John Dorrell

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The Independent Online

Ernest John Dorrell, educational administrator: born Stogursey, Somerset 31 March 1915; Assistant Master, Dauntsey's School 1937-40, 1946-47; Administrative Assistant, West Riding Education Department 1947-50; Deputy Director of Education, Oxfordshire County Council 1950-70, Director 1970-74; Secretary, Incorporated Association of Headmasters 1975-77; Secretary, Headmasters' Conference 1975-79; General Secretary, Secondary Heads Association 1978-79; married 1940 Vona Jones (deceased; one son, and one daughter deceased); died Oxford 11 March 2002.

John Dorrell was, remarkably, the only educational administrator to have been both a local authority director of education (for Oxfordshire County Council) and the general secretary of a major teacher association (the Secondary Heads Association).

He was born, in 1915, and brought up in Stogursey, west Somerset. An Exhibitioner at Exeter College, Oxford, where he read Greats and met Vona Jones, his future wife, he took up a teaching post in 1937 at Dauntsey's School, near Devizes, in Wiltshire, a quite progressive boys' boarding school which was to lead the way in forming partnerships with mainstream day schools in Wiltshire.

After three years, Dorrell's teaching was interrupted by the Second World War and he served for six years in North Africa, Greece and Italy. In 1946 he returned for a year to Dauntsey's but, like many of his generation, sought wider scope to change the post-war world, and in 1947 was appointed to the post of Assistant Education Officer for the West Riding of Yorkshire, to work with the leading educational administrator and reformer of the day, Sir Alec Clegg.

In 1950 Dorrell became Deputy Director of Education for Oxfordshire, and for 20 years worked quietly with another inspirational legend, the charismatic and unpredictable A.R. Chorlton. As always, Dorrell was the ideal partner and foil, purposefully unflappable and reliable. He would visit all the 300 schools regularly; he was universally respected and trusted, and headteachers regarded him as a professional and personal friend.

His aim was to encourage and enable Oxfordshire schools not only to achieve high academic standards but also to develop the experience and characters of pupils, especially in the arts, with music and drama prominent, and in residential centres run by Oxfordshire in Somerset, Wales, and the Lake District. In the same spirit, he promoted school exchanges with other European countries and in Africa.

In 1970, he became Director of Education, and with his team of officers and advisers continued to strengthen the ties with schools and governing bodies. The Sixties and early Seventies were years of national reforms, many of them, such as the transformation of the primary school curriculum and ethos, and the widening of governing bodies, to increase the representation of parents in particular, anticipated in Oxfordshire.

The planned raising of the school leaving age was used as the opportunity to change to comprehensive schools, which John Dorrell guided through in the county, carefully and sensitively. The result was that Oxfordshire was well ahead of its neighbours in development, and parents from the more slow-moving Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, and the still separate City of Oxford were showing their preference for Oxfordshire comprehensive schools.

As Director of Education, Dorrell was to lead the county and its neighbours into the Redcliffe-Maud proposals for local government reform, largely implemented in 1974, and these included the merging of the Oxford City and County Education Departments, as well as the incorporation into Oxfordshire of particularly tricky parts of Berkshire. The plans having been well laid, and the new County Council becoming divided by the formal arrival of dominantly rearguard-action party politics, it was time for Dorrell to relinquish the Directorship.

After a short interlude of international consultancy, this freed him to succeed Jim Pitts-Tucker in 1975 as Joint General Secretary of the Headmasters' Association (HMA) and Headmasters' Conference. HMA, which brought together the headmasters of all forms of secondary school, maintained and private, selective and comprehensive, had never before appointed a general secretary who had not been a headmaster, but Dorrell was recognised as the model professional partner in times of turbulence and change.

There was more to come: professional associations were compelled by new legislation to become trade unions if they were to continue to represent their members' employment interests; and there was increasing pressure from within and without for the ending of single-sex associations. Headmistresses had their own association, the AHM, also incorporating the Girls' Schools Association. Once more, Dorrell, with his AHM counterpart, was called upon to see through in 1978 a complicated merger between the century-old HMA and AHM, to form the new Secondary Heads Association, SHA.

I had the double privilege of being Principal of an Oxfordshire school and becoming President of SHA during this transition period, and was one of the group of heads charged with bringing about the amalgamation, so I had a particularly close view of Dorrell's achievement in carrying this through with quiet courtesy, diplomacy, patience, good-humour, background preparation and sound management skills, as well as ever timely Socratic questioning which enabled us to grow together harmoniously whilst having to weather the arrival of the Thatcher government and the breakdown of political consensus on education. Dorrell became the SHA's first general secretary and paved the way for its future development.

John Dorrell suffered the grief of the premature death of his wife, Vona, and then of his only daughter, Trish. However, her children and those of his son, Hugh, continued to enrich his later years. In 1980 he retired to Shillingford, in Oxfordshire, sustaining much voluntary work, whether as governor of Taunton School, where he had been a scholarship boy, or at the local Warborough Primary School. He had been a commissioner in the scout movement and remained very active in his local church.

John Sayer