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Henry Pluckrose obituary

Leading educationist with an intuitive grasp of how children learn

Henry Pluckrose, who has died aged 79, was one of the most inspiring teachers of his generation. He believed that children have intellectual, emotional and aesthetic capacities that few adults realise and too few schools exploit. For more than 50 years, he made a major contribution to our understanding not only about how children learn, but about how to put that knowledge into practice. As founder headteacher, in 1968, of Prior Weston primary school in London, he established a model that aroused international interest and admiration. He was also a prolific author, editor, journalist and lecturer on educational and other subjects.

Born in an impoverished part of Lambeth, south London, Henry – as he was known to pupils, as well as to friends and colleagues – spent his first six years, as he recalled, "in a tiny second-floor flat (running cold water, gas for lighting and cooking, outside toilet, no bath)". His mother suffered "emotional instability" and he was largely brought up by his older sisters, who read to him from their homework, and taught him to recite passages from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Hiawatha and other poems in infancy. He became a chorister at Southwark Cathedral and, after national service in the Royal Army Education Corps, qualified as a teacher at the College of St Mark and St John in south-west London.

In 1959 he began teaching at John Ruskin primary school in south London and his classroom soon resembled an artist's studio, buzzing with activity and creative energy. Arts in the broadest sense formed the basis of his curriculum: not just art and craft, though they were most in evidence, but also drama, music, poetry and dance. He gave particular emphasis to direct personal experience, taking children to museums, art galleries, churches, historic buildings, woods, fields and parks.

While teaching, he began to write regularly for professional journals and newspapers such as Primary Education and Teachers' World, and was asked to lead workshops and seminars at the University of London's Institute of Education. In 1961, he met Frank Waters, then editor-in-chief at the Oldbourne Press in Fleet Street, who invited him to write for the Modern Education Library series. His Picture Making With Juniors and Free Crafts for Juniors (both 1963) were the first of many books that shared his classroom ideas and techniques with a generation of primary-school teachers.

Increasingly, he contributed to in-service training courses. His workshops for teachers, like his classroom, overflowed with paints, dyes, glues, pastels and numerous other modelling materials, many of them begged or borrowed by him personally from the manufacturers. But as Frank Peacock, his head at John Ruskin, put it in an introduction to Henry's Creative Arts and Crafts (1966): "He is not an 'art-specialist' nor a 'craft-specialist'. Like all good primary-school teachers, he is a specialist in one thing only – children."

He joined Prior Weston – a brand new school on the edge of the City of London's Barbican development – as headteacher in 1968. To an unusual extent, it recruited children from very poor homes alongside the children of the metropolitan liberal elite. In the wake of the 1967 Plowden Report, which gave an official imprimatur to fresh thinking in primary education, it became a mecca for those committed to innovative teaching and more open forms of learning. Henry never claimed to be an educational theorist, preferring to call himself a "journeyman-teacher". But that was too modest: his genius was to bring together a wide range of ideas – from the philosopher John Dewey, the leaders of the "child art" movement, such as Franz Cizek in Vienna, Christian Schiller in London and Robin Tanner at the Ministry of Education, and psychologists such as Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky – and combine them with his intuitive understanding of how children learn.

Despite the responsibilities of headship, he continued to write and edit at an astonishing pace, producing books on history and environmental studies for teachers and many children's books, including a series for Mills and Boon entitled On Location (1973 onwards), as well as writing for the educational press and giving lectures and organising workshops across Britain. His Open School, Open Society (1975) was the major statement of his educational approach. He wished, he wrote, to extend the schools' "human dimension" and to make them "more open to the society they served", not only involving parents but also becoming the focal point in the lives of their local communities.

At the time, the vision of education created by him and other gifted teachers and administrators seemed likely to carry all before it. But the authors of the educational pamphlets the Black Papers – who wanted a return to more traditional styles – were already making waves. In 1976, a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, by James Callaghan, the Labour prime minister, marked a change in official thinking. Schools, it was argued, had moved too far from rigorous learning and basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills.

Though left of centre politically – he was proud of being "handbagged" by Margaret Thatcher at a publisher's party during her term as education secretary – Henry struggled to find a comfortable space in conventional British politics. He was so committed to the children in his charge that he felt an almost physical revulsion against industrial action, and joined the "no-strike union", then called the Professional Association of Teachers.

He might best be described as a radical individualist, and his favourite politicians were maverick, principled Labour MPs such as Joan Lestor and Renée Short. They were among the informal group he formed to oppose – or at least modify – the educational counter-revolution, holding frequent meetings at the House of Commons.

Largely as a result of its deliberations, he edited two books (their original working titles were "light-grey papers") with Peter Wilby, then education correspondent of the Sunday Times, The Condition of English Schooling (1979) and Education 2000 (1980). By then, Thatcher was in No 10 and the books were only modestly successful.

Yet Henry's international reputation continued to grow. A Swedish television documentary, made at Prior Weston, struck such a chord in Sweden that Henry became something of a national celebrity there, in enormous demand as a guest lecturer. As he recalled (with some hilarious anecdotes) in The Travels of a Journey-Man Teacher (2007), government agencies invited him to lecture and advise teachers in Canada, the US, France, Italy, Germany, Serbia, Bulgaria, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In 1984, he left Prior Weston, initially to complete an MPhil. He did not return to full-time teaching or headship but served on such bodies as the Council for National Academic Awards, the National Book League, the National Trust, the Royal Ballet and the Civic Trust. In 1986 he joined the staff of the Royal Opera House's education department, finally retiring in 1999.

By then, he had published more than 300 books and touched the hearts and minds of thousands, perhaps millions. He was already showing the first signs of a rare form of Parkinson's disease, an affliction he bore with great courage, even starting to write poetry, of which two volumes – More Than Words Can Tell (2006) and Word Shaping Tongue and Listening Ear (2008) – were published. "I have discovered," he said, "the joy which comes from having time to stand and stare."

He is survived by his wife, Helen, from whom he was separated, by their children, Elspeth, Hilary and Patrick, and by his partner, Hilary Devonshire.

• Henry Arthur Pluckrose, teacher and author, born 23 October 1931; died 6 April 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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