Obituary - Peter Browning

16th April 2010 at 01:00


For most people in education, committee meetings and bureaucracy are the inevitable downside to the job. For Peter Browning, they were the highlights.

The chief education officer for Southampton and Bedfordshire local authorities genuinely loved administration. For him, initiating ideas and seeing them through was the most satisfying job anyone could do.

David Peter James Browning was born in Glastonbury in 1927. When the Depression struck, his family emigrated to Philadelphia. There, Peter was sent to St Peter's choir school, kindling a love for choral music that would last the rest of his life.

When he was 10, the family returned to Somerset. Teenage Peter already demonstrated a naturally tidy mind: he wanted to understand how things worked. At 18, he became the youngest parish clerk in Britain, filling in for older administrators who were fighting in the Second World War.

After national service, he read French and Italian at Christ's College, Cambridge: he wanted to be able to read Dante in the original language. (The qualification also enabled him to flummox pizza waiters by ordering meals in fluent Italian.)

It was while at Cambridge that he attended a holiday course at the Sorbonne in Paris. Here, he met fellow languages student Eleanor Forshaw; they married in 1953.

A career in education administration required chalkface experience. So Mr Browning took a job teaching English at Willenhall school, in Wolverhampton, one of the first comprehensives in the country.

After three years, he moved into an administrative job, this time in Somerset. And, in 1962, he was appointed assistant director of education in Cumberland. Each time, the new job was accompanied by a new son, a trend that worried both parents slightly.

His ebullience regularly impressed colleagues, as did his natural diplomacy. When a junior colleague told the director of education that she did not need him to accompany her somewhere, Mr Browning quietly advised her: "You shouldn't say 'no'. You should say, 'It would be splendid, but I realise how busy you are.'"

In 1966, he moved his young family to Southampton, where he had been appointed deputy chief education officer. Three years later, he was promoted. As chief education officer, he was determined to develop musical opportunities for pupils. There was already a youth orchestra in Southampton, but he ensured it received the funding to prosper.

In 1974, however, Southampton authority was incorporated into nearby Hampshire, forcing Mr Browning to look for a new job. Meanwhile, Bedfordshire had been expanded to include Bedford and Luton, leaving an opening for a chief education officer.

In Bedfordshire, too, he focused on musical provision. A new head of music was brought in, and instruments provided for pupils who could not afford them. Four youth orchestras were set up. Peripatetic teachers were trained to spot nascent choral talent: Bedfordshire's pupils began increasingly to appear among the choral scholars at King's College, Cambridge.

Unexpectedly, Bedfordshire also offered an opportunity for Mr Browning to make use of his language skills. Italians had lived in Bedford since workers had arrived to man the city's brick fields in the 1920s. Mr Browning therefore established an Anglo-Italian society, running talks, language classes and cookery evenings. Often, he managed to combine his two interests: the youth orchestras regularly travelled to Italy to perform.

Although not technologically minded himself - he never quite mastered a computer - he was quick to realise the importance of technology. And so he provided "computer buses", which travelled around the county, allowing pupils access to the latest equipment.

This was his great skill: he initiated ideas, but he also recognised his own limitations, and found the best person to get the job done. And he would fight to ensure the job did get done: he ruthlessly defended his department against the demands of its competitors.

He was awarded the CBE shortly before his retirement, in 1989. He and Eleanor moved to a house in Cumbria, where his love for administration remained undimmed: 20 years of volunteer committee work lay ahead.

Peter Browning died on February 13. He is survived by his wife, Eleanor, and sons Paul, Jonathan and Nicholas.

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