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Society, Politics & Law

Remembering Peter and John

Updated Monday, 13th March 2017

In the light of the recent deaths of two colleagues in Social Sciences, we have put together collective obituaries to remember their careers supporting learners and staff of The Open University. 

The OU's Berrill Building Creative commons image Icon Work found at / CC BY-SA 3.0 under Creative-Commons license Society Matters aims to help students of The Open University, particularly those in Social Sciences, to make connections between their studies and the wider world. It can be useful to reflect on who has helped to create and maintain the ideas of the Faculty. In the light of the recent deaths of a tutor, who retired in 2015 and an academic-related colleague, who retired in 2011, we have put together collective obituaries. There is of course far more to be said about both Peter and John. We have focused on their careers supporting learners and colleagues.

Peter Smith, who has died aged 77, was the son of a head teacher. He studied at Manchester University and went on to teach day-release classes to Yorkshire and Derbyshire coal miners, steelworkers, railway workers, engineers and local authority manual workers. The students’ trade unions and employers arranged the courses and the students contributed by deciding on what they would learn. Many learnt by teaching one another. The notion of students as peer-teachers, supported to develop their own ideas was one that Peter encouraged in his work which included many years at Teesside Polytechnic, later University. He joined the Open University in 1970, before the first cohort of students arrived in 1971 and taught there until 2015. Tom Kinneavy, an OU colleague and an ex-miner from Barnsley, recalled how Peter and he would go to the pub after tutorials:

Some of our students would often come along for what turned into a pub-based tutorial. It was clear to me even then that Pete was a fine teacher: patient, a good listener, empathetic and supportive of students’ views but also quite firm in gently pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in their arguments.

Tom went on to work with Peter at the OU’s residential schools. While these week-long events held on campuses around the country, including those of Bath, Stirling and Keele are famous for the press reports of drinking and sex, many students enjoyed focusing on their studies, enjoying being in an educational establishment, away from the workplace and family. Eric Wade, taught and directed numerous residential (summer) schools as a friend and academic colleague of Peter. It was he who appointed him as one of the first tutors at the OU. Eric fondly recalled Peter’s engagement with teaching and students. Tom Kinneavy did team teaching with Peter at these Schools. He saw:

Peter's professionalism, his experience, his knowledge of the social sciences and his understanding of how adults learn. He saw the importance of creating the right conditions for effective learning and he always devised his teaching strategies with his students in mind, using their real life experiences of living and working in their communities.

On one occasion Peter set up a role-playing exercise which involved a recreation of a public inquiry. He found an academic gown and a black hankie and set himself up as judge while students played the parts of representatives of employers, unions, the government and local people. A chair was placed on a table and Peter clambered up and proceeded to adopt the accent and style of a learned judge.

A political activist from his student days onwards he also showed a keen interest in music, especially jazz. The socialist musician, writer, poet, activist, broadcaster Joe Solo who helped to establish ‘We shall overcome’, a response by musicians to the misery caused by the government’s austerity programme recalled Peter as ‘a committed fighter his whole life’. Bob Heath of the University of Sheffield tried to encapsulate Peter Smith’s contribution to learning and teaching, saying that he ‘understood clearly that serious adult education in the social sciences was a process of assisting the individual’s understanding and not just a matter of instruction’.

Peter is survived by Helen, his children Kate, Tessa and Adam, and his granddaughter Anna.

On 20th February John Bennett died after a short illness. John started working for the Open University, Social Sciences faculty in June 1987 and after 24 years' service he retired from the OU in September 2011.  John was active in the University and College Union and served as Branch President from 2005 to 2007. One of his colleagues remembered him as ‘OU to the core’. John was a talented and highly motivated student whose ambition on graduation was to work for the institution that had turned his life around. When he worked on student retention it was as a man who knew how many obstacles could get in the way of success. As an activist in the union he worked tirelessly to hold the University to the standards of its founding vision, often to his own disadvantage. One of his colleagues in Social Sciences recalled:

'The rules, the rules' was always his motto - to try and get managers to stick by what the OU declared to be its HR policies and guidelines. And he knew the rule book backwards.

Highly principled and uncompromising, he could be a thorn in the flesh of management. However, if you needed a champion and your cause was just, you could have no better friend.  

John was born in Cupar, Fife, Scotland in 1946 and educated at Bell Baxter High School in Cupar. As a teenager he joined the Air Training Corps and obtained his glider pilot's license. He worked initially at the Cupar Sugar Beet factory as a laboratory technician before moving south to Edinburgh to work for Cussons as a Shift Chemist. While there he obtained his OU degree and began work for Edinburgh University editing the Scotsman Newspaper Archive. 

Fired by his OU degree John moved further south again in 1987 to join the Faculty of Social Sciences where he managed a variety of courses, John worked as School Secretary at many Social Science and Business School Summer Schools. After retirement he spent a bit more time in the garden but continued to contribute to the union by supporting colleagues in dispute with the management. A colleague in Social Sciences recalled that ‘you always knew when John was coming. You always heard those clip-clop brogues and you always knew they would be have to be accompanied by a collar, tie, tweedy jacket and a Scottish chuckle’.

John is survived by his three daughters Marianne, Eleanor and Megan, three granddaughters, one great grandson, his partner of fifteen years Morag, and his brother David.





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