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Peter Wilby – Doctor of Letters - Leicester-born journalist and education columnist

Oration by Dr S J Gurman

Peter Wilby is a distinguished journalist with a strong interest in educational policy. He has been Editor of the “Independent on Sunday” and of the “New Statesman”. He still writes a weekly column for the New Statesman and also writes for the “Guardian”. He was a columnist for the Times Educational Supplement for 12 years up to 2008.

Peter Wilby was born in Leicester in 1944, to parents who worked in the hosiery trade, then the major local industry. He was educated at Kibworth Beauchamp Grammar School in Leicestershire. Peter Wilby then went to the University of Sussex, where he read History.

Peter Wilby began his career in journalism whilst at Sussex, where he founded and wrote for a short-lived student paper. He worked at “The Observer” for several years as a reporter and, latterly, education correspondent. He continued to work as an education correspondent for the “New Statesman” and the “Sunday Times” for a further ten years, forging an impressive reputation in an area which has always been his major interest. He published several books in these years, including the Sunday Times’ Good University and Good Career Guides and a handbook “Parents’ Rights”. He was also Father of Chapel for the National Union of Journalists whilst working at the “Sunday Times”

Peter Wilby moved into editorial work as Education Editor of the “Independent” in 1986 before moving to its sister paper, the “Indepemdemt on Sunday” as Home News and later Deputy Editor. During this time he was also a founder of the “Journal of Education Policy”, in company with one Professor Bob Burgess, among others. Twenty years on, this journal has a good impact factor and solid reputation in its field. It continues to discuss, alalyze and debate policy, policymaking and policy implementation at all levels of education, topics which have long been a major part of Peter Wilby’s life.

Peter Wilby was appointed Editor of the “New Statesman” in 1998 and held the post until 2005. The “New Statesman” is a political weekly magazine of left-wing views founded in 1913. It has long been affectionately known as the “Staggers”, a traditional University nickname formation which does not relate to the habits of its abstemious staff. As a self-confessed “crusty old leftie”, and Editor of a left-wing paper, Peter Wilby was not entirely in tune with the government in these early years of the Blair administration, a situation which could have been worsened by the fact that the owner of the “New Statesman” was a member of that government. In fact, he was not badgered by that owner and maintained his independence by continuing, in his own words, “not to join clubs, to attend parties only sparingly and to reject all invitations to reunions”. His success as an Editor was achieved despite the handicap of being partially deaf all his life. This condition is apparently worsened considerably by the receipt of instructions from proprietors or Government spin doctors.

After he left the “New Statesman”, Peter Wilby contributed a brief life of Anthony Eden, the Conservative British Prime Minister at the time of the Suez Crisis, to a series on the 20 prime ministers of the 20th century. Again he demonstarates his independence: the book is not over-critical of Eden, whiose premiership he describes as “a tragedy”, using the original meaning of that word. In the light of recent history, it is also notable that Peter Wilby specifically says of Eden “he was never well-off, but nobody could accuse him of profiting from political office”. His next work, he promises, will be a socialist history of cricket.

Since 2005, Peter Wilby has been a freelance, writing regularly in the “Guardian”, primarily on media issues, and the “New Statesman”. He is still thinking about the purpose and significance of education. Thus, in an article in the “Guardian” in August 2009 he considers the problems of the degree classification system and concludes that degree grades are too variable and should be replaced by a more detailed profile. He might be glad to know that this University has issued such detailed profiles for some years. In particular, its excellent Physics Department, amongst others, provides a skills profile in addition to a marks profile. However, employers and the new graduands here today still seem to use primarily the old, crude degree grades. This is especially the case in the preliminary filtering of applicants by major employers, the separation of candidates into sheep and (rejected) goats about which Peter Wilby has long campaigned, and shows little sign of change. Peter Wilby has much campaigning still to do. Even though he is now past the present retirement age, I have no doubt that he will continue to campaign on issues in education, to which he has devoted a large part of his life.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and of the Council, I present Peter John Wilby that you may confer on him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.

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