As a teacher at a tough north London comprehensive, Jeffrey Gordon, who has died aged 82, (September 2008) pioneered the practice of work experience for pupils in the 1970s – years before it became part of today’s secondary school life. He was a respected sociology teacher at Holloway School during the 1970s and 80s. While some colleagues at Holloway boys’ school, Islington, dismissed certain pupils as uneducable, Jeffrey recognised that many – often from poor Afro-Caribbean or Greek families – needed self-confidence.
To help them, he scoured the streets in his spare time persuading local businesses to give his boys a “work experience” assignment or a paid Saturday or evening job. Jeffrey’s headmaster often said of an “aggressive” boy: “Give him to Jeff, he’ll sort him out.” He also inspired his pupils to attain good exam results – one is now a Coronation Street star, another became the soul musician Jazzie B.
An accomplished violinist, he would teach youngsters in his lunch hour. He also encouraged pupils to engage in political debate by setting up the school’s 20th Century Club, where politicians Tony Benn, then a government minister, and Frank Dobson, and writer Paul Foot gave talks.
Because of his reputation in education, the then London education authority, ILEA, made him head of a work experience programme for north London.
He served a seven-year apprenticeship as a precision tool engineer, making specialist equipment for bomber planes, and in the evenings and weekend learned the violin under one of the country’s leading orchestral players, Philip Hecht. A socialist, Hecht only made a nominal charge for tuition.
In his 20s Jeffrey worked first as an insurance clerk in London, then studied part-time for a degree until he took up teaching.
Inevitably, because of his socialist convictions, which had been encouraged by Hecht, he became a keen member of the National Union of Teachers.
A great organiser, Jeff led the campaign to help free his brother, wife, and their 11-year-old son after they were locked up during the cultural revolution in 1967 in Beijing, where his brother was working as a journalist. Jeffrey practically laid siege to the Chinese embassy and persuaded intellectuals such as Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm to take up our cause.
Though an atheist, he requested a Jewish Orthodox funeral. He is survived by his wife Janet and daughter Harriet, his brother Eric and his sister Linda.
Former pupils of Holloway School have paid tribute to their former sociology teacher at a memorial event in the House of Commons.
The soul musician Jazzie B, OBE, told how Mr Gordon would encourage political debate in class and even broadcast American civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to pupils during lessons.
“Martin Luther King’s speech became one of my first recordings,” he said. “I used it as backing on my track, Fair Play. I would be proud to tell Jeffrey this year I was honoured with an OBE.”
The double Grammy award winner added: “Mr Gordon was a hell of a guy. He made me feel of value and showed us a way of working out problems. He told me it was no problem to say what I believed and I still go by that principle today.
“I remember he used to put us in charge of the class. That was just one of the great things he did. It gave me confidence and I was actually thinking about becoming a teacher because of Mr Gordon.”
The gathering, organised by Labour MP for Islington North Jeremy Corbyn, was punctuated by classical music composer Ernst Bloch and literary readings from radical writer Tom Paine and the playwright JB Priestly.
Former teaching colleagues described Mr Gordon as a “grafter” and a “pioneer” of work experience schemes at the school. Often, Mr Gordon would use his spare time to find placements for pupils at local businesses.
Another former pupil, Deep Harkishin, said: “I was doing really badly when I met Jeffrey. I remember I had been told to sit outside the classroom and I was just doing my drawings – that’s all I was interested in at the time, drawing. So he said to me, ‘come and sit in my class and do some drawing’. I did, and then, I don’t know how he did it, he turned the sociology lesson into a sociology of art and drawing. It got me interested anyway, and I got my sociology A-level, and then a degree, and in the end a Masters in Social Policy.”
Mr Harkishin added: “I remember he would come to our homes sometimes to check on us. What teacher does that? He was an inspirational figure in everything he did.”
Another former pupil said: “Holloway was a tough, tough school. Jeffrey didn’t treat you like a kid; everyone was allowed to have an opinion – and in Holloway School not everyone thought you were entitled to your own opinion.”
Musician Paul McDonough, also a former Holloway School pupil, said he owes his love of the violin to Mr Gordon’s gentle encouragement and supreme patience.
He said: “When I went there Holloway School was a lot different than it is today. It was a rough place mainly for working-class boys who often didn’t want to learn. “Not only did he keep the class quiet, which was an achievement in those days, but he wanted us to make something of ourselves.”
Another pupil, now a firefighter, said: “People thought that just because you went to Holloway you were starting life with lead in your shoes. He stopped me thinking like that. He was an inspirer.”
Sean Doherty, a teacher at Holloway School for 27 years and a former colleague of Mr Gordon, said: “He could get away with anything in the classroom. He taught me that if you didn’t put the students first you would get nowhere.
“He would encourage them into debate – that is the hallmark of all good teachers.”
Eric Gordon spoke about growing up with his brother Jeffrey in Manchester.
“He loathed prejudice,” he said. “He was a man in the making for decades who came into his own during his years at Holloway School. His empathy came from the route of experience. He would find jobs for the kids and was one of the pioneers of work experience.
“Eventually he was headhunted, for want of a better word, by the local education authority for a job overseeing work experience in other schools.”
Jeffrey Gordon’s wife Janet said: “He was a rover and loved the political life. He gave us a comfortable existence at home. Teachers can be a cynical bunch – but not Jeffrey. You never heard him complaining about other teachers or his pupils.”
MP Mr Corbyn added: “Jeffrey knew that the problem with society was that low expectation and poverty led to wasted talent. Education is about helping to expand people’s minds. There is a great tradition of teachers that remind everybody they can make something of themselves. Let’s carry on changing the world. That was Jeffrey’s legacy.”