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Obituary - Chris Athey 1924-2011

Before Chris Athey, English schools had very little grasp of children's cognitive development between the ages of 2 and 5. Her research changed that: her theories now form the basis of early-years education in Britain and overseas.

Christine Athey was born in South Shields in January 1924. Leaving school at 13, she went on to a range of odd jobs, including toasting teacakes in a sweet factory. With the outbreak of war, she took a post as an engineer in Croydon.

Here, she joined a refugee youth club, listening to German conversations about psychology and philosophy. She attended workers' education classes, reading textbooks about Freud and novels by Virginia Woolf.

With the end of the war, she enrolled on a teacher training course at Wall Hall, later the University of Hertfordshire. This was followed by a succession of challenging teaching posts. In east London, for example, she taught a class of 60 5-year-olds - "seemingly seasoned thugs", she called them - with almost no resources. However, she resolved not to bully her pupils into submission: she wanted to observe them and meet their needs.

Working with parents, she believed, was a vital part of early-years education. She wanted to help parents to understand learning as it happened before them. Indeed, she had an immediate rapport with the families she worked with, and could explain complicated ideas without patronising them.

Consistently, she knew what she wanted and went for it. During the 1950s, she rented a room in a house owned by a prostitute. On one occasion, her landlady called her up, saying that she had been trapped by a client. Miss Athey revved up her scooter and carried the woman, pillion, to safety.

She was later invited to join the staff of Ibstock Place, the school linked to the Froebel Educational Institute, in Roehampton. After completing the Froebel training diploma, she took a master's of education degree at the University of Leicester.

In 1973, when Froebel set up an early-education research project, Miss Athey was appointed its director. The aim was to look at the ways in which young children acquire knowledge, both at home and in school, and to develop projects to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The accepted idea was that children flitted randomly from one activity to another. Miss Athey, however, believed children were fitting together patterns they saw in the world. For example, an interest in jagged teeth, stairs and the letter "W" might demonstrate an interest in the zigzag form. Teachers, therefore, should look out for children's interests, often revealed in play. These could then be used to help provide experiences that would expand their learning. Her conclusions became the book, Extending Thought in Young Children.

Like the children she observed, Miss Athey was a keen explorer of the world. She was also enthusiastic about culinary exploration, and her house was filled with recipe books.

Ever determined, she announced after a series of operations that she was ready to die. She did so on 27 November.

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