Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to old Educator, Ron Pepper, once a young Geography Teacher in the 1960s, who widened the lives of sixth formers in Eltham Green School

Ron Pepper, who has died aged 81, served as a Councillor on Lewisham Council in South-East London for more than 25 years and in Canterbury, Kent, for 12 years, but perhaps more important than that, he was an inspirational teacher and head teacher in South London schools from the 1960s to 1980s.

I entered the brand new Eltham Green Comprehensive School at the age of 11 in 1958. It was made to accommodate the post-Second War baby boomers like me and bused and walked in its 2,500 pupils from the whole of South-East London
and planted them in this 18 form entry monster. Sadly I see that, now, sixty years later it has recently been demolished, but in the 1960's it was a school bursting with energy and with a good proportion of young teachers like Ron Pepper who were ideologically committed to the 'comprehensive ideal' in education.

I first became aware of Ron when I was about 15 and studying GCE 'O' Level Geography and remember a small man with thick rimmed glasses, who was quick and punctilious and good at giving orders. Ron got things done and one of the things he got done was the thee days of the annual summer 'Conference for Sixth Formers' in the hall organised by the school's International Society which he chaired. He started this when he was 26 and teaching Geography in 1960 and I enjoyed two conferences when I was in the sixth form in 1964-65. Those conferences were masterpieces of organisation with contingents of sixth formers from 47 other secondary schools in South London attending.
In 1964 the focus was 'Science and Mankind' and I, along with the other 600 sixth formers, was given the conference  brochure with a bold screen-printed cover courtesy of Jim Riddock's team in the Art. We were not spoken down to and were told, as intelligent young adults, in our 'Discussion Notes and Questions' that : 'The aim of this year's Conference is to examine the ways in which our lives and activities are influenced, directed and guided by external pressures- laws or patterns of action. In this sense "law" becomes not merely a code of required behaviour within society but a wider concept. Natural law, moral law and man-made laws need defining as an essential preliminary.'

We were divided into small cross-school discussion groups which met in the morning and afternoon over the three days and chose a spokesperson to feedback on the platform on the final afternoon. Discussion was guided into 'Social, Political, Economic  and Cultural' areas with questions to prompt us such as : 'Science and religion - incompatibles ?
There was a Conference Book List with 37 paperback titles ranging from Bronowski's 'Western Intellectual Tradition' to Huxley's 'Brave New World' and Young's 'The Rise of the Meritocracy'

The back of the brochure contained 'Notes on Some of the Contributors' and the quality of the speakers Ron had recruited was astonishing. The previous year, when the subject had been East-West Relations he had started the conference with Edward Boyle, the Minister of Education. In 1964 it was Paul Chambers (right), the Chairman of ICI and President of the Institute of Directors who led on 'Science and Mankind'.

Over the next three days he was followed by the American Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds University, Jerome Ravetz : 'Science, Technology and Society' ; Sir John Cockcroft who had been Director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell : Victor Pasmore, painter : 'Science and Art'; the Labour politician, R.H.S Crossman, (left), party spokesperson on 'Education and Science'; Nigel Calder, scientist and Editor of the 'New Scientist' : 'Science and the Future.'

The finale of the week was the evening dance in the school hall to the music of 'Barry and the Quintones' and an opportunity for Eltham Green lads to make a move in on those nice girls from single sex schools like Haberdasher Girls.

In 1965 Ron organised 'Law and Society' which kicked off with Lord Longford, Leader of the House of Lords and followed over the three days with Martin Ennals, Secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties : 'Law - its use and abuse'; Labour politician Peter Shore, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minister Harold Wilson : 'Law and Economic Activity'; Werner Peltz, religious thinker and writer : 'Law, Religion and Morality'; Timothy Raison, Editor of 'New Society' : 'Law and Society' and culminating in the dance with the 'Len Russell Combo'.

