Denis Lawton obituary

Other lives: Former director of the Institute of Education who eventually returned to his first love, teaching

My former colleague Denis Lawton, who has died aged 91, had a 40-year career at the Institute of Education in London, where he established its department of curriculum studies.

Eventually he became director of the institute, bringing greater democracy to its decision-making and securing royal charter status for the organisation, guaranteeing its future as an independent school of the University of London. He also wrote 14 books and many academic papers, including on the history and politics of education, and chaired various national committees and examination boards.

Denis was born in Maesteg, south Wales, the son of Ruby (nee Evans), a shop assistant, and William Lawton, a coalminer. When an accident left his father unable to work down the pit, the family moved to north London, where Denis attended St Ignatius college in Stamford Hill.

After national service in the army he worked for two years as a civil servant before completing a degree in English, history and French at what is now Goldsmiths, University of London. He then taught English at Erith grammar school in Kent, before becoming head of English at Bacon’s secondary school in south-east London.

In 1963 he was seconded to work as a research officer with the sociologist Basil Bernstein at the Institute of Education, and also undertook a PhD, after which he joined the institute full-time.

In 1989 he chose to forsake his role as director and to return to his real love, which was teaching, which he did at the Institute until his retirement in 2003. He was a gifted lecturer who was able to entrance students with his note-free talks, but his greatest contribution lay in his skill as a supervisor of PhD students, to whom he would give systematic, detailed and highly positive support.

Denis had married Joan Weston, a PA to a trade union official, in 1953. Towards the end of his career, when he developed age-related macular degeneration and lost his ability to read small print, Joan kept him up to date by reading academic papers aloud to him.

He and Joan loved music and travelling, while Denis was an enthusiastic photographer, a lover of German shepherd dogs, a devotee of real ale and a keen swimmer in his own outdoor pool until a few months before his death.

Joan died in 2014. He is survived by their sons, Mark and Ralph, five grandsons and two great-grandchildren.


Peter Mortimore

The GuardianTramp

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