Obituary - Liz Laycock (1939-2009)

11th December 2009 at 00:00

Before Liz Laycock began researching primary education, pupils' reading was measured inconsistently and inaccurately, while those whose first language was not English were treated as though they had special needs.

The Roehampton University tutor devoted her career to highlighting the flaws in these systems and to ensuring that all children, whatever their reading abilities, were encouraged to love literature.

Born in Birmingham in 1939, Liz went on to study at Goldsmiths College, London. It was there that she met Malcolm Laycock, a young jazz aficionado, who would later become a presenter on Radio 2. They married, and went on to have two children, Andrew and Dominic.

In 1962, Mrs Laycock took her first job in a primary school. A year later, she moved to Wingfield Primary, in the south London borough of Greenwich. There, she taught significant numbers of pupils whose first language was not English. She became increasingly concerned that these pupils - many of whom excelled in maths or science - were being treated as though they had special educational needs. It was, she felt, a very dangerous conflation: teachers should be encouraging pupils to achieve rather than condemning them with low expectations.

Fascinated by language acquisition, she subsequently took a job as an adviser at the Centre for Language in Primary Education. There, she began to research the use of reading tests in schools. With no standardised testing in place, 1970s primaries used a range of different tests to determine pupils' "reading age".

Mrs Laycock submitted a group of pupils to a succession of different tests. She found that each child's reading age could vary by as much as two years, depending on which test had been used. Comparisons between schools, therefore, were completely invalid.

She decided to develop a more consistent method of recording pupils' reading ability. Reading and writing were assessed in and out of test conditions so that teachers had a broader sample of work on which to base their conclusions. And parents were included in the evaluation of children's literacy. This system included many elements later adopted in the Government's Assessment for Learning programme.

In 1988, Mrs Laycock moved to Roehampton. It was a natural progression: her impassioned beliefs about English teaching would reach a wider audience if she were training other teachers. She quickly became head of the university's English team and would later lead its PGCE programme.

At Roehampton she became renowned for her boundless optimism ("it could be so irritating", one of her sons commented) and her resilience.

The latter served Mrs Laycock particularly well: she would not compromise her beliefs for anyone. She insisted that language acquisition should become a compulsory part of the teacher training course. And she highlighted the importance of children's literature in language development. Whether children become confident readers, she said, depended on the quality of books they were given. Department corridors were gradually lined with images from children's books. And, under her supervision, Roehampton began to offer courses in children's literature.

Her love for her subject did not abate with the years: summer holidays were regularly spent sitting in the French sunshine reading the latest books on the psychologist Vygotsky. ("We always felt guilty," one former colleague said. "We'd been reading novels.")

Her passion was matched only by a love of gardening. At the end of the academic year, she gave each graduating student a small plant. "As the plant will flourish, so will you," she told them.

When she retired in 2003, her colleagues attempted to present her with a children's book as a gift. But, "I already have that one," she responded to every suggestion. It would have been out of character to take the easy way out, and accept the book anyway.

Even in retirement, she continued to ply former colleagues for gossip and for news on the latest government initiatives.

She first developed cancer in 2005; it killed her in September this year. Her husband, Malcolm, died two months later.

Liz Laycock is survived by two sons and two grandsons.

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