Child-centred innovator dies

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Lady Plowden was plucked from domestic obscurity to revolutionise education in English primary schools, writes Biddy Passmore.

LADY Plowden, who has died aged 90, was a woman of great independence, energy and intelligence, whose 1967 report on primary education brought about a revolution in English schools.

Plucked from upper-middle-class motherhood and good works at 53, Biddy Plowden was to play a leading role in education, social services and, later, broadcasting.

But the 1,100-page report on primary education - produced after nearly four years of deliberation under her chairmanship - is her most lasting achievement.

Central to its proposals was the establishment of "educational priority areas", into which extra resources would be channelled to meet special needs. It also called for a large expansion in part-time nursery education, the abolition of corporal punishment ("I do not believe you are going to make a child nicer by beating it," she said), greater involvement for parents, the introduction of two school starting dates a year and the recruitment of ancillary help for teachers.

It was the emphasis on child-centred, active learning, the belief that children learn better through discovering things themselves than from formal chalk and blackboard methods, that is most widely associated with her.

She was unapologetic about the thrust of the report, although she many times countered the misapprehension that it advocated nothing but topic work and sloppiness. "We certainly do not deny the value of learning by description or the practice of skills and consolidation of knowledge," it had said.

Bridget Horatia Plowden was born in 1910, the second daughter of Sir Herbert Richmond, an admiral and naval historian who ended up as Master of Downing College, Cambridge. She spent much of her childhood on the move. Two years in Ceylon with a French governess were followed by three years at Downe House, a Berkshire boarding school.

Her only full-time job was as secretary in a boot factory in Kendal. She lived on her own in lodgings in Kendal, played the clarinet in the K Boot orchestra and ran the Brownies.

In 1933 she married Edwin Plowden, who has had a long and distinguished career in industry and public life (who has also given the Plowden name to several major reports).

Her experience of state education was confined to the village schools in Shropshire and Essex that her children attended before going to boarding school. Her two sons went to Eton, her two daughters to convent schools. But she had been a juvenile magistrate before the Second World War and was, she said, "aware of some ofthe problems which affect the young".

The appointment of an unknown woman with no previous track record in education to chair the committee of inquiry into primary schooling in 1963 was greeted with some surprise. (Sir Edward Boyle, then minister of education, was a friend of her husband's. Once he had met her at dinner, he was in no doubt: "I've found the chairman I want," he told his startled officials.)

She was an amateur chairing a committee of professionals, with expert advice from Her Majesty's Inspectorate, notably the formidable Stella Duncan. But Biddy Plowden did not sit back and let the experts run the show.

"She was very strong-minded and very clear-minded," said Maurice Kogan, secretary to the committee.

Nor did she abandon the report once it was published. She took on many speaking engagements to spread its message and convened an annual meeting of members to discuss the (always too slow) progress with implementation.

She was a member of the Inner London Education Authority and of the 1974 inquiry into teachers' pay, president of the Advisory Committee for the Education of Romany and other Travellers, of the Pre-School Playgroups Association, of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and of the College of Preceptors. She became president of Relate (formerly the National Marriage Guidance Council).

In 1970 she was appointed a governor and vice-chairman of the BBC, a position which conferred more prestige than responsibility. Greater influence came five years later, when she was appointed chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. An energetic and robust defender of independent television, she argued from the outset for a fourth - independent - television channel. When a decision had to be made whether ITV or the BBC should cover the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, she suggested it be decided by the flip of a coin.

Lady Plowden - she was awarded the DBE in 1972 - was a commanding figure: tall and wiry, with a deep voice. Some found her daunting but her charm, wit, loyalty and kindness endeared her to the many people she got to know in public life.

In her final years, her husband's ill-health persuaded her to move full-time to the Essex farmhouse they had bought more than 50 years ago. Although her memory failed her, her energy remained and she still liked to talk about education and the volunteer reading and adult literacy schemes with which she was involved until recently.

She is survived by her husband, a daughter and two sons, one of whom - William - is a member of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. One of her daughters died before her.

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