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The Guardian
29 May 1996

English with Inspiration

John Haycraft, who has died aged 69, was an intellectual pioneer of the post-imperial age. He devised an imaginative system for teaching English as a foreign language which he built up into a network of a 100 affiliated schools in 20 countries, based on his own International House in London.

His career was colourful. When he was a child his father, an officer in the Indian army, was shot dead by an angry soldier. John and his younger brother Colin - who became equally original as a publisher before he died two years ago - were brought up by their mother on a small pension. But as a child John travelled through Europe, before being educated at Wellington and Oxford. After a post-graduate year at Yale, John went out to southern Spain with Brita, his young Swedish wife and closest colleague, to start an English-language school. They stayed there for six adventurous years which he later described in his book Babel in Spain.

They developed an original approach to language-teaching which emphasised theatrical techniques to dramatise dull grammar and texts. Back in London they established a successful school, International House, and started a special teacher-training course, the first of its kind, to staff it.

He chose young teachers for their ability to inspire and communicate as much as for academic qualifications. Having trained too many for his own school, he set up language schools abroad to make use of them, and then built up a network of autonomous schools affiliated to his own International House, which set rigorous standards which guaranteed its high reputation. At the same time he became involved in developing the BBC’s English By Radio which extended new teaching methods into a much wider field. By the 1970s, with typical boldness, he had moved headquarters of International House into the grand Piccadilly mansion once occupied by Talleyrand and the St James’s Club, where noisy polyglot students soon enlivened the melancholy of Mayfair.

He retired as director-general in 1990, when he faced a new challenge as advisor to George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who was financing English language schools in Eastern Europe - which he remained until limited by a mild stroke two years ago.

He had many other interests, reading widely and writing books about Italy and France, and about his own experiences: he had finished a draft of his autobiography shortly before he died.

Haycraft had a range of assets appropriate to his entrepreneurial version of public service. He projected a military confidence with clipped sentences and upright posture; while he enjoyed an informal, casual lifestyle, and his intellectual curiosity relished provocative ideas.

He was ambitious in his expansion of language teaching, but he was uninterested in money making or formal status. He once applied to direct the British Council - which he would have much enlivened - but was too unconventional to be acceptable.

He lived unpretentiously with Brita, his indispensable collaborator, at Blackheath, where they brought up three lively children, and spent holidays in a cottage on the Suffolk coast where he enjoyed long walks, bohemian company and competitive tennis.

He had wide foreign friendships, but he remained loyal to Oxford friends with whom he never lost his boyish enthusiasm and curiosity. He was impatient of British insularity and conservatism, and encouraged the adventurousness of his young colleagues with his infectious exuberance and sense of fun.

His remarkable career pointed the way to a new kind of British internationalism, with a dedicated professionalism in place of domination. He thus created worldwide links for which thousands of foreign students and British teachers will remain grateful.

Anthony Sampson

Arlene Gilpin of the TEFL Unit at the School of Education, Bristol University, writes:

John Haycraft will be mourned by all in the world of teaching English as a Foreign Language. He was a man of the world, a traveller, an inspired and inspiring teacher, and probably attempted more for the profession of EFL than any other single person. Long before codes of practice or quality assurance were ever heard of, John and Brita were giving attention to the detail of students’ well-being as well as their learning.

In the present day, where quality assurance can so often be reduced to the mechanistic checking off of requirements on a list, his life shines like a beacon. Not for him the mere provision of paper evidence. He lived his work, he was a warm and approachable person, full of fun and wholly dedicated to his life’s work in promoting one of Britain’s least appreciated exports: its language.

I shall remember him for his championship of the teachers and the students of English as a foreign language, in a country that all but ignores the major industry that English language teaching is, and to which he made a unique contribution.

What I shall remember John for most, however, is not his dedication to the field in which I work, important though that was. Like many others, I shall remember him for his kindness, for his sense of humour, for his urbanity. But most of all, I shall remember him as someone who had, as we say in the north, “no edge”. John made all of his associates feel important, he had what the Spanish so charmingly call don de gentes. He will be much missed.

John Stacpoole Haycraft, director International House, born December 11, 1926; died May 23, 1996.

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