What effect did it have on me, that comprehensive lad at the age of 17/18 ?  I think, like most of the other sixth formers, I took it all very seriously, listened carefully to those speakers, made earnest notes in my brochure and chipped in on the discussions. As a slice of interactive education it was brilliant. I was certainly struck by the easy confidence of those from the grammar schools and public schools like Dulwich College. I hadn't met teenagers like this before and you can be sure that the other schools had sent along their creme de la crème, to represent their schools. For me it was a useful preparation for starting my undergraduate History course at Sussex University in the October of 1965. Now, fifty years later I ask the question : 'How did the young Ron Pepper do it ? Organise the three days and entice speakers of such calibre ?' It's had to believe that anything comparable could, or would, be organised today. Looking back I can see that those conferences already had that Pepper hallmark : a strong advocacy of inclusivity, which was to manifest itself in his subsequent careers in education and local government.

What I didn't know and have now learnt about that remarkable man :

He was born in Canterbury in 1934, in his grandmother's house, a bakehouse at 26, Orchard Street, the son of Nell and Bill, the eldest of three children and on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 recalled : 'We then moved to Blackpool but we kept coming back to the city and every time we returned, the German Air Force decided to bomb Canterbury!' His father, Bill, who was already a regular serving in the RAF was in France at the beginning of the War and managed to escape in May 1940 from Dunkirk.

These were formative years for Ron and the War played havoc with his education and he recalled : 'We had comics like the Dandy and the Beano which is how I learned to read because I kept changing schools. I went to at least four or five before I was eight so I never really had time to settle down and learn to read so I taught myself with the comics which cost a penny a week. I’d got fed up because I couldn’t understand the words in the bubbles and felt that I wasn’t getting my money’s worth.'

On his sixth birthday he remembered : 'During the Dunkirk evacuation, you could hear the rumble of the guns from across the Channel as our soldiers were being rescued. The British and the French were brought back, trainloads of them going through the level crossing at St Dunstan’s, leaning out of the windows in bandages, rags and tattered uniforms after being landed at Ramsgate.'

Ron recalled that when he was 6 in 1940 : 'About the time of the Battle of Britain, we had an assembly and our head teacher said, "I’m sorry to have to tell you that Kenny won’t be coming to school anymore because he was killed this morning on his way to school by a German fighter plane machine gun." That was the sort of thing you took in your stride, you didn’t fall about weeping and putting bunches of flowers and photographs where someone died. You just took it. That’s what happened and you didn’t let it throw you and there was no being traumatised. We were upset, of course, but it wasn’t the end of the world.'

The schools themselves were not a pleasant experience for young Ronald and in 1941 he remembered : 'One morning at Assembly; we were being told that it was out Christian duty to help one another. I was about seven and later on I was helping a boy with his sums and I was accused of cheating so I was pulled out to the front and given four on each hand with a ruler and that hurt. It made me think, if they’re telling me it’s my duty to help people and then if I do it, I get punished, can I trust these grownups anymore?'

In 1942 Ron was in Canterbury during the three 'Baedeker Raids' on the ancient city and spent most of his eighth birthday : 'In an air raid shelter at my grandmother’s shop in Orchard Street' with 'three ladies in their sixties who were terrified. I was in the corner, listening for the different sounds of the German bombers because we used to take pride in being able to tell, from the sound of the engines, what type of bombers they were, Dorniers or Heinkels or Junkers 88s or Messerschmitt. You would listen for the bombs and you would hear them whistle and if it was far away, it was alright but if it was close, it would make me wonder.' With the raid over 'everything was still burning, smouldering, and underfoot there was broken glass, bricks, burnt papers. What I remember most was the burnt paper floating about in the wind and of course the fire hoses as we made our way.'

The family were back in Canterbury in 1945 and having passed the 11+, Ron took a place at Simon Langton Grammar School For Boys with its motto : 'Meliora Sequamur : May we follow better things' and as a teenager in vacations worked at the Chislett Colliery and at Canterbury cricket ground, where he sold scorecards. He was politicised early, no doubt inspired by the post-War Labour Government and creation of the Welfare State in 1948, he joined the Youth Wing of the Labour Party when he was in the fourth year at school and 15 in 1949.

Having left school and served his two years National Service, he took up his state scholarship as an undergraduate at Exeter College at Oxford University, presumably to study for his Geography degree and it was here, at a Labour Club dance, he met Jane Williams. They were engaged within three days and he married in 1957 at the age of 23.

