Post-war renaissance man set the standard;People;Obituary

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Sir Peter Newsam remembers Sir Ashley Bramall of the Inner London Education Authority.

Sir Ashley Bramall, leader of the Inner London Education Authority from April 1970 to May 1981, died on February 10, aged 83.

In the immediate post-war years, Sir Ashley - as he became in 1975 - helped in the reconstruction of the trade union movement in Germany, was an MP for four years and called to the Bar. Thereafter, he pursued a legal career in the intervals left free by his other interests.

But it is as a local government leader, and pre-eminently as an educator, that Sir Ashley will be remembered. His energy was prodigious. From 1970 until comparatively recently, he chaired the governors of Pimlico School, London, attending unfailingly until just a few weeks ago. For five years he led the management side of the Burnham Committee on teachers' salaries.

At the ILEA he led the authority from April l970 until May 1981, an uninterrupted period of office unprecedented in the 110 preceding years.

After the only one of the l65 policy committee meetings during those years which he did not chair, a small mistake occurred. "Comes of leaving it to a supply teacher", he remarked, not entirely in jest.

The London education service over which Sir Ashley presided during the 1970s was large. Its responsibilities included the funding of five polytechnics, now universities, 27 colleges of further education, eight colleges of education about a quarter of all the adult education taking place in England, more than a thousand schools and so on. The service had a proud history.

But in the preceding years, some 500,000 people, including children and their teachers, had left for new housing outside London. Their numbers were only partially replaced by some 250,000 newcomers, mostly from overseas and many with no experience of urban living.

So it was that, in the early 1970s, an acute teacher shortage and an unsettled and sharply falling population meant that, despite islands of stability, a disconcerting number of schools were close to breakdown.

Confronted by problems on this scale, with the support of able political colleagues, Sir Ashley was exactly the right person in the right place.

To officials, such as myself, his qualities included a breadth of knowledge of educational issues, total commitment, a fine legal brain, which included a strong sense of natural justice, and a willingness to listen and weigh the evidence before deciding what to do.

Sir Ashley understood political leadership. He was prepared to balance the interests of the future against those of the present and to have the courage to be unpopular in the process. Change is seldom in the interests of those directly affected by it.

So, to take one of many examples, reducing the number of secondary schools from 223 in 1970 to 182 by the end of the decade was not easy or popular; nor was the decision to end corporal punishment in secondary schools.

But both decisions were right. In his dealings with people, to be direct rather than tactful was Sir Ashley's priority. "It is really a question," he remarked to the other candidates for the post of education officer, to which I had just been appointed, "of settling for the devil we know..."

Behind the formidable front he sometimes presented, there was another Sir Ashley Bramall, for whom music and family were inextricably combined. That the expressive arts still retain their importance in London's schools owes much to the unfailing support Sir Ashley gave to them during his leadership of the ILEA.

Family and friends are planning a gathering in April or May this year, possibly at County Hall, where those who knew Sir Ashley can meet to remember him.

Sir Peter Newsam was an education officer of the ILEA and is a former director of the University of London Institute of Education

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