JOHN BENN arrived in Northern Ireland on 31 August 1935 to take up a post as Inspector of Schools on the staff of the then Ministry of Education. He was 27 years old. His first posting was to Londonderry, where he was joined by his wife Rosemary and young family. They were to live there for the next nine years.
Transferred to the ministry's headquarters in 1944, he was given the task of devising and instituting a scheme of emergency teacher training for ex-service men and women. Following the Butler Act, which became operative in England and Wales in 1944, the ministry decided to reorganise the Northern Ireland Education system and he was asked to prepare the legislation. The Education Act (Northern Ireland) 1947 followed.
Benn played a major part in the introduction of the new arrangements for secondary education and the necessary extensive school building programme, as well as in the development of a new examination system which included the establishment in Northern Ireland of the GCE, accepted throughout the United Kingdom on a par with the GCE of the English and Welsh Boards.
Subsequently he was put in charge of the reorganisation of further education which saw the establishment of strong full- and part-time further education courses leading to United Kingdom qualifications such as Royal Society of Arts, City and Guilds of London Institute and the Higher National Certificates and Diplomas of the professional engineering bodies. He took an official and personal interest in the setting up of the Rupert Stanley College as Northern Ireland's first further education establishment. He became Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education in 1964 and was appinted CB in 1969.
His years at the ministry were a time of major development leading to the establishment of an education system which has served Northern Ireland well. A particular feature was his emphasis on consultation with others involved in the system - teachers, administrators, churches and professional bodies.
In December 1969 a programme of general reform in Northern Ireland agreed with the then British Home Secretary included the establishment of a Commissioner for Complaints who would examine allegations of unfair practice by local and public bodies. Benn was always concerned about closer relationships between the two communities in Northern Ireland, and it came as no surprise that he was offered the post of Commissioner. He was the ideal man for the job. His acceptance was tinged with sadness at the severing of his long association with the Ministry of Education.
When the Commissioners for Local Administration for England and Wales were appointed in 1974 the procedures they adopted were broadly those laid down by Benn when he established his office in 1969. He was also Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration until his retirement from both posts in December 1973.
After his retirement he continued his interest in education with appointments as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Schools Examination Council and as Chairman of the board of governors of both the Rupert Stanley College of Further Education in Belfast and Sullivan Upper School in Holywood. In 1979 he was elected Pro- Chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, and served in that capacity until 1986.
Benn had for many years been involved with the Social Study Conference founded in 1952 by a group of individuals from different parts of Ireland who shared a common interest in social issues. He attended many conferences and was given the task of summing up at the end of the summer schools held at Corrymeela (Ballycastle) in 1979, Galway in 1980, and Kilkenny in 1984. The continuing violence and unrest in the province caused him much sadness as all his life he had been a champion of reconciliation.
Benn was born in Burnley and never forgot his Lancastrian roots. He often spoke of his visits to Turf Moor when Burnley Football Club were riding high in the First Division. A member of the Holywood Players, he was commended in 1976 for his playing of the part of General Sir William Boothroyd in Lloyd George Knew My Father. In 1978 he undertook the daunting role of Noah in the play of that name, drawing favourable comment in the local press.
As an active supporter of his local parishes, he was instrumental in having a peal of 10 bells placed in the tower of St Mark's, Dundela, Belfast, where he was chairman of the bell-ringers for 30 years. He will be remembered with affection by all those people on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland whose lives he touched.
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