Obituary - Liz Bird

6th August 2010 at 01:00


That Liz Bird was head of the Open University's education department, and yet did not quite manage to finish her own PhD, was entirely typical. Working for others - whether schoolchildren, mature learners or teachers in Africa - always took priority over doing things for herself.

Elizabeth Brickstock was born in Reading in April 1958. Teenage Liz had no plans to go into teaching. But, on completing a degree in metallurgy at Cambridge University, she enrolled in a PGCE programme purely so she could stay in Cambridge with her boyfriend. The relationship did not last, but her new career did: it was true love, right from the start.

It was not, however, her only love. After graduation, she had spent several months travelling across sub-Saharan Africa with friends. This, too, was the beginning of a long-term relationship.

And so, after working for two years in Cambridge, she applied for a job teaching English in Sudan. This was followed by several years as a science teacher in Botswana. It was here that she met Michael Bird, a fellow teacher; the two married in Botswana.

The Birds' first pregnancy coincided with the end of their African contracts. And so they returned to Britain, both enrolling in a science education MEd at Leeds University. Mrs Bird would turn up to lectures with six-week-old David in her arms, planning her essays as she suckled him in the middle of the night. Clearly it worked: she won the prize for most meritorious MEd student that year.

Two more babies followed - Andrew in 1991 and Jenny in 1994 - and Mrs Bird took on a series of part-time jobs as she raised them. The most gratifying of these was in a sixth-form college: she thrived on the intellectual challenge.

It was with regret, therefore, that she left Leeds for Milton Keynes when Mike was appointed to the Open University. But soon she too started working for the OU, as a research assistant in the education department. She also began a PhD, examining the difficulties facing mature entrants to teaching.

Almost 10 years later, she had still to complete her thesis. Instead, academic appointment followed academic appointment: first as science education lecturer, then as research fellow. By 2005 she was deputy director of the Open University's PGCE programme; four years later she became head of department.

This career trajectory was entirely typical. Her selflessness got the better of her. Rather than insisting on taking study leave to finish her PhD, she would postpone it again and again. There were more urgent priorities: others' needs always came first.

This was true in her choice of research material, too. While at the OU, she became fascinated by the difficulties facing mature learners. Her research, therefore, was dedicated to broadening access to the teaching profession. If her OU students were struggling to find work, she wanted to be able to help them.

She did not neglect her other love, however. Working with the organisation Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, she took the lead in a project dedicated to mass teacher training in Nigeria and Sudan, ensuring teachers in these countries were delivering interactive, pupil-centred lessons.

Through the years, her Christian faith and values had grown stronger, and she was training as a church reader. Recently, she had also applied for ordination, and was nearing the end of the selection process.

Most colleagues, however, will have had no idea about this. She kept her faith to herself, keen to avoid any impression of evangelising. Religion was an individual choice, she believed, and she had no desire to force her values on anyone.

But her colleagues did know about her interest in natural history. She loved walking, and would infuriate her family by repeatedly insisting "let's just go around the next corner" during long holiday walks.

Family was extremely important to her, and she and Mike tried to make time for birdwatching or walking every weekend. In fact, it was guilt at her neglect of her husband that motivated the decision to go away for a weekend in the Norfolk Broads this July.

They were on their way there when a lorry rammed into the back of their car. It spun round, leaving the passenger side exposed to oncoming traffic. When the collision came, Mrs Bird was killed immediately.

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