The textbook socialist who sold 91m copies

16th December 1994 at 00:00
The right-wing father of the GCSE and the left-wing father of the English Today books both had fans on the other side of the political spectrum.

To many English teachers in the 60s and 70s, he was the ultimate bogy man. "Ridout" meant repetitive, mind-narrowing course books and prescriptive grammar exercises. To other generations, his books were lifelines bringing order and structure to their teaching.

Ronald Ridout, who died in South Africa on December 5, appears in the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific British textbook writer. He wrote more than 500 books and sold 91 million copies. As a result, at one time he had houses in London, Surrey, the Dordogne, Portugal, Ibiza and St Lucia.

It may surprise more radical critics, in, for example, the National Association of Teachers of English, to hear that he always considered himself a socialist. Indeed, at the beginning of his teaching career, he had to move from job to job most years, and headteachers objected to him discussing Marxism in the classroom.

He was born in 1915, educated at a grammar school in Farnham, Surrey (where his father was a geography teacher). Despite later considering himself an under-achiever, he gained an Oxford degree and entered teaching, subsequently becoming head of English at a Portsmouth secondary school.

Here, he produced all his own worksheets. "Every evening I analysed the results. I was a very organised teacher and I used that period to write the first two textbooks." These he submitted to the publisher Ginn, whose editor wrote back immediately: "Mr Ridout, we think that this is the book we have been waiting 25 years for."

These books were to turn into the five-part English Today, the course which directed English teaching for 20 years. He gave up teaching and worked on Ginn's sales staff until becoming a full-time writer in 1950. When his books began to sell overseas, he set off to learn about Africa - walking across Nigeria and Sierra Leone in baggy shorts and sandals, carrying a huge basket of his books. Realising how inappropriate they seemed, he produced new ones without references to snowball fights and skating.

Ridout recognised that his books did not suit the "creativity in everything" school. His critics, however, have not always recognised his concern simultaneously to develop linguistic skills and confidence.

Always pragmatic, when budget schoolbooks began to pall he turned to other markets, invested in a new publishing venture and a Bournemouth language centre.

A dapper, bronzed man, he could be puritanical but he was never proud, never arrogant. However he is remembered by those who had to toil through his exercises, one thing is sure. As one of his more recent publishers, Martin Pick, of Belitha Press, points out: "He would have hated to be championed as a darling of the new Right."

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