Heritage: The Hornchurch boy who passed the 11+ in Welsh

PUBLISHED: 15:00 29 February 2020

Tyrrell Burgess was born in Osborne Road, Hornchurch. Picture: Google Maps

Tyrrell Burgess was born in Osborne Road, Hornchurch. Picture: Google Maps


Prof Ged Martin looks at the life of Tyrrell Burgess

The son of an insurance executive, Tyrrell Burgess, was born in Osborne Road, Hornchurch, in 1931.

When war came in 1939, he was evacuated to safety in south Wales. There, he sat the "eleven-plus", the exam that determined children's future schooling, a test heavy in word games and comprehension.

The bright boy won a place at grammar school - despite the handicap that the exam was in Welsh!

Back home again, he went to the Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park, where he became Head Boy and won a place to study history at Oxford.

He was an amusing extrovert, although some felt sometimes a bit too pleased with himself. He confidently threw himself into the debates of the Oxford Union. His skill at arguing left-wing causes to an audience of young Tories - Michael Heseltine was a rival - led to his election as president in 1954.

Too busy debating, he didn't do well in his exams. However, he launched into education research, using his plausible talents to persuade grammar schools to go comprehensive. His own eleven-plus success in Welsh became a trademark.

He loved exciting travel, going by car (he couldn't drive himself) from Uganda to Cape Town in 1959.

Next year he helped establish the Advisory Centre for Education, which publicised new ideas for schools. At the 1964 general election, he was the unsuccessful Labour candidate in marginal Croydon South, where he lived.

When Harold Wilson called an early election in 1966, Tyrrell Burgess was visiting India. With another candidate, Croydon South went Labour by just 81 votes. He was probably too independent-minded to be a successful MP. His role was to push radical ideas.

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In 1981, he joined the new Social Democratic Party, and was the first to urge a pact with the Liberals. He also argued that only SDP MPs should choose elect the leader, insisting that any party that allowed ordinary members to choose their leader wasn't fit to form a government.

Unfortunately, the SDP didn't have many MPs: Tyrrell Burgess fought twice under their banner, losing badly each time.

In the 1960s, Britain created an alternative system to the universities, called polytechnics. Tyrrell Burgess championed them, arguing for flexible forms of study instead of old-fashioned "subject" degrees (like his disappointing Oxford History BA!).

In 1972 he started a new programme at North East London Polytechnic, creating opportunities for students with few school qualifications.

Promotion made him "professor in the philosophy of social institutions". Most professors are "of" something, meaning that they know everything about, say, history. Tyrrell Burgess insisted on being professor "in" to show he was still learning.

He disliked the 1992 rebranding of the polytechnics as universities, insisting that the new University of East London should avoid "academic drift" and continue to stress vocational education and training.

He also encouraged local communities to become involved in their schools. In 1970, he set up the National Association of Governors and Managers to press governments for more money. Its nickname, Nag'em, appealed to his sense of humour. The Conservative Leon Brittan was vice-chairman.

Like all reformers, he sometimes got it wrong - in 1968, for instance, arguing that the planned "University of the Air" should be "buried", and the money spent on schools. The project became the highly successful Open University.

Tyrrell Burgess was a complex character, a reformer who was not bothered when the men-only Oxford Union refused to admit women. A critic of elites, he was a member of the select and all-male Savile Club in Mayfair.

He was a moderniser who hero-worshipped 19th century statesmen, like the reforming Tory Sir Robert Peel.

He enjoyed opera and the stately music of Haydn, the lugubrious portraits of the Scottish artist Allan Ramsay, the gloomy churches of Butterfield, the architect who'd designed his Oxford college, Keble. You couldn't pigeon-hole the boy from Osborne Road.

Tyrrell Burgess died in 2009.

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