Obituary: Professor Rex Cathcart

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The Independent Online
Hector Rex Cathcart, educationalist: born Dublin 29 October 1928; Headmaster, Royal School, Raphoe 1953- 60; Headmaster, Sandford Park School, Dublin, 1960-67; IBA Regional Officer in Northern Ireland 1967-73; Professor of Education, Magee College, Londonderry 1973- 77; Professor of Education, the Queen's University, Belfast 1977-94; married 1952 Hazel Storey (died 1988; two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1980), 1982 Rosalind Pritchard; died Belfast 26 August 1994.

REX CATHCART, who died within weeks of his retirement from the post of Professor of Education at Queen's University, Belfast, was a teacher with a remarkably broad range. He was a historian, a philosopher, a psychologist and a geographer as well as an educationalist. He was also a pioneer of schools broadcasting in Ireland and a man with television in his veins - he produced programmes, wrote a history of the BBC in Northern Ireland, and for a time was regional officer for the Independent Broadcasting Authority in Belfast.

He was born in 1928 in Dublin, where his father worked for an agricultural machinery firm, and won a scholarship to Trinity College Dublin. On graduating Cathcart became a teacher and by the age of 25, with his wife Hazel, was running the Royal School, Raphoe, in county Donegal, a foundation of King James I which in the early 1950s was close to closure but whose fortunes they rapidly rebuilt.

In 1960 he moved to take charge of Sandford Park School in Dublin, and by now his great appetite for learning and communication was apparent. He took a PhD in philosophy, with a study of George Berkeley, and at the same time pursued research in the geography of glaciation and in educational psychology. He also presented religious discussion programmes on the fledgling Irish television channel, RTE.

The pattern of his career was set: he read voraciously; he juggled a dozen projects in the air at once and he talked, argued and taught on all his interests with infectious enthusiasm. His office was a fair reflection of the man: every flat surface from floor to mantelpiece always piled high with books, documents and newspapers meticulously arranged in an order only he could understand (at least, he said he could).

In 1967 he moved to Belfast to join the Independent Broadcasting Authority, and in the turbulent years that followed acted as the official regulator overseeing the output of Ulster Television. At various times in this role he felt the full heat of anger from both sides of the community, and he used to joke that the situation was so volatile he had no hope of reducing or eliminating complaint; the best he might achieve was that the rival piles of complaining letters were of roughly equal height.

This experience informed his history of the BBC in the province, The Most Contrary Region (1984), in which he argued that a 'good news' policy of minimising coverage of sectarian or political tension, such as was practised by the corporation there until the late 1960s, was folly. The effect was to mask, rather than reduce, social strife, and the subsequent explosion was all the worse for it. The credibility of broadcasters, he said, depended on frank reporting.

While still at the IBA he found a new passion in the making of television programmes for schools. The series Let's Look At Ulster and This Island About Us, made and broadcast through the 1970s, allowed him to draw on his great breadth of knowledge of the physical and human landscape of Ireland. There was also a mainstream series, Ulster Landscapes, shown on Channel 4 in 1983.

From the IBA he went on to become Professor of Education, first at Magee College in Londonderry, a branch of the New University of Ulster, and then at Queen's in Belfast. In education as elsewhere, his interests ranged widely, from the use of broadcasting in schools to the teaching of children with special needs, and from community education to the psychological study of relationships and communication in the classroom.

His first marriage ended in the 1970s, and he later married another educationalist, Dr Rosalind Pritchard, and settled very happily in Coleraine. In retirement he had planned to complete a large number of projects, most notably a biography of the American revolutionary Richard Montgomery, the Irish-born general from whom the city of Montgomery, Alabama, took its name. But this summer he learnt of a recurrence of cancer and underwent surgery. He died a week later.

(Photograph omitted)

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