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Dick Copland was a pioneer and had a vision of how children should be taught in the right environment and without fear. A man affectionately remembered as a visionary who unfortunately had to fight constantly for what he believed in and for Ryhope’s existence as progressive institution.


The video below contains brief extracts of Dick’s comments during an interview with Russell Harty.

Anchor 3


Dick Copland, the visionary….


Much of the long debate about comprehensive schooling missed the point. The real issue had to do not with labels, nor admission policies, but with what went on inside the buildings. The head who wanted to run the kind of comprehensive approved of by parents and the local authority had only to move the selection process in through the front door, and run a streamed organisation which produced an academic band capable of GCE and A-level, and a "remedial" department deemed successful if it kept its clients out of serious trouble. Any head who felt this perpetuated the old system, and that a genuine comprehensive should be unstreamed, faced an uphill struggle.


Lessons in Class by Dick Copland is an account of one such battle, told by the man who fought it as head of Ryhope School in Sunderland from 1969 until its closure nearly 20 years later. Ryhope was born, as were so many schools at that time, from the amalgamation of a grammar and a secondary modern. Right from the start, Copland abolished prefects, staff gowns and the practice of addressing boys by their surnames. He also put a stop to corporal punishment - a gesture which guaranteed a row in the local press and lots of public hot air about "discipline".


For Copland, "it wasn't a matter for debate because it involved striking somebody with a piece of wood or other object which was unacceptable on moral grounds. It carried the implication that, ultimately, force is correct". Whatever else in our school system has remained unchanged, or has grown worse, I would guess that hardly any state school head or teacher would now disagree with Copland on this.


Copland realised that many pupils find school difficult to cope with, and that instead of labelling them as inadequate, we should look at how we teach them.



Extracts from Education for Tomorrow by Andy Dyer

Dick Copland (1927 – 2011)

Dick had that rare combination – a man with principles for which he fought with tireless determination combined with a gentle, loving approach to all those who came into his life.


Dick was born into a well-off family, and boarded at Taunton public school, the school his father had attended. He went on to graduate in 1949 at Birmingham University with a BSc in Physics, followed by CertEd the following year. His first appointment as a teacher was at Fettes College, a post he was offered by his own former headteacher.


After a total of five years in industry Dick returned to teaching. He wanted to teach in a Secondary Modern school, but encountered difficulties in being regarded as ‘over-qualified’. He was offered jobs in Grammar schools, but pursued his aim of working in a Secondary Modern, eventually achieving this as Head of Science in Scunthorpe, then the biggest steel-making town in the North. Dick remained there for five years until, in 1964, he was appointed as Deputy Headteacher in the new Comprehensive School in Egremont.


This was Wyndham School, which was the first Comprehensive School to be built during the 1964-1970 Labour government’s period of rapid expansion of comprehensive education. It was opened by Anthony Crosland, who was appointed by Harold Wilson as Secretary of State for Education in 1965. It was a showpiece Comprehensive, very much the centre of the local community with shared library, swimming pool and concert hall on the site. Egremont’s proximity to the Windscale nuclear plant meant that it had to build a new school of sufficiently high quality to attract scientists to the area. The town was also in fact to receive a large influx of industrial workers for the expanded nuclear site in 1970. As the school was still being built at the time of his appointment, Dick was able to oversee personally the quality of the science laboratories.


In 1968 he was seconded for three months to assist the government of St. Kitts with their plans for Comprehensive education.

The time had come when Dick had a great desire to be a headteacher, his heart still set on the North of England and the children of industrial workers. His aim was to set up a Comprehensive school in what was regarded as an ‘impossible’ area for this – the North-East. In 1969 he was appointed Headteacher of Ryhope School in the then Tory-controlled Sunderland. The new Comprehensive school was to be formed from the amalgamation of the local Secondary Modern and Grammar schools. Dick carried out the mammoth task of setting up the school. Appointments were completed on 1st September, and the school opened the next day.

Dick’s strongly held principles on what was necessary for a school to be truly comprehensive were implemented. Essential to this was the belief that “every child counts” and all children need a high quality education; further, that this needs to be carried out through mixed ability teaching, with a ban on corporal punishment, and no school uniform.

These were things that Dick had to fight for, with support from many of the younger teachers, but opposition from others, particularly those from the old Secondary Modern school.

‘We had envisaged evolution, not revolution’


These words by the then Chair of the Education Committee (CEO) summed up the extent to which Dick was a forward looking progressive. As Gerald Haigh put it in his review of Dick’s book Lessons in Class: A Fresh Appraisal in Comprehensive Education (TUPS, 1998) in the Times Educational Supplement :- ‘Right from the start, Copland abolished prefects, staff gowns and the practice of addressing boys by their surnames. He also put a stop to corporal punishment - a gesture which guaranteed a row in the local press and lots of public hot air about "discipline".’


