John Swallow obituary

Other lives: Headteacher and fierce advocate of comprehensive education who retired as chair of governors at the age of 93

My friend and colleague John Swallow, who has died aged 97, devoted his life to state education in Essex, principally as a strong advocate of comprehensive schools. His final headship was at Ongar comprehensive school, with 1,600 pupils, which became nationally renowned and an incubator for numerous heads and deputy heads.

Born in Stocksbridge, South Yorkshire, to Betty (nee Kaye), a housewife, and Jack, a steelworker, John (also known by his middle name, Philip) attended Penistone grammar school. During the second world war he saw active service in the RAF in India and Burma, and in 1946 went to St Chad’s College, Durham University.

After abandoning plans for ordination in the Church of England he took up teaching. His first full-time post came in 1952 at Lucton secondary modern school, near Loughton, Essex. There he remained for 10 years, becoming head of English, before moving on to Passmores comprehensive in Harlow, as head of house and head of English.

In 1968 he became deputy headteacher at North Romford school, and, finally, in 1969, he moved to Ongar as head of a secondary modern school about to be reorganised as a comprehensive.

Twenty years later, the comprehensive closed, after a bitterly contested decision and an eventual high court ruling. This was despite huge community support to keep it open, spearheaded by John, as head, who took on the might of the Essex education committee. Its eventual successor, the Ongar academy, opened in 2015. John finally retired as a chair of governors at Stratford school, Newham, in east London, at the age of 93.

From the late 1950s John was active in the National Association of Head Teachers, ultimately becoming its president for several years in the 80s. This was an era of considerable ferment in education policy, requiring much delicate negotiation with education secretaries as varied as Shirley Williams for Labour and Sir Keith Joseph for the Conservatives. John’s credibility may have benefited by his being a lifelong Liberal/Liberal Democrat.

An active Anglican all his life, largely as a member of St Mary’s church, Woodford, in east London, he served on the General Synod of the Church of England, and was an advocate of women’s ordination. He also chaired the Commission on Christian Homophobia for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

Never shy of expressing his views, John defiantly wore a white poppy every year as a proponent of pacifism and the Peace Pledge Union, and his house was festooned with anti-Brexit posters.

In 1956 he married Audrey (nee Warnes), and they had a son, Malcolm. Audrey died in 1994. John entered a civil partnership in 2008 with Jesus Goyogana, a Basque postman, who had moved to Britain in 1973. They met in 1995, via an advertisement in the gay press, in the National Theatre foyer.

John is survived by Jesus, Malcolm, and by his granddaughters, Heather and Jasmine, and great-grandchildren, Kyra and James.

Richard Kirker

The GuardianTramp

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