Barbara Hibbert obituary

Other lives: Education consultant and history teacher credited for setting many of her pupils on their careers

My former teacher Barbara Hibbert, who has died aged 64, was head of history at Harrogate grammar school in Yorkshire. She was an inspiring teacher, and ambitious for her pupils, many of whom credit her with setting them on their careers. I am not sure that I would have become a political journalist without her encouragement.

Born in Oldham to Elsie (nee Ward), a secretary, and Denys, an electrician, Barbara went on a scholarship to Hulme grammar school for girls, before studying history at Leeds University. She was in some respects on the traditionalist wing of the profession: she thought the job was to instil deep historical knowledge rather than just teach transferable skills, and she encouraged her pupils to read widely. She believed in rigour, and favoured essay-writing, debating and so on, an approach that would become orthodox towards the end of her career.

Above all, she was a champion of teachers’ autonomy, and sought to shield her staff from the micromanagement and bureaucracy that piled up under governments of all colours. Returning to Leeds for a PhD, she examined how well sixth forms prepared pupils for studying history at university. Often, she concluded, not very well: not the fault of teachers so much as a curriculum that incentivised cramming for examinations over independent thought.

Barbara was an energetic organiser of learning outside the classroom: her pupils enjoyed a cycle of visiting speakers, essay prizes, conferences and trips. She was a believer in state education (despite the name, the school had become a comprehensive in the 1970s), but could be frustrated by complacency and drift. As she saw it, independent schools got the best of everything because they asked, and it fell to her to do the asking. She was particularly passionate about university admissions. Her colleagues recall she was similarly ambitious for her staff, many of whom have gone on to be leaders in the profession.

Barbara was a loyal Guardian reader. Her classroom walls carried the cartoons of Steve Bell and pieces cut from the comment pages. She would come to despair of Brexit, and the state of the Labour party.

After leaving Harrogate grammar in 2010, Barbara was a consultant to the charity Teach First, mentoring and supporting graduates to create a new generation of outstanding history teachers; and to Cambridge Assessment, the exam board. She was made an honorary fellow of the Historical Association, a charity, in 2012.

Barbara was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in 2014. She survived many years past the expected lifespan, continuing her consultancy throughout. Typically she became an expert in her own illness, participating in several academic research projects at Leeds University as an “expert patient”, alongside spending her commuted teacher’s pension in Michelin-starred restaurants. “I keep plodding on. Am officially an outlier now,” she emailed last October.

She is survived by her husband, Ed Ruck-Keene, whom she met in Harrogate in 1980 and married in 1983, their daughters, Eve and Rosa, and granddaughter, Liberty.

Matthew Holehouse

The GuardianTramp

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