Wherever she worked, she was loved

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Biddy Passmore remembers Caroline St John-Brooks, former TES editor, who died this week

Caroline St John-Brooks, who edited The TES from 1997 until the end of 2000, died of cancer early on Monday.

Although she had been ill at intervals for some years, her great number of friends and acquaintances will find the bleak fact of her death hard to grasp. To them she seemed inextinguishable.

A clear writer with a strong academic streak - rare in a journalist - she was able to call on a wide range of research and contacts throughout the world to inform her writing.

But it was her personal gifts that made her oustanding as a journalist and as a friend. Clever, original and witty, she was quite without malice.

Whether interviewing a teacher or dealing with a colleague, she played straight and she was fun, filling them with her own sense of enthusiasm.

She made things happen by making people believe they could do them.

Wherever she worked, she was loved: not something that can be said of many journalists, let alone editors.

Although an intellectual, whose holidays in Cannes and Cornwall always included hours in bookshops, Caroline was far from dry. Her Anglo-Irish background showed in her love of conversation, exchanging ideas and gossip with equal relish.

As editor of The TES, she reorganised what had become a rather sprawling, undifferentiated newspaper, launching the feature-led Friday magazine and aiming to concentrate on positive news and good practice to cheer up a demoralised profession.

She became editor on the day Tony Blair was swept to power. To Caroline, a long-standing Labour supporter with a passionate belief in state education, the timing could not have been more fortunate. She bubbled with enthusiasm for the new Government and its commitment to "education, education, education".

But Caroline was not really a New Labour person. Committed to social equality and comprehensive schools (she sent her own children, Tom and Martha, to local London comprehensives), she was appalled by the undermining of the "bog-standard comprehensive" and opposed moves to extend the market in education.

She herself would never have dreamt of moving house to be near a good school - although she was amused rather than censorious with those who did, or even those who opted for the private sector. (She resolutely declined membership of BUPA, a normal perk of journalists working for News International and, until two or three days before her death, preferred to be on an open ward.) On the other hand, she welcomed the Government's standards agenda and its insistence that every child had a right to be educated, fully backing the literacy and numeracy strategies. In an article in the millennium edition of The TES, she pointed out that this was the first British government really to support this basic aspect of social equality.

Caroline's own background was far from under-privileged. She was the daughter of Major Julian Gordon de Renzy St John-Brooks who, on leaving the army, set up with his wife a restaurant in the family manor house near Almondsbury in Gloucestershire. The food was good and lively debate encouraged between the conservative parents and their rebellious offspring.

Caroline and her two sisters were sent off to board at the Royal School in Bath (their brother Justin went to Harrow). Caroline hated it. Asked recently by a friend if her schooling had been as bad as that depicted in the recent Channel 4 television series That'll Teach 'Em she replied with feeling, "much worse". She prevailed on her parents to let her leave and attend Thornbury grammar school for the sixth form.

True to her Anglo-Irish roots, she opted to study at Trinity College, Dublin, where she took her degree in English in 1970. But she was becoming more and more interested in education and social policy, moving to the new University of Ulster to take an MA on the history of education broadcasting in Ireland. There she met her future husband Roger Hampson. He too moved later into social policy, first as an academic and then in local government, and is now chief executive of Redbridge council in London.

After her son Tom was born, Caroline completed a doctorate at Bristol University on the transmission of values in the teaching of English literature and lectured part-time in English at the then Bristol Polytechnic.

While still living in Bristol, she launched herself on a career in journalism, becoming education correspondent of the magazine New Society in 1979. She moved to The Sunday Times in 1987, becoming education editor. Her dauighter was born in 1985.

Caroline joined The TES as assistant editor in 1990, launching the "Update" series with National Curriculum Update, Research Focus and writing the diary, as well as other articles and leaders.

It was during this period that she had her first episode of breast cancer, although she seemed completely cured. In 1994, she accepted a demanding job as administrator for the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. She researched and wrote a series of international reports - on evaluation of school performance, education and career guidance and co-operation between school and family - published between 1995 and 1997.

She returned to The TES as editor in May 1997 but her tenure was to be short-lived. In March 2000, she discovered that the cancer she had fought off 10 years earlier had returned. Again the treatment seemed successful and she returned to work in the summer. But she could not combat overwhelming fatigue and felt it sensible to resign that autumn.

She continued to contribute a lively column to The TES, however, and remained much in demand to chair and speak at conferences, even undertaking further work for the OECD. But in due course the cancer returned and became more generalised. She bore the operations and chemotherapy with good humour and a sort of clear-eyed optimism, although she knew by this spring she did not have long to live. She continued to enjoy the company of her many local friends in Greenwich (many of them educationists), retaining her passion for education and ideas and demonstrating to the full her ability to enjoy the moment.

Before she died, she was delighted by the news that her daughter, Martha, had done extremely well in her A-levels.

Her son Tom, who studied at Cambridge, is now a PR consultant for charities.


From academia to journalism

* 1947: Born in Oxford.

* 1958-65: Educated at the Royal School, Bath, and Thornbury Grammar School, Gloucestershire.

* 1966-70: Studied English at Trinity College, Dublin.

* 1970-71: Studied for a masters in education from the university of Ulster.

* 1971-73: Part-time English lecturer at Portrush catering college, and education writer for The Irish Times.

* 1972: Married Roger Hampson, now chief executive of Redbridge council, London. They have a son, Tom, and daughter, Martha.

* 1975-80: PhD in education at Bristol University.

* 1976-79: Part-time English lecturer at Bristol Polytechnic.

* 1979-87: New Society magazine's education correspondent.

* 1987-90: Education editor of The Sunday Times.

* 1990-94: Assistant editor of the Times Educational Supplement.

* 1994-97: Researcher and administrator at the Organisation for European Co-operation and Development in Paris.

* 1997-2000: Editor of The Times Educational Supplement.

* 2000-03: TES contributor and columnist.

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