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Morris, Max (1913–2008), headteacher and trade unionist, was born at 10 Overdale Gardens, Glasgow, on 15 August 1913, the second of three sons of Nathan Morris, Hebrew scholar, and his wife, Annie, née Moselowsky. His elder brother was Jerry Morris (1910–2009), epidemiologist. From a poor Russian Jewish family, he attended Hutchesons' grammar school, noted for its traditionalist methods, but when he was sixteen the family moved to north London, where he attended Kilburn grammar school. He won a scholarship to University College, London, to read history, from which he graduated with a first-class degree. At University College, influenced by Harold Laski and the socialist society established by Hugh Gaitskill, he developed his lifelong passion for politics. But it was the Communist Party, which was seen by many of his generation as the most effective vehicle for achieving a just society, that he initially joined, rather than the Labour Party.

Having received his diploma in education from London's Institute of Education, and after exhaustively seeking a post at a time when jobs were being cut, Morris was appointed a teacher at Willesden technical college in 1936. Though himself of a more academic bent, he valued immensely the technical and practical intelligence of his colleagues, realizing that such a wider vision of learning was central to secondary education for all. On 12 September 1939 he married Barbara Joyce Trotman [see below]. During the Second World War he served with the Royal Army Service Corps in Europe and India (rising to the rank of captain).

Demobilized in 1946, Morris returned to teaching, initially at a college of education and then in a secondary school. After what he described in his Who's Who entry as ‘nine years of political discrimination’ by the Conservative-controlled Middlesex county council, which had banned communists from headships and deputy headships (a policy overturned when the Conservatives lost control of the council to Labour), he was appointed a deputy head in Tottenham in 1960. He became headmaster of Chamberlayne Wood secondary school, Kensal Rise, in 1962, and finally first headmaster of Willesden high school (a large comprehensive formed from the amalgamation of grammar, secondary modern, and technical schools) from 1967 until his retirement in 1978. Meanwhile, his first marriage having been amicably dissolved in 1960, on 18 February 1961 he married Margaret Saunders, née Howard (b. 1930/31), historian and adult education lecturer, and daughter of Reginald Louis Howard, executive officer for the National Assistance Board. There were no children from either of Morris's marriages.

The philosophical and political vision which drove Morris was encapsulated in his books The People's School (1939) and Your Children's Future (1953). In these he set out the vision of a comprehensive system, which would finally, though not universally, be achieved in the 1960s and 1970s. He had witnessed first-hand as a boy the low expectations and poor quality of education for those who came from impoverished backgrounds and who were excluded from the kind of secondary education he had received. He took on those who had provided the evidence for selection at eleven—those, like Cyril Burt and Charles Spearman, who believed that intelligence was an innate capability, independent of nurture and education, which could be accurately measured at the age of eleven. His understanding of the issues and his powers of persuasion were an important factor in propagating the comprehensive ideal.

Morris believed that argument was not enough, however. His immediate academic interests had been devoted to a history of the Chartist movement, resulting in From Cobbett to the Chartists (1948). But, no doubt influenced by his studies, he never saw theory as being divorced from practice. It was a matter of not just understanding society, but changing it in the light of that understanding. Hence he chose not to pursue an academic career as a historian but to teach in the sort of school he envisioned in The People's School and at the same time play a larger political role in seeking to make that vision universal.

As a political activist, Morris became a power in the National Union of Teachers, and took a lead in changing it from a talking shop into a campaigning organization. He became the most influential teacher politician of the 1960s and 1970s. He was a key figure in the negotiations leading to the creation of the schools council in 1964 (working closely with the government's assistant secretary in charge of the curriculum study group, Derek Morrell). In 1973–4 he was president of the union at a time when Margaret Thatcher was secretary of state for education; the two developed a mutual respect despite their profound political differences. Between 1976 and 1979 he chaired the union's action committee, one feature of which was to persuade members not to supervise school meals in the campaign to get better conditions of service.

