Bruce Liddington, who has died aged 70, was the most exotic creature in the Department for Education in the 2000s. In a land of fairly staid civil servants, Bruce had flair and the panache of a brilliant parakeet.
He also had passion and what is most valuable in government: passion with practicality. He not only wanted the very best for the next generation of children: he knew what that was, how to make it happen and, to my undying good fortune, he chose to do it with me when I was minister for education.
He had been one of the youngest headteachers in Britain, at Northampton School for Boys, and was one of the first headteachers to be knighted as New Labour sought to champion the best in state education after 1997. He loved the title but it irritated his wife Carol Jane, whom I annoyed when I first met her, asking what it was like to be Lady Liddington. “It can’t be worse than being Lord Adonis”, was her unanswerable response.
Bruce was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire. His father, Gordon, was a stonemason and his mother, Joan (nee Bruce), worked in a shoe factory. After Wellingborough grammar school, he went to Queen Mary College, London, then did a master’s at Washington State University and a PGCE at Cambridge University. After teaching at schools in Yorkshire and Northamptonshire, he became deputy head at Ousedale School, Newport Pagnell, in 1981 before taking over as head of Northampton School five years later, aged 37. He had married Carol Jane Tuttle, a solicitor, in 1978.
Seconded to the Department of Education in 2000, Bruce really knew what made schools work and how to improve them fundamentally, because he had done it himself. He could give me the low-down on a headteacher, the quality of a classroom, and the whole way the school was being run, in a matter of minutes of entering a school – often in hushed tones as we proceeded uneasily from classroom to classroom in the hundreds of visits I made to seriously failing schools which we sought to convert into academies.
The civil service didn’t quite know how to deal with Bruce. He was recruited because we wanted some experts, but he was too outspoken, and too passionate, for some of the powers that be. He ended up as the first schools commissioner (2006-09) with a brief to systematically improve schools.
From there, I moved departments, and he became chief executive of an academy chain, E-ACT, but we had become firm friends and continued to meet and talk regularly. Much of our conversation was about trains and Trollope.
Bruce and Carol Jane created a wonderful family. For many parents, having one son in Dublin, another in Dubai, a daughter in Hertfordshire and a family-in-law in Colorado, would mean losing contact. For Bruce, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to travel.
In our last phone conversation, he was worried by the recurrence of a serious heart complaint, but told me: “I think I’m just about up to getting to Dubai next week.” He died there of a heart attack.
He is survived by Carol Jane, their children, Gaby, Richard and Jamie, and six grandchildren.