John Needham Obituary

My husband, John Needham, passed away at the age of 84, and was an active member of the Labour party, a highly regarded permanent secretary of the Open University Students’ Association (OUSA), and a lifelong fan of Arsenal football club.

John was raised in a tenement flat near King’s Cross station in London. His parents, Lydia (nee Pateman) and John Needham, both worked at Whitbread’s Brewery. When John was two years old, the second world war broke out, and his father enlisted, leaving him and his mother to spend much of the war in underground shelters. Their building was also bombed twice.

Leaving William Ellis school at the age of 15, John worked as an office boy in the City. In the 1960s, he became an active member of St Pancras North Labour party and was eventually elected to Camden council. As chair of the libraries and arts committee, he oversaw the construction of the St Pancras library and Shaw theatre.

During the 1971 Housing Finance Act, he was one of a small group of councillors who stood with tenants during the rent strike and was later surcharged as a result. This huge debt lingered over him for years until it was eventually revoked by the House of Lords. It was during the run-up to the February 1974 general election that John and I met. He was the agent for St Pancras North, and I had signed up as a campaign volunteer.

In the early 1970s, John was one of the first to enrol in the Open University and studied both the social science and science foundation courses. After the OU negotiated with several universities to admit students with OU course credits instead of A-levels, he became one of Lancaster University’s first full-time mature students. At the age of 40, he earned his degree with a 2:1 in organisation studies and sociology.

John later moved from working at Sunderland Polytechnic to becoming the general manager of the student union. In 1983, he moved to Milton Keynes, where he became the permanent secretary of OUSA. As someone who strongly believed in the Open University’s mission, he had firsthand experience of its power to change lives. When the university was under threat from a hostile Tory government, John spearheaded a campaign to support the OU by engaging students throughout Britain. It resulted in a 160,000-signature petition that was delivered to 10 Downing Street in November 1985. He retired in 1999, and in 2001, he received an honorary master’s degree for services to OU students.

During his retirement, John dedicated much of his time and effort to campaigning for patient and public involvement in the NHS. He was also an avid golfer.

He is survived by me, our daughter Jessica, and our grandchildren Teddy and Poppy.


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    Oscar Cunningham is a 41-year-old educational blogger and professor. He has been writing about education for over 10 years, and is known for his expertise on online learning and digital media. Cunningham is also a frequent speaker on these topics, and has given talks at a range of universities around the world. In his spare time, he also enjoys playing the violin and running.

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