Tributes have flooded in for Richard Garner, the former Tes journalist and education editor of The Independent, who died this morning from cancer at the age of 69.
Mr Garner initially worked as a DJ in London pubs, as well as working for a hospital radio station, even auditioning at one point for Radio 1. He worked at Tes before reporting for the Daily Mirror and The Independent, becoming a specialist in the education sector for over three decades.
Mr Garner was influenced to become a journalist through meeting a family friend, Derek Ingram, the former editor of the Gemini News Service, and chose not to attend university after attending Highgate School in London.
Early in his career, he also worked for regional newspapers, starting out at the Kent Messenger before moving to the Birmingham Evening Mail and then going on to work at Tes, where he became news editor.
He joined the Mirror in 1989, at a time when the education system was undergoing significant upheaval following the 1988 Education Reform Act, which introduced key stages, grant-maintained schools and the national curriculum.
Describing his friend’s achievements, Ian Nash, a freelance journalist and former assistant editor of Tes, said Mr Garner “broke new ground in many ways” when working at the Mirror, convincing a national newspaper to run a page on vocational education.
“He latched on to this – he thought, 'I’m really determined to get this coverage in'. It went on for four or five years at the Mirror and no one else was doing it. It’s a small thing but an important one – it shows how he put his unique stamp on everything,” Mr Nash said.
Subsequently, Mr Garner worked at The Independent as education editor from 2001 until the paper’s closure in 2016.
At the time, his critical reporting on academies reportedly led to a row with Dominic Cummings, then education adviser to Michael Gove, according to Mr Nash.
“The Cummings clique were really pissed off, but Richard was unfazed. He really was one of the most gentle but robust journalists I’ve ever worked with,” he said.
Tributes to Mr Garner have commented on his willingness to mentor up-and-coming journalists, as well as his passion for education. Alastair Campbell described him as a “lovely man and a brilliant journalist” who “cared not just about stories but about the role of education in the life of the country and of its children and young people”.
“There are a lot of people who owe a lot to Richard for his fastidious support and help,” Mr Nash said.
His insights as a long-standing education reporter also led him to write The Thirty Years’ War: My Life Reporting on Education, published in 2016, which explored his in-depth knowledge of the sector. He knew every education secretary from the days of Sir Keith Joseph under Margaret Thatcher and beyond; he also studied alongside the future education secretary Charles Clarke at school.
Mr Nash said that while the book unpicks many controversies in education, “it does this in a very civil way".
"Anyone who knows him will describe him as balanced," Mr Nash added. “He was a reporter, that is what he does, what he thinks journalists should do, and he’s been faithful to that.”
Estelle Morris, the former Labour Party education secretary, said: "I remember my days when Richard was one of the regular faces I saw at press launches, conferences and interviews – perhaps not with pleasure, but with great warmth and the knowledge that he knew what he was talking about and was guided by honesty and commitment.
"Richard was a consummate professional. Perhaps more than that, he was a good human being and quite clearly a very dear friend."
Many have commented on his deep concern for education, and he was quoted in Richard Keeble’s 1998 media study The Newspapers Handbook as saying education journalism is “obviously political”. “But you also get the stories about individual achievement and the human interest angles,” he said. “You see how individuals are faring under the system”.
His trademark sense of humour has also been commended – on one occasion, while queuing with fellow journalist Francis Beckett to enter the Department for Education, a delivery man unleashed a stream of invectives – “that’s the new Sun education correspondent”, Mr Garner quipped.
On his retirement, he began to pursue writing fiction, and wrote three crime novels – Best Served Cold, Jill the Ripper and Three’s a Crowd.
“He didn’t retire – he just completely reinvented himself,” Mr Nash said.
And he wrote a column for Tes on the ever-changing world of education.
Mr Garner was also fanatical about cricket, and trialled for Middlesex as a pupil at Highgate. He was a lifelong member of the Marylebone Cricket Club, and during some years, his entire annual leave would be taken up with Test cricket.
Having lost his previous wife to cancer 10 years ago, Mr Garner married his third wife Barbara just three weeks ago, honouring what Mr Nash described as a “magical relationship”. His funeral will take place on 12 February, on what would have been his 70th birthday.