With the support and backing of, particularly, the younger members of staff (mostly NUT members), things went well for a time. But difficulties arose in 1971 with the change of CEO to someone who wanted corporal punishment and school uniform, and was opposed to mixed ability teaching.


Opposition to corporal punishment was an issue on which Dick campaigned vigorously. He was a member of the Society Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP), and organised a full day seminar in Sunderland in 1972 with local left-wing activist Bob Clay. The seminar led to a huge furore in the press because of the debate taking place in the Council over corporal punishment and Ryhope School. Many headteachers were opposed to a ban on corporal punishment, but the main opposition came from the NAS/UWT. The Council, however, did ban it.


Dick was a member of the Labour Party, including being Chair of the Constituency Labour Party for several years, but resigned from the party at the time of the first Gulf War. He was a firm believer in Peace and, despite lack of time, remained an active member of CND.


Dick remained headteacher of Ryhope School until its closure in 1988, and had lived in the locality throughout.

The story of Dick’s battle to maintain the principles of comprehensive education is told in detail in his Lessons in Class. This book is much more than an account of the battle for Ryhope School. This battle was a battle for the survival of comprehensive education itself, and this lies at the very heart of the book. The tribute to this book by Caroline and Tony Benn, and printed on the back cover, reads as follows:- ‘A story of Everyschool written by a head who makes his observations on the basis of long experience within the classroom, wide reading in the theory of educational practice, and a deep social commitment to a democratic community life for everyone.’


Dick Copland and Education for Tomorrow


Dick’s first article in Education for Tomorrow appeared in Autumn 1994, and by 2000 he had joined the Editorial Board of the journal. He was a regular attender of the meetings of the board, and made many valuable contributions to the work of the journal, particularly in his articles on Comprehensive education. As members of the board come from far flung parts of the country, we have always operated a ‘pooled fare’ system, so the burden of costs is spread amongst the attendees. Typically Dick, despite the fact that the cost would be shared, always tried to come the cheapest possible way; apart from his very last few attendances this meant travelling to London by overnight coach from Sunderland and a similarly arduous journey back.

In 2007 he and his wife Joyce attended our Summer School, held in North Yorkshire. This was the first time I had met Joyce, and was immediately struck by her own great political determination. Sadly, this was the last time Dick managed to attend any EFT meetings. By now his illness was becoming severe, and Joyce’s care of him was becoming increasingly a full-time matter. However, he retained a keen interest in the journal, with Joyce reading it to him, and he strongly believed in the importance of it reaching a wide audience.


His natural love of humanity meant that he always saw the best in people, always hoped for the best in people. His judgements were always made as a genuine progressive, looking for the best advances in the world. He was no ‘party hack’. The worst he might say about anyone was that they were “not very progressive”. As time went on his illness also left him increasingly paralysed, such that at the time close to his death he could barely speak or move. Despite all this Dick’s qualities continued to shine through. His strong principles, his inner strength, his heartfelt opposition to inequality, injustice and prejudice – all these were combined with a gentle, kind and loving nature, and great humility.


TRIBUTES have been paid to a pioneering former headteacher.


Richard Copland, known as Dick, died aged 83, after a 10-year fight against Parkinson’s disease.

Forward-thinking Mr Copland took over at Ryhope School in 1969 and was there until its closure in 1988.

During his tenure, the school was at the centre of controversy over teaching methods.


Issues arose when Mr Copland took over at the school and began creating one comprehensive school out of the secondary modern and grammar schools which stood across the road from one another in Ryhope.


He decided to ban the use of corporal punishment and also scrapped school uniforms.


After his retirement, Mr Copland, dad to Andy, 56, Hilary, 53, and David, 47, published “Lessons in Class” in 1998 which dealt with much of the fall-out from education changes.


The book also looked at the heated exchanges between education chiefs at the Civic Centre in the run-up to the school’s closure.


His wife Joyce, 81, who had been a full-time carer for her husband since his illness, said: “Although it was a very unpleasant time with what happened, I’ve had nothing but praise from all of the people around here.

“People saying that their kids who were at the school when he was there are doing brilliantly.”


Andy Copland, said: “He really wanted to raise the standard of teaching for everybody, so that no one was left behind.”

Originally from Bournemouth, Mr Copland moved to Wearside in 1969 to take up the post at Ryhope. A graduate of Birmingham University, he had previously worked for British Steel in Rotherham and Scunthorpe and then as deputy headteacher of Wyndham Comprehensive School, in Egremont.


Chris Mullin ex-Labour MP for Sunderland South, who was a friend of Mr Copland’s, said: “Dick was a modest, decent man of unbending principle. A socialist of the old school, who practiced what he preached.

“He will be remembered with respect and affection by all who knew him.”

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