Edgar Heelas

Influential inspector of schools
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The Independent Online

Edgar Henry Heelas, schoolteacher and inspector of schools: born London 4 June 1908; teacher, Rochester Grammar School 1930-38; teacher, Beckenham School 1945; teacher, Peckers Retreat House 1945-48; Inspector of Schools, Liverpool City Council 1948-53; Inspector of Schools, City of Birmingham 1953-73; married 1946 Kathleen Launders (died 2000; three sons); died Birmingham 19 May 2003.

Between 1961 and 1982, Dunera, Devonia, Nevasa and Uganda, the converted troop ships of the British India Steam Navigation Company, carried more than a million pupils between the ages of 12 and 17 on educational 13-day cruises. They voyaged south to Coruña, Gibraltar and Lisbon, and in winter into the Mediterranean, sometimes going even as far as Madeira, Tenerife and Dakar. The ship schools in summer went north to Bergen, Oslo, Copenhagen, Hamburg and Amsterdam, and in high summer to Stockholm, Leningrad, as it then was, and Riga.

Since most of the voyages took place in term-time, it was necessary for British India, and their parent company, P&O, to have a heavyweight Educational Advisory Committee, to give the Ship School Scheme the imprimatur of educational legitimacy, without which the local education authorities would simply not have allowed their pupils off school. Of this board, the most influential member, serving for 20 years, was Edgar Heelas

Heelas was Inspector of Schools for the City of Birmingham, 1953-73, and the protégé of Sir Lionel Russell, Chief Education Officer of Birmingham, 1946-68, and president of the Association of Chief Education Officers, 1955-57. Lord Rooker, Minister of State, Housing and Planning in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, says:

I knew Edgar Heelas particularly well when I was a co-opted member of the City of Birmingham Educational Committee. In his crisp white collar and immaculate three-piece suit, he cared more about the schools and what actually happened in them than most of the local authority bureaucrats of the day. He was incredibly helpful to me, both on school visitations and in guiding me and other councillors about which teachers deserved promotion. He was a genuine enthusiast and such a caring man that well into his middle nineties he would use me as a conduit to funnel his ideas on education to the Education Secretary, the Birmingham MP for Yardley, Estelle Morris.

Not only did Heelas win Russell's total trust but also that of his successor as Chief Education Officer of Birmingham, Kenneth Brooksbank, who recognised that no one was offering more imaginative ideas about the appropriate education for secondary modern pupils than Heelas. Sheila Wright, former chairman of the Birmingham Education Committee and MP for Handsworth, 1979-83, held Heelas in the highest regard both for the way in which he produced schemes to help disadvantaged children and in particular for the way in which he would protect and promote teachers of subcontinental or Afro-Caribbean origin. The children of Birmingham owe a lot to Heelas for the city's excellent record in education of ethnic minorities.

But it was not only the educationists that he impressed. I vividly remember going in some trepidation to meet the formidable brothers Sir Colin Anderson and Sir Donald Anderson, chairman and director of the P & O, who interrogated those of us involved in the ship schools project. Heelas's demeanour, and mastery of what he wanted to achieve on behalf of pupils, most of whom had failed to get into grammar school, deeply impressed the hard-headed businessmen. He also gained the respect of Commodore Ben Rogers, Commodore of the BI Fleet, and other experienced captains like Ivan Bowerman.

My personal experience of Heelas's kindness chimes with Rooker's. Heelas came himself on an early voyage of the Dunera. At the end of a long day in which the 800 pupils had visited the Monastery of the Jeronimos, the Tower of Belem, the Palaces of Sintra and Pena, and the boys' team from the ship had played against a Portuguese boys' team, Heelas took me aside. In a considerate way, over one-and-a-half hours he took me through the day, referring to his notebook with all sorts of suggestions of a constructive nature. I experienced exactly what Birmingham colleagues have told me since - Heelas was a quite superb improver of teachers.

Edgar Heelas was born in Camberwell, south-east London, in 1908, the son of a man whose job it was to go round the capital making sure that the public clocks, including Big Ben, were properly maintained. One of Edgar Heelas's main memories of Rolls Road Primary School in Bermondsey was a camping trip to Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands in 1919, where he met a similar group of German youths. They turned out to be little different from his school friends and he often referred to this encounter as the source of his international outlook.

After training at Shoreditch Training College 1925-29, Heelas found his first job in 1932 at Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematics School in Rochester. He then went on to teach mathematics at Tottenham Grammar, leaving on the outbreak of the Second World War for Beckenham School. Rather to his regret, his was a reserved occupation and it gave him great sorrow that he was training boys who on leaving school were often killed in the RAF. To the end of his life Heelas kept the uniform which he was given as RAF representative in Beckenham School.

In 1945 he went to Peckers Retreat House, a school for semi-delinquent and delinquent boys where he became convinced of the need for pre-emptive remedial approaches. He told me that one of the reasons why he was prepared to devote so much energy to the ship schools project was his deep belief that when 12- to 14-year-olds were given challenges, they were less likely to be 14- to 16-year-old delinquents. In 1948 Heelas applied for a job with the inspectorate of Liverpool City Council, from where he moved on to Birmingham.

After he retired in 1973 from two decades as a pivotal figure in Birmingham education, he continued an interest in historic places. His enquiring mind had been an example to thousands of teachers and, said his three sons, Paul, Richard and Stephen, "he retained his inquisitiveness and authority to the end".

Tam Dalyell