Professor John Tomlinson

Committed educationist tasked with the creation of the General Teaching Council
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The Independent Online

The ability to inspire confidence is an enviable attribute for someone in a leadership role. Such confidence is usually evoked through a subtle mixture of talents, self assurance and the capacity to cope with pressure. For anyone who has held leadership positions for over 40 years in both local government and a university, and who has experienced so many changes of policy and practice, this ability must have been of an enormous benefit. Yet the educationist John Tomlinson not only inspired confidence but also won the respect and affection of those with whom he worked.

Like many, Tomlinson had his share of contrasting attitudes: as a good teacher, he loved taking on the role of mentor, yet remained always keen to learn himself; as a tough boss, he would demand the highest standards, yet for those troubled in any way he was sympathetic and supportive; as a "man's man" he loved his London clubs, city dinners and real ale, yet he championed the position of women. As one of his colleagues at Warwick University noted in the Festschrift (Living Education) given to Tomlinson on his retirement as Professor of Education in 1997, he was radical and progressive in his views on education, yet he had a deep feeling for continuities and traditions.

John Tomlinson was born in 1932. He was educated at Stretford Grammar School in Trafford and at Manchester University. After completing a history degree, he studied at the Institute for Historical Research at London University where he was awarded an MA. He married Audrey Barrett in 1954 and together they brought up four children. His National Service, in keeping with family tradition, was spent in the RAF where he secured a three-year commission, emerging, in 1958, as a flight lieutenant. Having taught young RAF recruits a variety of GCE subjects and gained experience in organisation and management he opted, in civilian life, for teaching and educational administration.

Tomlinson taught in secondary schools and lectured in Workers' Educational Association evening classes for two years before applying for the post of administrative assistant in the Education Department of the County of Shropshire. He soon realised that the planning and organisation of public education was his métier and proceeded to devote the next 24 years to this task.

After three years learning the ropes in rural Shropshire, he sought promotion in another large county authority - Lancashire. As a new assistant education officer he was given the challenging task of overseeing the move to comprehensive schooling. Convinced of the benefits, not least the social justice, of extending equality of opportunity to many more children, he threw himself with gusto into public consultation, teacher redeployment and the design of a new curriculum.

Four years later, Tomlinson applied to be Deputy County Education Officer in Cheshire. Here, he learned to deal with the myriad issues that, before self-managing schools, were dealt with by the office. When the top job became available in 1971 the County Education Committee immediately appointed him to the role. It is easy to forget the powers which local education authorities and their chief officers enjoyed before these were so drastically pruned by successive governments. The appointment of a 38-year-old to such a post was risky. But, in the event, it proved highly successful. Tomlinson remained with Cheshire for the next 12 years, providing its schools, colleges and services with wise and authoritative leadership.

During his tenure in Cheshire, Tomlinson also established a national profile. From 1973 to 1976 he was a member of the Court Committee, established to redesign national child health services. From 1978, until its abolition by a hostile government in 1981, he chaired the Schools Council. This was a collaborative venture - supported by local authorities and the teacher unions - concerned with the promotion of innovative developments in curriculum and assessment. He was elected by his peers chairman of the Society of Education Officers in 1982.

After 17 years in Cheshire, it was time for a change of career and Tomlinson successfully applied for the joint posts of Professor and Director of the Institute of Education at Warwick University. In some ways it was a natural return to the scholarship which he had begun all those years earlier in London but, unlike many academics, he also brought to the professor's chair years of practical experience of running an education service. From this base, he lectured, undertook research and busied himself with the administration of a university, steering his colleagues through, by now for him, the well-charted but still tricky waters of reorganisations.

Outside the university, he spoke at many conferences, chaired a Committee on Freedom of Information for the Inner London Education Authority (where I learned to appreciate his excellent qualities), enthusiastically promoted the links between education and industry, and was chairman of the council of the Royal Society of Arts. He was made a Freeman of the City of London in 1989 and elected a liveryman of the Goldsmiths' Company in 1991.

While at Warwick, he led an inquiry into how further education colleges should best relate to students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. The Tomlinson Committee reported in 1996. Its publication, Inclusive Learning, provided a definition of inclusion based on the best match between individual learning requirements and provision. Instead of focusing on the student's deficit, colleges were encouraged to concentrate their efforts on redesigning courses, learning tasks or environments to help individuals learn more effectively.

Retiring from full-time work in 1997, to tend his beloved garden and pursue his interests in the arts, Tomlinson was persuaded to take on the role of academic secretary of UCET, the Universities Council for Education of Teachers. In this capacity he helped co-ordinate the universities' responses to the numerous reforms of teacher training.

The quest for a General Teaching Council had been pursued by some teachers since the mid-19th century. After a failed attempt to establish a council in the 1970s, a number of individuals renewed the effort from the mid 1980s. Tomlinson was the obvious person to bind the somewhat disparate groups supporting the idea into a cohesive campaigning group and it is largely thanks to his work that the Council was established in 2000. He then served as its first vice-chair, supporting the government-appointed chairman, Lord Puttnam, for its first two years.

It was also in 2000 that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He lived the next five years with dignity and courage, continuing to work in various educational charities.

Peter Mortimore

John Tomlinson was part of a remarkable generation of committed educationists, one that stretches back to Sir Alec Clegg and even earlier, writes David Puttnam. I had the privilege of working with John during the period, following the 1997 general election, when we were jointly tasked with the establishment of the General Teaching Council.

The creation of a GTC had been the dream of John's life, and it says everything about him that, when ill health made it difficult for him to accept the chair, he so warmly and generously agreed to serve as my deputy. His task could not have been made all that easy by my hopeless lack of educational experience, and on more than one occasion John saved my bacon by gently explaining to bemused Council colleagues what he "thought I'd really meant".

John was a gentle, knowledgeable man with a broad range of interests - he wore his massive educational experience lightly and was always prepared to listen to the possibility that there was a new or better way of doing things. He was remarkably tolerant of my belief in the potential technology, particularly digital technology, offered to the process of teaching and learning. It was largely through John's patience that a synthesis between the technophobes and the techno-nerds has been forged which is now driving a great deal of what's best in curricular development.

John's dream of a professional body representing the whole of the teaching profession, and working alongside the unions, has had a bumpy birth and a difficult childhood, but he always predicted that would be the case. He never believed he would live to see it fully formed, but equally he never doubted the important role it could eventually play in the development of education in England. I find it hard to imagine anyone of John's generation who did more to advance the cause of teaching and learning.

Surely the greatest tribute the world of education can pay to John Tomlinson's memory is in ensuring the reputation and success of what was, in every sense, his creation: the General Teaching Council of England.