Obituary - David Malvern

19th November 2010 at 00:00


David Malvern once said that he had probably taught every physics teacher in Cameroon. Far from being an idle boast, this was just the sort of good-humoured, throw-away remark that belied the contribution he made to a generation of science and maths teachers globally.

Professor Malvern probably had taught every physics teacher in Cameroon, where he was honorary life vice-president of the country's Institute of Physics. So many of the teachers there regarded him as a personal friend that, when he died, they held a day of mourning for him. Beyond Cameroon, his work in science education and curriculum reform stretched around the world. His development work took him to South America, Asia and Eastern Europe, and he was a visiting professor at McGill University in Montreal. His recognition abroad, however, grew from the contributions he made to maths and science education in the UK.

Born in Crosby, Merseyside, David won a scholarship to Merchant Taylors' School where he was head boy. He went on to read nuclear physics at Hertford College, Oxford. This choice of study involved him signing the Official Secrets Act - something he was immensely proud of in his typically bemused way.

On finishing his degree, David trained as a teacher. He taught at Wellington College, Berkshire, for a year before heading to a kibbutz in Israel. He later returned, and joined Reading University in 1971 as a research associate on a Schools Council project on applicable mathematics. He made significant contributions to the 10 books produced for schools.

His passion for numbers, mathematical models and equations of all sorts, along with his commitment to education and equality (he was an active member of the Labour party), rapidly led to his career and influence expanding in a number of different directions. His impact on the teaching of maths and science is apparent in a further 11 books he wrote for teachers and students.

His deeper, yet less publicly recognised, influence is manifest in some 15 government reports and a further six he wrote for professional bodies. He contributed to, among others, the National Numeracy Task Force, the Tomlinson review and the Royal Society's education programme.

In 1987, a colleague at Reading, Professor Brian Richards, published a paper which challenged the validity of commonly used measures of vocabulary diversity. A linguist himself, Mr Malvern was intrigued and developed a mathematical model that formed the basis of a set of innovative assessment techniques. This led to a hugely productive 20-year academic collaboration.

He designed and directed the MSc programme for science teachers at Reading, which became a major conduit for the establishment of science teaching in many developing countries, especially in West Africa. He was then promoted to a professorship in 1999, when he became dean of the faculty of education and community studies.

Following a reorganisation in the university, he took over as head of Reading's Institute of Education, a post he held until 2007. The groundwork he laid in these roles was a major factor in Reading now being considered one of the top 10 teacher training institutions in the country.

Professor Malvern sat on innumerable committees and had an encyclopedic knowledge of regulations and protocols. Whenever colleagues at the institute didn't know how to do something, the final answer was always, "Ask David" - he always had time for everyone. Leaving the door of your tutorial room open could be dangerous because he would take it as an invitation to drop in. But the reward was the opportunity to hear him chat knowledgeably on a vast range of subjects.

In addition to being an outstanding teacher, researcher and academic leader, he was a talented sportsman and played scrum-half for Oxford University. Such was his love of the game that he once missed an exam in order to play in an important game for his home club, Waterloo, and on occasion played rugby league under a false name.

He also took great pleasure in, and was immensely proud of, his wife Sue's work in art history and his daughter's budding career in film and media production.

He was a great mentor to many colleagues in teaching and teacher education. A remarkable, generous and kind man, Professor Malvern died at the age of 63, having suffered from prostate cancer.

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