My dad, the IB's father

Henry Peterson, son of the IB’s first Director General, tells Hayley Kirton about his memories of his father, Alec

If you were to ask somebody at an IB Global Centre who Alec Peterson was, they might tell you that he was one of the IB’s founders, its first Director General or one of the greatest modern-day champions of education reform. To Henry Peterson, Alec was known simply as Dad.  

“He was an older father than many,” Henry recalls, as he sits at his desk – the same desk his father had in his own office and would spend days hunched over, tirelessly writing letters to obtain funding for the IB. “By the time I was born, he was 42 and had returned to England after a long period in India and Sri Lanka during the Second World War.”

Although Alec began his work in education in 1932, Henry believes his father’s time in the military shaped one of the IB’s fundamental principles. “It made international-mindedness very important to him,” says Henry. “For him, it had a lot to do with maintaining peace between nations.”

In 1958, Alec became the Director of the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University. While there, he published a report criticizing the over-specialization of pre-university education. Alec was particularly opposed to the split between humanities and sciences.

Although Alec’s report was based on research by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, a Portuguese charity, Henry thinks his father’s own experiences may also have been responsible for his strong views. “He felt his own education as a classicist had left him well-equipped to think about things like moral philosophy,” says Henry. “But it also left him under-prepared to combine this with the benefits of scientific method and analysis.”

Alec’s eagerness to avoid specialization had an impact on his children’s education too. Henry remembers being disappointed that he couldn’t study both history and zoology; his secondary school prevented students from mixing humanities and sciences by timetabling these lessons to clash. Alec would not stand for this and insisted that Henry should be allowed to study both. “The whole school timetable had to be restructured as a result,” recalls Henry. “The teacher in charge of the schedule was not happy! But I enjoyed working with those studying sciences as well as those taking humanities subjects. I like to think I was doing a primitive version of the IB.”

Alec would probably appreciate his son’s reflection. Although he was working full-time at Oxford University, Alec’s commitment to international education never dwindled. He frequently travelled during the 1950s and 1960s to meet other like-minded individuals. It was on one such trip to Geneva, Switzerland, that the IB came to life. 

Outside the Café de Remor, Alec, along with Desmond Cole, Director of the United Nations International School in New York, USA, and Harlan Hanson, Director of the US-based College Board’s Advanced Placement Program, discussed their vision. They agreed that someone was needed to lead their cause full time, and because Alec had a six-month sabbatical from Oxford coming up, he was chosen for the position. 

That role would later become Director General of the IB, one that Alec continued to fulfil part time once he returned to Oxford. “I think my dad enjoyed all of his time with the IB, although it was tough for him,” says Henry. “He was 60 by then and the work involved a lot of travelling and fundraising, which can be disheartening when people are saying no or only donating tiny amounts.”

Alec retired as Director General in 1977. In later life, he passed his time by enjoying the company of his family. “Probably my fondest memories of my dad are of his last decade, when we spent holidays with him and my mother,” says Henry. “His first two grandchildren were on the scene by then – something which pleased him very much.”

Alec passed away in 1988 but his legacy is clear in the Peterson family’s career choices. Henry’s brother and sister both teach and Henry’s daughter Amelia works in international education. Henry himself opted to work in the public sector; recently he has been helping to improve links between local government and the UK’s National Health Service. 

“Nobody in my family has ever shown any entrepreneurial streak or gone into business,” Henry says. “So none of us have ever made a lot of money, but we don’t mind. My parents taught us that your working life has to provide a sense that you have done something of use to the wider world. Otherwise work brings no real satisfaction.”

Alec’s legacy is also still strongly felt in the IB community. Peterson House is the home of the IB Assessment Centre in Cardiff, UK, and the biennial Peterson Symposium is held in his honour. Henry thinks Alec might be surprised by this but adds: “He would be very pleased to be seen as a father figure to the IB family.”

Henry himself has glowing praise for today’s IB programmes. “A lot more research and thought seems to go into the preparation of the IB programmes than even some national education systems,” he comments. “Schools and parents across the world need to be made more aware of this.” 

But Henry thinks the person who would be the proudest supporter of today’s IB programmes would be Alec himself. “He would be happy that the original ideals have been maintained so strongly.

“Most of all, I think he would be astonished to find that a conversation he had outside a café in Geneva almost 50 years ago has led to the IB as it is today.”