Martin Hughes 1949-2011

16th September 2011 at 01:00

Before Professor Martin Hughes, few people placed any value on pre- school children's own efforts to make sense of the world. But the developmental psychologist spent his career proving that children's out- of-school activities gave them far greater linguistic and numerical knowledge than anyone had previously acknowledged.

Martin Hughes was born in Manchester in May 1949. He was exceptionally bright: as a teenager, he became Cheshire chess champion. At the age of 16 he won an open scholarship to University College, Oxford, initially to study maths and engineering. However, on his arrival he realised he was far more interested in the workings of the mind than of machinery, so he transferred to a psychology degree. This was followed by a PhD at Edinburgh University, specialising in nursery education.

In Edinburgh he met Ann Brackenridge, and the two set up home together. Dr Hughes became de facto father to Ann's toddler daughter, Sally; a son, Owen, followed soon afterwards. Later, they moved to London, where Dr Hughes took a job at the Thomas Coram Unit, looking at the informal educational developments that took place in family homes. His various research interests ultimately combined to produce probably the most significant finding of his career: that even before children are taught to count, they can enumerate objects informally. For example, long before they are taught the number three, children given three apples might tally them by drawing three lines on paper.

Later, Professor Hughes took up a post at Exeter University. He loved living in Devon, enjoying long beach walks. By the sea, he found a sense of peace and tranquility.

In 1999, he was appointed to Bristol University; a year later, he was made head of the graduate school of education. Whenever an academic or a student came to him in a state of stress or indecision, he would quietly listen to the problem before offering measured, insightful feedback. Always clear-headed, he had no desire to impose his own opinions on anyone.

This was not, however, for any want of opinions. He was an ardent socialist and had a strong sense of social responsibility. Every day began in the same way: he would read the Guardian, and then he would rant. He mistrusted the creeping privatisation of education and the health service, believing in equal opportunities for all.

Between 2001 and 2004, he directed a large project on home-school knowledge exchange. Rather than ignoring pupils' out-of-school learning, he said, schools should celebrate it. More recently, he worked on drama schemes in south Bristol, helping children to act out emotional experiences.

He died of multiple organ failure on 23 June. Leaving his hospital bedside not long before his death, his consultant remarked: "I think he has a better grasp of the Coalition's policies on the NHS than I do."

A celebration of Martin's life will be held at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol on December 5, 2011. Please contact or if you have memories of Martin that you would like to share


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