the embarrassment of being from Essex.

But he was never cruel in his observations. In fact, generosity and goodwill often guided his actions. On holiday, he would deliberately shun popular restaurants in favour of those struggling to drum up business. Inevitably, it became apparent why these restaurants were empty: Petty family holidays were characterised by a series of mediocre dinners.

The years in North Riding were marred by a tyrannical boss, prone to making staff work on Christmas Day, and reducing them to tears. When, in 1964, Mr Petty took up the post of deputy education officer in Kent, he resolved to be a more approachable boss, visiting every school in the authority.

Kent, too, was not without local characters. One headteacher, for example, was convicted of murdering one of his dinner staff, with whom he had had an affair. He then faked his own drowning, only to be spotted several days later, walking in Canterbury with his new girlfriend.

In North Riding, Mr Petty had helped to introduce comprehensive schools; here, he was back in a selective system. When pressed, however, he was equivocal as to which system he preferred.

In 1974, he was promoted to head of education. His job, he believed, was to rein in some of the wilder suggestions of local councillors, tactfully guiding them in the right direction. Despite his socialist past, he was happy to work with politicians from any party, as long as they were prepared to listen and learn.

He retired in 1984, and immediately began reading the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare and all Dickens' novels. This, however, was coupled with a fondness for murder mysteries.

He also used retirement to work on his army and education memoirs. And he continued writing poetry, a hobby for which he had already won prizes. Typically, his verse was light, but with dark undertones: sunlight shining through trees, against a backdrop of greater bleakness.

Mr Petty was admitted to hospital in January. In early April, he was released into a care home; he died on 19 April, aged 89.

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