Harold Dent


Saturday 22 October 2011 23:31

Harold Dent, who died six weeks after reaching his centenary, more than any other individual not in government played a central part in the battle for the 1944 Education Act, the passage of which was by no means a foregone conclusion.

Appointed "acting" editor of the Times Education Supplement in July 1940 (when its future was in doubt) he transformed an obscure journal focusing only on the public- and grammar-school world into a mass-circulation instrument propagating social and educational change and faithfully reflecting new developments throughout the world of education. The Supplement became a major force supporting, indeed leading, the movement for legislation culminating in the Act.

Dent's appointment took place partly by chance. A freelance journalist (with teaching experience), he had made occasional contributions to the TES in the late Thirties and was a familiar figure at student and youth conferences. His appointment was originally stop-gap but success soon led to permanence. Most striking was a series of four leading articles in June and July 1941 in which Dent defined his ideas on the totally new approach to education demanded by current circumstances. The principle of equality of opportunity, he wrote, "demands a total reform based on a new conception of the place, status and function of education in a democratic State, not a patching and padding of the present system." But this would be fought "openly, subtly or, most dangerously of all, unconsciously". So all should "realise to the full the implications of this most revolutionary principle". Only thus could everyone be given "the fullest opportunity to develop every innate power. Only thus can we hope to produce a noble race".

Dent was supported by only one assistant in producing the weekly TES. Joan Peel, aged 24 (who shortly afterwards became my wife), sent him early in 1941 a sharply critical (or "fierce" ) letter. His response was to tell her not to criticise from the outside, but to come and help him. She did; so there were two of them sharing a tiny room in the historic Times building in Printing House Square.

"Those war-torn years when H.C. Dent drove himself on all cylinders to take a lead in policy-making . . . must rank as the most exhilarating, demanding and influential in the paper's history," Patricia Rowan, now editor, has written. After putting the paper to bed each week Dent, whose packed bag was always ready, took off for all parts of the country, leaving his assistant to field all comebacks (sometimes dramatic) and to prepare for the next number.

In 1942 Dent presented his full educational policy in a popular book aptly titled A New Order in English Education, which obtained a mass sale. Dent drew on his four leaders to present a powerful case for educational advance across the board. When legislation came on the agenda first with the White Paper (1943) and then with the publication of the Bill itself, Dent threw his full weight behind their propagation both in the journal and in his own independent publications which used his journalistic skills to extricate and popularise their content. The high level of support the legislation achieved was in no small part due to Dent's tireless energy, to his skills and popular touch.

Dent remained editor of the TES until 1950 when he was aged 56. He then moved into the academic world as a professor at Sheffield University, senior research fellow at Leeds and finally as assistant dean at the London Institute of Education. During these years he published several books on education, commenting acutely on the contemporary scene.

Reaching the age of 80 he retired completely, living finally in Devon in a pleasant, sunny house where he was lovingly cared for by his daughter. Visiting him a year or two ago my wife and I found him lively and articulate, though recalling little of the great days of his past. His centenary was celebrated in the educational press and at his home in Cullompton. With Harold Dent's death a chapter in educational history may be said to have closed. His ideals, however, remain as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.

Brian Simon

Harold Collett Dent, journalist and educationist: born 14 November 1894; assistant master in secondary schools 1911-25; Head of Junior Department, Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School 1925-28; first headmaster, Gateway School, Leicester 1928-31; freelance journalist 1931-35; assistant editor, Odhams Press 1935-40; Editor, Times Educational Supplement 1940-51; Educational Correspondent, the Times 1952-55; Professor of Education and Director of the Institute of Education, Sheffield University 1956-60; Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Education, Leeds University 1960-62; Assistant Dean, Institute of Education, London University 1962-62; married 1922 Loveday Martin (died 1987; one son, one daughter); died Cullompton, Devon 23 January 1995.

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