Having graduated in 1957, Ron took up his first teaching post in the newly opened Eltham Green Comprehensive School in the Geography Department. These were the days when young university graduates could go straight from their lectures and seminars and into the classroom without any teaching qualification. Either way, by the time he was 26 in 1960 he was organising the school's first Sixth Form Conference.

When I left school in 1965 Ron went out of my life. I didn't know that, like me, he lived in Blackheath, albeit in the Lewisham part and not the Greenwich where I lived on the Council Estate built on the marsh land tucked behind the Georgian mansions of the Paragon. I didn't know, that he was an active member of the Blackheath Society formed in 1937 and was later Vice President of the Blackheath Preservation Trust Ltd.

Having left Eltham Green, Ron took up the post of Deputy Head teacher at William Penn School, East Dulwich and then in 1971, at the age of 36, he became the youngest Head Teacher employed by the Inner London Education Authority, taking the helm at Thomas Carlton Secondary School in Peckham in 1971. It was from here that he led his 900 pupils to Downing Street when Margaret Thatcher as Minister for Education in Ted Heath's Government had cancelled a new building for his school, which was on a split site. The Daily Mail dubbed him 'Pepper the Pied Piper of Peckham'. He loathed the paper and the description delighted him.

In his parallel commitment to local politics, Ron was elected councillor to the old Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham Council in 1962 and the new incoming London Borough of Lewisham in 1965 and in the late 1960s and early 70s fought to prevent thousands of homes being destroyed by an urban motorway. In 1967 he said : "If people are going to live full lives in cities, the cities have got to be made attractive and pleasant, and not merely places to make money and get out of as quickly as possible."

True to his inclusive agenda, as a councillor he helped establish a Self-build Housing Project and pioneered public participation in council meetings. He was elected Leader of the Labour group and was Acting Leader of the Council during the infamous National Front March in 1977, which he and others tried to stop.

Retiring from teaching, Ron joined the School Inspectorate for Inner London, Lambeth and Southwark, operating from Acre Lane, Brixton..

In 2015 he was unable to attend the Mayor's Speech which celebrated Lewisham Council's 50th anniversary, but sent his reflection that : 'We pioneered self-build housing schemes, established the first Conservation Area in London (Blackheath); were the first Council to allow local residents to speak at Planning Committee meetings, established tenant involvement in housing management, set up a Race Relations working party, involved the Voluntary Sector in the grant making process and established Housing Action Areas buying up and modernising many of the Borough's larger old houses. My very best wishes for another 50 years coupled with the hope the Borough does not suffer from the dead hand of Central government.'

In 1990, at the age of 56, he moved to Harbledown, near his birthplace of Canterbury, was elected as a Labour councillor on the City Council in 1995 and became leader of the Labour Group and Deputy Leader, a position he held until stepping down in 2007. During the time of the shared Liberal Democrat - Labour administration it has been reckoned that it was his equable humour and ability to listen and reason that held the administration together.

Ron was a keen advocate of the redevelopment of both the 'Marlowe Theatre' which reopened on its new site in 1984 and the 'Beaney Museum and Library' and made a passionate speech in Council in which he said that he wanted them to be inclusive places to which everyone would want to visit, amenities that would benefit all and no-one would pass thinking that : ‘this isn’t a place for me.’

In 2004, working with the 'Kentish Gazette' he instigated the installation of a plaque at Canterbury Cathedral to acknowledge the firewatchers who had risked their lives by throwing the incendiary bombs off the Cathedral roof during the 'Baedeker Raids' he had witnessed as a boy during the Second World War.

His contribution to local government was recognised in 2008 by both Lewisham and Canterbury Councils at a special ceremony in Lewisham Town Hall and, after 50 years service he was presented with a Labour Party Long Service Medal in 2012. He had kept in touch with his adopted Lewisham and although unable to attend any of the 'Save Lewisham Hospital' marches, he had signed every petition and retained his passionate support for his beloved Millwall Football Club.

Many citizens of South London and Canterbury, both past and present, have reason to thank, myself included,
Ron Pepper : passionate advocate of participatory politics and a lifelong champion of inclusivity.  

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