James Learmonth

Educationist committed to inner-city schools
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The Independent Online

James William Frederick Learmonth, educationist: born Aberdeen 19 April 1939; Headteacher, George Green's School, London 1975-80; HM Inspector of Schools 1980-89; Chief Inspector of Schools, London Borough of Richmond 1989-93; married 1964 Clare Marriott (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1993), 1994 Maggie Hughes; died London 8 August 2003.

We have grown so used to expecting leaders in all walks of life to be serious, single-minded and relentless in the pursuit of self-promotion that we are surprised to find one who refuses to conform to this pattern. The idea that a leader can be self-deprecating, have fun with family and friends and devote his or her energy to the promotion of the success of others, seems somehow unrealistic. Yet the educationist James Learmonth was just such a leader.

Learmonth was born in Aberdeen in 1939. He was the younger of two children born to Sir James Learmonth, a distinguished professor of surgery at Edinburgh University, and his American wife Charlotte. He was educated first at Edinburgh Academy and then at Glen Almond, an Episcopalian school set in the Perthshire countryside. He enrolled at Edinburgh University to study Classics but, after only one year, transferred to Cambridge to read English.

Gonville and Caius proved extremely enjoyable and led to many lifelong friendships. Learmonth spent his vacations in the United States travelling extensively when not working in a Nantucket diner. Before leaving Cambridge he completed a postgraduate certificate of education and an MSc in Moral Sciences. His special study was on adolescent personality and television, which initiated a long interest in the effects of the media. He then followed in the steps of his paternal grandfather and entered the teaching profession, applying for his first post at a London secondary school.

In 1964, Learmonth - just married to Clare Marriott - joined the staff of Eltham Green School. He embraced teaching with enthusiasm and was drawn to work with the pupils who found learning difficult. His interest in the media then re-asserted itself and he spent two years on secondment as a Schools Council fellow at Leicester University undertaking research on the mass media. He found this intellectually stimulating but missed the immediacy of contact with challenging pupils and so, in 1969, he returned to Eltham Green where he became head of remedial education. In order to ensure a supply of exciting material, he wrote several textbooks and edited, with colleagues, a series of what proved to be extremely popular anthologies based on various situations of conflict.

From 1970 to 1975 he was head of English and of the sixth form at Coopers, a selective south London school. By now he was the happy father of three and involved in the foster care of another three children. He was appointed to the headship of George Green's, a former grammar school turned comprehensive on the Isle of Dogs. He spent five years there, enjoying the splendid view of the Greenwich naval college close to where he lived for all his adult life.

Learmonth, much influenced by what he had seen in his visits to the United States, was drawn to the idea of community schooling. George Green's became one of only three designated schools in the ILEA that combined the work of the school with provision for the youth service and adult education and enjoyed close links with the local social services department. He encouraged his colleagues to think boldly and take risks. For many, he was the ideal leader: a supportive mentor, critical in a positive and encouraging way.

With this school experience under his belt, Learmonth was appointed one of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools in 1980, working in the educational disadvantage team and also inspecting drama, film and media education. These were good years for his professional work and he was much concerned with finding ways to overcome disadvantage. It was at this time, however, that his first marriage ended.

He left HMI in 1989 and was appointed Chief Inspector of the London Borough of Richmond. This involved him, for the first time, guiding and supporting suburban schools. He maintained his links with inner- city education, however, and edited an important publication: Teaching and Learning in City Schools (1993).

After four years in Richmond, he worked as an educational consultant. He was involved in the restructuring of the Chicago school system and was an Associate of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre at the Institute of Education in London. He wrote books about headship and school improvement and was founding editor of a journal devoted to these themes. He married a fellow educationist, Maggie Hughes, in 1994.

Learmonth's last major professional challenge was to create the Centre for Educational Leadership and School Improvement at Christ Church University College, Canterbury in 1997. This centre was founded on the principles and methods which he had used throughout his working life: teachers were valued, each staff body was treated as an equal partner in any improvement strategy and a wide range of experienced professionals were drawn in to support the work. Earlier this year the centre won a government contract to provide special training for Teach First, a project involving talented graduates spending a couple of years teaching in inner-city schools before embarking on other careers.

During his last year, Learmonth coped with cancer. He maintained until the end his enthusiasm for education, believing it could alter lives - especially those of inner-city pupils. He was thrilled by the birth of a first grandchild and, even when severely ill, made the journey to Melbourne to see her for a second time.

Peter Mortimore