Morris was closely involved with many school examining bodies, including as chairman of the Middlesex regional examining board (1975–9) and its successor, the London regional examining board (1979–90). He was also a member of the Burnham committee (1970–79), the Schools Broadcasting Council (1972–80), and the national advisory committee on the supply and training of teachers (1973–8). He resigned from the Communist Party in 1976, disillusioned by its support of the views of some ‘progressive’ teachers and sociologists which, in Morris's view, endangered the comprehensive ideal that he had fought for. Despite his justified reputation as a ‘firebrand politician’, a ‘left-wing radical’, and an antagonist to Margaret Thatcher's reforms when she was secretary of state, he was in many respects traditional as far as educational standards were concerned. He objected to many of the so-called progressive educationists, because, in his view, equality and justice for the many required access to the culture and opportunities hitherto available only to the few. He was briefly a Labour councillor, on Haringey borough council from 1984 to 1986, where he was an opponent of the more left-wing policies embraced by the majority of his Labour colleagues.

Morris was committed to an active pursuit of a more equitable society, based upon a decent education for all young people. That pursuit lasted, with a remarkable coherence and passion, for seventy years. He was for a long time an active member of the Socialist Educational Association, of which he was chairman from 1995 to 1998, and vice-president thereafter. His final battles included his trenchant criticisms of the creation of academies under the Labour government in 2002. He was especially unhappy when Willesden high school was turned into Capital City Academy the following year. He listed among his recreations in Who's Who ‘baiting the Department for Education and Science’, later changed to ‘baiting the bigwigs of educational policy’, as well as ‘ridiculing Trotskyists and trendies’. He died in Menton, France, on 27 August 2008, and was survived by his second wife, Margaret.

Morris's first wife, Barbara Joyce Morris [née Trotman] (1918–2009), arts and crafts scholar, was born on 15 November 1918 at 18 Honiton Road, Willesden, London, the daughter of Leonard Harry Trotman (1888/9–1944), dairy engineer, and his wife, Winifred Elsie, née Saunders (1890–1973). She was educated at Brondesbury and Kilburn High School, the North London Collegiate School, and the Slade School at University College, London. Three of her studies of the life model Quentin Crisp drawn at the Slade are now in the National Portrait Gallery. At the time of her marriage to Max Morris she was working as a copywriter for the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. In 1947 she was recruited by a fellow communist, Peter Floud, to the circulation department of the Victoria and Albert Museum and was closely involved in mounting the pioneering exhibition there on ‘Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Arts’ (1952). She subsequently developed into a leading authority on the arts and crafts movement, and was the author of several books on Victorian embroidery, ceramics, and glass. When the circulation department was closed in 1976 she moved to the ceramics department as deputy keeper, before retiring in 1978. She then spent six years teaching on Sotheby's ‘works of art’ course, and made several appearances on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow. She was also active in the William Morris Society, the Decorative Arts Society, and the Art Workers Guild. Following the break-up of her marriage to Morris (whose surname she retained for professional purposes), she formed a partnership from the early 1960s with a railwayman, David Proctor (Dave) Bowman (1913–1996), who shared her left-wing views; they eventually married, on 25 July 1991. Having lived for many years in Brighton, where her small house accommodated an extraordinary collection of Victorian arts and crafts items, she died at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton, on 15 July 2009, following a heart attack. She left the most interesting pieces in her collection to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum.

Richard Pring

Sources  

Daily Telegraph (6 Sept 2008) · The Independent (6 Sept 2008) · The Guardian (9 Sept 2008); (10 Sept 2008) · The Times (10 Sept 2008) · WW (2008) · personal knowledge (2012) · private information (2012) · b. cert. · m. certs. · The Times (17 Aug 2009) · Arts and crafts, including the collection of the late Barbara Morris, sale catalogue, Woolley and Wallis, 23 June 2010 · b. cert. [B. Trotman] · m. cert. [B. Morris] · d. cert. [B. Morris]

Likenesses  

photographs, 1972–8, Photoshot, London · Bassano, half-plate film negatives, 1974, NPG · obituary photographs · photograph (Barbara Morris), repro. in The Times (17 Aug 2009) · photographs (Barbara Morris), repro. in Arts and Crafts (23 June 2010)

Wealth at death  

£816,792—Barbara Morris: probate, 7 Oct 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales