Max Morris was born on August 15th 1913 to a Jewish family in the Gorbals area of Glasgow. He often spoke of the poverty that he was born into but his parents loved books and encouraged their son to enter political discussion. His father was, in fact, a teacher and Morris was to reminisce about a childhood spent as a member of "a rather intellectual family, full of books, political discussions". He was educated at Hutchesons’ Grammar School, Glasgow, which was renowned for its tough discipline, and this background would tell rather strongly on Morris’ future career in the world of prominence.
His family moved to north London when he was 16 and he finished his education at Kilburn grammar school. He obtained a first-class degree in history from University College London, where he lost his earlier attachment to Zionism and joined the Communist Party. He was a leading figure in the University College Socialist Society. When he left university in 1936, he took an education diploma at London University’s Institute of Education. Morris then found a post as a teacher at Willesden Secondary School of Engineering, which catered for the 13 to 16 age range and became active in the NUT. In 1939, Max Morris first married, to Barbara, an art historian; they divorced in 1950. He edited the book, `The People’s Schools’, in 1939, and published his `Differential equations’seeing service in both Europe and India, and was demobilised as a captain. in 1942. From 1941 to 1946 he served in the Royal Army Service Corps,
From 1946, he spent four years as a senior lecturer in education for one of the emergency teacher-training colleges set up after the war. He returned as a class teacher in Willesden in 1950 but then suffered from nine years of political discrimination in Middlesex, arising from a ban imposed only the previous year on the appointment of Communist head teachers and deputy heads by the Conservative-controlled Middlesex County Council. The NUT had held a strike ballot on the issue but, although a majority was won for this, it had failed to get a two-thirds majority. The anti-communist ban was eventually revoked in a blaze of national publicity by the incoming Labour local authority administration in 1958. During this period, Morris published `From Cobbett to the Chartists’ (1948), `Your Children’s Future’ (1953) and `Your Child at School’ (published by the Communist Party in 1957).
It was not until 1960 that he obtained a deputy headship in Tottenham. Then, Max Morris became head of Chamberlayne Wood Secondary School in Brent, northwest London, in 1962. He was appointed headmaster of multi-racial Willesden Comprehensive School in 1966, a school born of amalgamation between a grammar school, a secondary modern and a technical school. Local Conservative councillors agitated against the appointment of “Red Max” at Willesden High but council leaders stood firm. Morris was known as an authoritarian headmaster but he was also credited with transforming the standards of the school.
By this time, he had been a member of the Communist Party Executive Committee since 1952. Morris had been a protégé of the Communist headmaster of Acton Grammar School, CGT Giles, an Old Etonian, who became a president of the NUT. Giles saw Morris as his natural successor within the union. But the effects of the Cold War frustrated Morris’s ambitions and it was only at the third attempt, in 1966, that he gained a seat on the NUT executive, a position he was to hold until 1979. The Communists and left allies on the NUT executive were involved in an ultimately partially successful but protracted struggle against the right led by Sir Ronald Gould, the union’s long-serving general secretary.
Morris became president of the NUT in 1973, when Margaret Thatcher was Education Secretary. Despite their obvious political differences, he had a healthy respect for her abilities. "We got on very well," he said. "She didn’t accept rubbish from her civil servants." Union activists from then would argue that Morris adopted a similar stance in the way he ran his presidency. He certainly left behind him a reputation for having had more influence on shaping union policy than many of his predecessors or successors.
As President, Morris led industrial actions, such as the successful strike for an increase in the London teachers’ allowance and he was involved in the negotiations that led to the 1974 Houghton pay award. Morris was also personally associated with campaigns against a national shortage of pencils and books and severe staff shortages. He championed comprehensive schools and ran a militant campaign to win local authorities to replace grammars with them.
But, as an avowedly authoritarian school head and a meticulous administrator, especially prominent in the world of secondary school examinations, finding oneself on the opposing side of any argument to Max Morris was often an uncomfortable experience. Morris’ aggressive and often abusingly insulting behaviour over all differences, which bordered upon the personal at times, brought him many critics. Oddly, having used these attributes against the right-wing in the NUT for so long, once he had reached the pinnacle of the union’s leadership, Morris appeared to perversely now turn his fire upon the left in general – even upon his own Party comrades.
His traditional, some might say even conservative, views on education would see him beginning to substantially diverge from the opinions of virtually all Communists at the time. He would appear to have become increasingly nostalgic for the disciplinarian upbringing he received at his Glasgow direct grant school. There was in him a certain relish in the outrage his views provoked and this stance saw him supporting sixth forms against tertiary colleges, deploring split infinitives and challenging the slightest sign of declining standards of accuracy, notably in journalism.
He was even violently opposed to the policy of the Young Communist League and the National Union of Students in the 1970s to organise school students into the National Union of School Students. Even whilst still a member of the Communist Party he opposed, even in the public sphere, its own formal support for this process in which its youth league was a major player. Indeed, his role in the Party and in the union during this period was increasingly combative and controversial. He had resigned first from the Communist Party’s executive in 1970 and then from the Party itself in 1976, citing concerns about policy on Jewish questions as his reason for joining the Labour Party.
From 1976 to 1979 he was Chair of the NUT’s Action Committee, which devised sanctions, such as refusal to supervise school meals, in the campaign to force local authorities and government to raise teachers’ salaries. Despite strong stances over teachers’ pay and the comprehensive school system, Morris was a traditionalist as far as parenting and teaching methods were concerned. He complained that children started school only able to `baby talk’, told parents not to treat children as equals, and bemoaned the decline in standards of spelling and grammar.
Before retiring from headship in 1978, Morris was again involved in controversy, this time over comments against the teaching of black studies. His claim that this would be a `disastrous’ move, which would `turn schools into two-culture establishments’ resulted in his being reported to the Commission for Racial Equality. He became a Haringey Labour councillor in the early 1980s. On losing his council seat in 1986 he cited as a reason the public’s attitude towards the left-wing policies of council leader, Bernie Grant. Left-wingers on the council pointed out that it was only their more right-wing colleague who had lost his seat! Some of his views appeared in `Education: The Wasted Years? 1973-1986, co-written with Clive Griggs, published in 1988.
Along with his wife Margaret Saunders (née Howard), a lecturer in history whom he married in 1961, Morris then became active in the Labour Party-affiliated Socialist Education Association, serving as its chairman from 1995-98. He became bitter that his former school was closed to make way for one the Government’s first privately sponsored flagship academies, the Capital Academy, bolstered with £2m sponsorship from local-boy-made-good Frank Lowe, an agent to sporting superstars. Morris fought off an intensive campaign by New Labour supporters of Tony Blair to replace him and move SERA away from its socialist roots. He remained active in SERA well into his nineties, ensuring that it remained a pro-comprehensive, anti-academies thorn in New Labour’s side. Max Morris died in retirement in France on August 27th 2008, aged 95.
Sources: The Telegraph 6th September 2008; Guardian Tuesday September 9th 2008; Times September 10th 2008; The Independent 6th September 2008