Former colleagues and his widow, Jill, mark the passing of Robin Ritzema, who unlocked many doors for ICT in schools
Robin Ritzema, the senior civil servant who took charge of successive Government policies to bring schools into the age of the Internet and digital convergence has died aged 65.
Robin will perhaps be remembered in professional circles most for his visionary and enthusiastic commitment in creating and developing the UK’s National Grid for Learning with appropriately associated programmes for schools’ ICT infrastructure, broadband, content creation and teacher training.
Robin graduated from Cambridge and also gained a Diploma in Education which involved a spell of teaching practice in a spectacularly unruly London school. It prepared him well for the career in herding cats that was the late 20th century Civil Service. Third in the national examination, Robin was accepted in the administrative stream for high flyers in the Civil Service – and, appropriately, joined the then Department for Education and Science. He also worked in the Cabinet Office and Office for Science and Technology. Spells in the mainstream branches of the DES, including its Schools Branch and the Ministerial Private Office, saw Robin make rapid progress in his civil service career.
In the late 1980s to early 1990s, as an assistant secretary (Grade 5) in the Office for Science and Technology, Robin was closely involved with UKrep (the UK's "permanent representation" in the EU) and policy work on CERN. It was at a gathering of CERN in Geneva in 1991 when the idea of creating the world wide web took its first positive step forward.
'Prepared to speak the truth to those in power'
With that background, it was a fortuitous turn of events that, in 1994, saw Robin return from the Office for Science and Technology to take charge of the education department's drive to equip schools and other education institutions with the latest technologies and train teachers for the age of the Internet. This was a UK-wide initiative, involving all the UK education departments, different sectors of education, and other key partners in government and industry. Robin's bonhomie and diplomatic skills were at a premium. Yet he was equally prepared plainly to speak truth to those in power when events required.
The development of the use of new technologies was a world phenomenon which led Robin to some interesting experiences, including being interviewed on Tomorrow’s World. Robin played an active and respected role on the European and world stage to keep the UK as a world leader in education ICT while, at the same time, extending the UK’s advice and support to other countries. He was a tireless traveller to Brussels and Strasbourg both in his international science and his ICT leadership roles, and had many an interesting and amusing anecdote about the vicissitudes of high-level bureaucracy.
After some 30 years in the civil service, 20 of them in the senior civil service, Robin left in 2,000 in order to operate as a self-employed consultant. His integrity, commitment and energy secured him immediate success and Robin quickly developed an admirable portfolio of clients, including the British Council, the European Commission and individual firms. He also secured recognition as an accredited independent public appointments assessor and sat on a number of advisory groups including, in 2011-12, the Defra independent Advisory Panel on British Waterways.
He remained up to his death an active walker, mountaineer, hockey and tennis player. His enthusiasm for opera, and particularly Wagner, was undimmed. Colleagues who remember Robin from his days in the education department, have fond memories of trying to keep pace with him on official visits, of his open-minded curiosity for foreign cuisine, of his good-humoured handling of difficult meetings including, where necessary, steering colleagues away from difficult topics by a well-timed kick under the table.
He was a natural leader, and while some could find his knowledge, breadth of cultural interests, energy and enthusiasm daunting, those who knew him most closely also knew a man who was kind, considerate, and ready to appreciate the other point of view. He was always interesting to talk to. Renowned for not letting a conversation flag, he was also an attentive listener who remembered what he had been told, and personal details.
'A friend who made any encounter sparkle with his wit, knowledge and enthusiasm'
Robin was well respected by the 'cats' he was herding too, including suppliers to schools. Dominic Savage, director general of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), commented: "Robin was a brilliant strategist and on more than one occasion I was impressed by how something intricate would come together because of his meticulous planning and effective follow-through.
"For the industry he was someone who we trusted, mainly because he was straight-talking even if we didn’t always like the message. He was clearly respected by a succession of ministers but ultimately too honest and principled to stay in favour for ever! I also recall his love of certain acquired tastes with food overseas; fish-head curry is a particular memory.
"Ultimately though, he was not just an authoritative and influential colleague in the development of ICT in education, but a friend who made any encounter sparkle with his wit, knowledge and enthusiasm. He came to BESA’s 75th anniversary reception and spoke to camera about us with his usual authority and humour. There should be more Robins; and I will miss him."
Robin leaves his wife Jill, son Mark and daughter Ruth. He will be greatly missed by his family – and in many other circles.
1947 – 2012
This obituary for Robin Ritzema was prepared by his former colleagues David Noble, Andrew Partridge, Tim Tarrant and his widow, Jill. Robin's funeral took place in Eastbourne on Friday December 21.