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Burgess, Tyrrell (1931–2009), educationist and journalist, was born at 259 Osborne Road, Hornchurch, Essex, on 7 September 1931, the elder son of John Edward Burgess, insurance clerk, later registrar, and his wife, Ivy Gladys, née Everett. He attended state infant and junior schools in Romford, Essex, and Tumble, Glamorgan, where he was evacuated during the Second World War. He passed the scholarship—in Welsh—entering Gwendraeth Valley secondary school and later the Royal Liberty School, Romford. His ability was further evident when he gained an open exhibition to read modern history at Keble College, Oxford. First, however, came a period of national service (1950–51) as sergeant in charge of education at the RAF Hospital, Ely. At Oxford he was active in the Oxford Union, becoming president in 1954, to the neglect of his academic studies (he gained only a third-class degree), but establishing a reputation as a witty, controversial, and effective left-of-centre speaker. On graduation he toyed between taking a diploma in education or in theology, choosing the latter as the more interesting and appropriate preparation for teaching and, as a colleague said, to confirm his disbelief.

Leaving Oxford in 1955 Burgess taught in a range of state and independent schools before joining the Times Educational Supplement as a reporter, later becoming news editor. There he honed the wit and dexterity in writing that he had shown in debate at Oxford, and which characterized all his twenty-six books and countless articles. During 1959 he made a trip by car from Entebbe to Cape Town (to keep the driver awake, as Burgess did not learn to drive until the 1990s), and met Joan Gertrude Bennett (b. 1934), a South African teacher, daughter of Philip Sydney Bennett, surveyor. They married on 23 October 1959 and had four children: Russell (1960–2004), Marc (b. 1962), Tanya (b. 1963), and Radha (b. 1972).

In 1960 Burgess became the director of the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE), exhibiting an interest that informed the rest of his life in enabling people to take responsibility for and control of their own lives, especially by the formation of voluntary organizations. ACE provided advice and guidance to parents about the education system, an early and gentler example of the notion of parents as consumers developed by successive governments from the 1980s onwards. In 1962 he returned to journalism as assistant editor of New Society and education correspondent of The Guardian. At this time he wrote A Guide to English Schools (1964), a Penguin book that became the standard text for trainee teachers for many years, as well as the most lucid guide for users of the system. It revealed an ability to set out interestingly what might otherwise be tedious administrative detail, but also an understanding of the value of public institutions in social reform. His interest in reform was evidenced by his standing for the Labour Party in Croydon South in the general election of 1964, narrowly failing to take the seat.

Burgess's concern for education policy contributed to his taking a post in 1965 as senior research officer, later senior research fellow, in a research unit studying higher education at the London School of Economics. After a project in India, which prevented him from standing in the general election of 1966 (when Croydon South was won by the Labour candidate), he returned to the UK to embark on a study of the colleges of advanced technology. This was the first of a series of studies of the non-university sector of higher education, of which he quickly became a committed supporter, not least because of the opportunities it offered people who might not otherwise have entered higher education. He campaigned to expand the provision of higher education and to make it more accessible. At the London School of Economics he became familiar with the work of the philosopher Karl Popper and developed a distinctive problem-oriented approach to the study of public policy, which informed his subsequent work. He was founding editor in 1968, and later publisher, of Higher Education Review—‘probably the liveliest of the current British journals’ in this field (Times Higher Education Supplement, 13 June 1986)—which reflected this approach.

Burgess's commitment to the ‘binary’ policy in higher education and policy research led to his being invited in 1970 to join the staff of the newly established North East London Polytechnic. With two colleagues from the London School of Economics he founded the Centre for Institutional Studies, basing its title and approach on Popper's philosophy of social science. There he continued with research into education and a bewildering variety of other public policies including Indian forestry and Maltese local government. In 1972 he was appointed head of a school for independent study at the North East London Polytechnic and made a major contribution to educational innovation. Recognizing the opportunity offered by the establishment of the diploma in higher education in 1972, he created a programme of studies in which there was no prescribed curriculum. Students, often with few or no school leaving qualifications, designed their own programmes of study, which were validated by a committee with distinguished external members. To many people's surprise, Burgess successfully steered the approval of this programme through sceptical committees of the Council for National Academic Awards. Equally surprising and to the chagrin of its critics were the results of the programme, which was later extended to cover degree courses, with students gaining a higher proportion of first-class awards than on conventional courses. Later he went on to become dean of continuing education, then professor in the philosophy of social institutions (he was insistent on the ‘in’ to emphasize that he, too, was learning) at the polytechnic, which became the Polytechnic of East London in 1989 and the University of East London in 1992. On his retirement in 1996 he was made an emeritus professor (which he often said meant ‘without’ merit).

Alongside these activities was Burgess's co-option in 1970 to the inner London education authority, where he was responsible, with considerable success and enviable levels of parental satisfaction, for the transfer of 30,000 children annually from primary to secondary schools. His debating powers were evident when he successfully persuaded Lady Margaret School in Fulham to convert from selective to comprehensive—despite its having an intake of only sixty per year. Consistent with his views on allocating responsibility as low as possible in any system, he formed the National Association of Governors and Managers in 1970 (and delighted in its acronym NAGM), in order to push for more decentralized management of schools. In a similar vein, he pioneered schemes for local management of schools in Cambridgeshire, Richmond, and Croydon. He stood again—unsuccessfully—for parliament, for the Social Democratic Party this time, in Croydon Central in 1983 and 1987.

Burgess had a wide range of interests outside education, in art (especially Allan Ramsay), architecture (especially of William Butterfield), and music, typically helping to found Spitalfields Market Opera House, the first to be built in London in 200 years. (It was opened in 1995 but later demolished.) He was a long-standing and active member of the Savile Club. He admired the great nineteenth-century reformers, such as Peel and Russell, and was in many ways the modern embodiment of the whig liberal reformer committed to solving the ills of society and to self-improvement. He died on 24 April 2009 at St Christopher's Hospice, Sydenham, after a battle with prostate cancer that he bore with immense bravery, sending his familiar, funny, cheerful, and characteristically almost illegible postcards to friends until just days before his death. He was survived by his wife, Joan, and his three youngest children.

John Pratt


The Guardian (6 May 2009); (15 May 2009) · Times Higher Education Supplement (14 May 2009) · Times Educational Supplement (15 May 2009); (22 May 2009) · The Times (21 May 2009); (28 May 2009); (2 July 2009) · J. Swann, ‘Popperian epistemology and the curriculum: the legacy of Tyrrell Burgess’, Higher Education Review, 42/1 (autumn 2009), 11–18 · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Wealth at death  

£136,363: probate, 21 June 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales