OBITUARY:Eric Briault

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Eric Briault, geographer, athlete, conscientious objector and educator, will be remembered for his enormous contribution to the education service in London. For 20 years he was the Deputy Education Officer (1956-71) and then the Education Officer (1971-76), initially of the London County Council, then of its successor body, the Inner London Education Authority. He was a leading protagonist of the large comprehensive school as the solution to the problems of selection and the abolition of the 11 plus. He never ceased to be, at heart, a teacher - though he became a brilliant administrator.

Eric was a scholarship boy. He followed that route through grammar school in Brighton to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he took a First in Geography and gained Blues as a middle-distance and cross-country runner. He then went straight into teaching, but continued his studies by working on land utilisation in Sussex, gaining a PhD in 1939. His interest in geography, especially in field studies, remained. For 10 years (1953-63) he was honorary secretary of the Royal Geographical Society.

After 15 years' teaching, including a decade as Head of Geography at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, he was appointed Inspector of Geography with the LCC. That post carried with it the responsibilities of being the District Inspector for Lambeth. This was Briault's first exposure to working with underprivileged inner-city children, and it marked all his subsequent career. Much later, in 1973, there appeared in the Introduction to an Education Service for the Whole Community (the only ILEA report ever circulated to every teacher in London) the sentence:

We are sometimes dismayed by the way in which children are tugged apart by the divergent influences upon them: a home which has no contact with school, teachers who do not appreciate the degree of deprivation to which the child has been subjected, the leisure group, the gang, with an ethos quite different from that of either home or school.

It could have been the young Eric Briault speaking.

As an inspector with a solid teaching background, Briault well understood the need to combine support for teachers in the classroom with constructive criticism of their failings. In difficult situations, as at Risinghill Comprehensive, where he arranged for the Head's departure, he could, and did, act swiftly and resolutely when he thought that children were being short-changed. His earlier experiences stood him in good stead later on when the ILEA became the subject of adverse criticism from ill-informed sources.

At the same time, he had the weaknesses of his strengths. He could not understand those whose approach to children's needs was uninformed by any coherent values system, which made it impossible for him to comprehend the events at the William Tyndale Junior School in 1975. If he had had his way, the teachers would have been summarily dismissed: in the event, he was still giving evidence to the subsequent disciplinary tribunal in his last week of service with the ILEA.

His experience and interests meant that Briault was more concerned with London's schools than with the rest of the service, even though the ILEA had an exceptionally well- developed further and adult education service, and was responsible for about one-fifth of the country's polytechnic higher education. Briault's practice was to ensure that his senior colleagues working in the post- schools sector were on top of the job, and then, except in the provision of teacher training, to let them get on with it.

In this way, a major reorganisation of the ILEA's further education colleges was carried through in the early 1970s, and the support of the great polytechnics rested on other shoulders, even during the travails at the Polytechnic of North London. Briault continued his commitment into semi-retirement, when, having moved to Sussex, he worked as a visiting professor at the university.

He was fortunate with his politicians. In those days, public service in the great county education authorities attracted very committed and able people. London was no exception, and Eric Briault's name will always be coupled with those of (Sir) Ashley Bramall, Leader of the ILEA from 1970, and the very knowledgeable group of senior politicians who worked with him. For a brief period, it seemed as though the formidable team of tough politicians united with the highly competent officers under Eric Briault's leadership could really transform the London education service for the benefit of those it sought to serve. It was not to be, though to many observers the fault seemed to lie across the road in the DES, and in Westminster, rather than in County Hall.

Throughout his life, Briault was a committed, practising Christian. His firm faith had led him to register as a conscientious objector in the Second World War, and Protestant Christian values underpinned all he sought to do. Even when he was "the Education Officer", his colleagues knew that only the most important and immediate matter would keep him away from weekly choir practice at his church in Harrow.

To many, he seemed on first meeting to be almost excessively reserved. But he was capable of great personal warmth. He and his wife Marie (who survived him by only six days) regularly entertained newly appointed junior colleagues at their home; his human legacy is to be found in the many former members of ILEA staff who will remember him with affection and respect.

John Bevan

Eric William Henry Briault, teacher and education officer: born London 24 December 1911; Inspector of Schools, LCC 1948-56; Deputy Education Officer, ILEA 1956-71; Education Officer, ILEA 1971-76; CBE 1976; Visiting Professor of Education, Sussex University 1977-81, 1984-85; married 1935 Marie Knight (died 1996; two sons, one daughter); died Burwash, Sussex 14 January 1996.