Dick Copland 1927-2011

Dick started life in Bournemouth, moving to Birmingham to take a degree in Physics, in 1949, and to find a lifetime partner in Joyce. After working at Fettes College in Edinburgh he spent 5 years in industrial research, returning to teaching in 1957. Dick worked as head of science in a Scunthorpe secondary modern school before later moving to Egremont as a deputy head teacher of a purpose-built community school. He finally took on the headship of Ryhope Comprehensive in Sunderland, a flagship school for comprehensive education, where he remained from 1969 until the school closed in 1988.

Here Dick was able to use his knowledge, learning, skill and forward-thinking approach. (He had been an advisor to St. Kitts in their planning of comprehensive education) to run a genuinely comprehensive school. The school, under Dick’s confident leadership, was at the forefront of innovations such as mixed ability teaching and abolishing corporal punishment. Dick was also innovative in adopting a consultative style of management and, for example, introduced such things as staff briefings – normal practice today but innovative in the early 70s.

Dick and the school faced significant challenges. Working in a school formed by the amalgamation of pre-existing grammar and comprehensive schools, it was necessary for Dick to adopt a completely fresh approach, and doubtless he was appointed partly because of his experience and vision. But Sunderland in the 1970s and 1980s was a rather traditional community and, even from those who might have been expected to support him, he was met by question after question and sometimes blank incomprehension: too many were happy to accept the comprehensive education ideal without understanding the concomitant changes and developments this implied.

If Dick was not already aware of the fact, he was to understand and live with the strong links between politics and education. Fortunately Dick had a very strong and determined character: he had chosen to live very close to the school, which meant that he and his family were almost permanently involved in what came to be a very rich life in and around the community with the school at its heart and it was hard to escape from the struggles and debate this produced.

Never a blind follower of party lines, Dick was innovative and creative: his book, Lessons in Class, well exemplifies how knowledgeable and intellectual was his approach to managing everyday difficulties from a very practical, almost scientific, approach.

In addition to education, Dick had a wide range of political interests as an activist in the peace movement, CND and Stop the War campaigns. He and Joyce learnt Esperanto, which enabled them to develop international links, travel and engage in wider debate. Within the NUT he continued to argue and campaign for comprehensive ideals and was very active in the campaign to create a single teaching union as well as acting as a delegate to the Trades Council.

He was a keen supporter of the National Health Service and campaigned to defend it. Community relations remained very important to him and for a while he was chair of Unity in Sunderland. Dick was a supporter of and active campaigner with Tyne and Wear Anti-fascist Association (TWAFA) for many years and was justly proud of the success the group had ensuring that far-right groups have not managed to gain electoral success in areas where they once felt they had real opportunities.

Even as his illness (he developed Parkinson’s disease) began to take a real toll on his fitness, he continued to be active and to participate in a determined fashion in meetings, marches, campaigns and debate. For Dick none of these struggles or disagreements became personal. For him the important thing was winning the argument. The worst you might have heard him say of a political opponent was that ‘they weren’t very progressive’! And this was reciprocated; many, at his funeral, seemed proud to assert that while they disagreed with him they had to say he was a lovely man they were pleased to have known.

Some of the arguments in which Dick was so closely involved throughout his teaching career seem to have effectively been won; with others the struggle is ongoing and he was well aware of the need to maintain our awareness and determination to win these debates. For him the struggle and the need for vigilance were truly lifelong.

Many folk have reason to thank Dick: not only those with whom he worked closely or who attended his school, but also anyone who has benefited from being taught or working in a school without corporal punishment, with progressive teaching methods and modern management styles.

A former pupil and union colleague described Dick as a man ahead of his time. In every sense he was a true progressive.

Roger Lane

This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 42, 2011