Volume 3 Number 6
A Teacher of First Teachers
01 June 1990

In a child's first six years, it develops two thirds of its adult intelligence. Elizabeth Bradburn is an expert on this all important stage of education. Paul Williams tells her story.

When, as a schoolgirl, Elizabeth Bradburn accepted a friend's dare to apply for a full-time post as assistant to a nursery/infant teacher, she could hardly have known she was setting herself on her life's course. `I hadn't been at all the kind to look after young children,' she says, `but I agreed to apply secretly on condition my friend did the same. To my surprise and horror I was offered the job!'

Elizabeth expected her mother to be outraged by what she had done. But her mother said that Elizabeth could take the job - providing she agreed to get professional training for the work if she liked it.

Now aged 74, Dr Bradburn has devoted her life to teaching primary school children - and their teachers. She has served as National Vice-Chairman both of the British Association for Early Childhood Education and of the Pre-School Playgroups Association. Now retired from her senior lectureship at Liverpool University's School of Education, she last year wrote the definitive biography of Margaret McMillan, the pioneer of nursery education in Britain.

Dr Bradburn, whose PhD thesis was on teachers' role in the moral development of children, says that early childhood education lays the foundations for all future growth. `If any man build, let him build on a sure foundation,' she quotes with emphasis. She points out that a six-year-old has already developed two thirds of the intelligence he will have at maturity. Social attitudes are also formed early. She cites a recent race relations report that by the age of three `children not only distinguish between skin colours, but also give them different values'.

She ruefully says, `For most of my life I've had to battle with a tide of committees. One day at the university I resigned from 20 and still had some left over!' It was committee meetings, she recalls, that nearly kept her from the most important meeting of her life. It took place when she was working as a primary school teacher in Wigan, her home town.

`I was 22 and the junior representative on a prestigious League of Nations Committee,' she recalls. `On it I met another teacher who I noticed had a way of applying her Christian faith to the business in hand. There was a freedom in her face and an inner liberty in her life which immediately struck me. So I went up to her and said, "I think you have something in your life that I haven't." She replied, "If you'll come home with me I'll tell you what it is." Well, I couldn't go that night or the next as I was busy with this committee and that, so I never went to see her.'

Equal pay
However their paths crossed some time later. Dr Bradburn recalls, `She said, "Why don't you cancel one of your meetings and deal with the most important issue in your life?" I never got to the meeting I was heading for but went home with her instead. She convinced me that the only thing that mattered was finding God's will and doing it.' They knelt down together and Dr Bradburn `simply handed over everything to God'.

This led to what Dr Bradburn regards as fundamental: `I had drifted into teaching. Now I asked God if that was what he wanted me to do with my life, and the answer I got was "yes".' She then resolved to become the best teacher she could.

`Almost every ten years,' she says, `I took a year off to do further study and examine the latest research on children.' After teaching for ten years in various Wigan primary schools - including one in such a depressed area that she and other teachers helped at lunch-time in a local authority soup kitchen - she took further training at London University. This led to her becoming Adviser on Nursery and Infant Education for Preston, Lancashire. Besides overseeing 45 schools, she lectured to nursery nurses. She believes that in the Sixties she was the only British nursery specialist with a Doctor of Philosophy degree.

She is proud of Liverpool University where she taught for 23 years from 1955. She talks of distinguished predecessors like Oliver Lodge, who helped develop wireless telegraphy, James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron, and the artist Augustus John. The University provided the tidal predictions for D Day.

In her house, specially designed with students in mind, she has welcomed generations of them from Britain and overseas. Many still write to her.
Visiting her, they might have seen something of her collection of watercolours and oriental rugs. She has a keen sense of humour and there is still a note of triumph in her voice when she recounts once buying three Persian rugs at an auction for £16 and then sending the one she liked least to the next sale where it fetched £90.

Against the fashion of the time, Dr Bradburn felt responsible for the all-round development of her students. Her candid comments on their essays were often thought-provoking. At the bottom of one, the writer found: `Muddled thinking and muddled living go together. See me!' When they met the student admitted that there was truth in this for him. He didn't give details but his work soon improved noticeably.

Early in her teaching career Elizabeth Bradburn joined the National Union of Women Teachers to campaign for equal pay. `I trained with men,' she says. `We women didn't work four-fifths of the time men did, nor teach four-fifths their size of class. So why should we tolerate being given four-fifths of their salary?' In her twenties she became president of the Wigan branch of her union and later became Lancashire county president.

She has visited schools and kindergartens and met educators in many countries. Soon after World War II the British Foreign Office invited her to go to Germany as part of its `Education for Democracy' programme. She was vetted and briefed in Downing Street before leaving for Hamburg. Conditions were still stark there and she remembers that the Principal of the Froebel Teacher Training Institute lived in one tiny room. Her public lectures had to be translated. Once, when she spoke of `nursery schools, nursery classes and nursery wings', her interpreter got the first two but eyebrows went up when the last one came out as flying nurseries.

`At that time German teachers could not believe that we allowed pupils such freedom in our primary schools,' she recalls. `Nor could they believe that our teachers and head teachers had such a degree of freedom from their education authorities.' The British programme aimed to help children discover things for themselves - they could choose an activity, plan it and carry it to a conclusion. This built their confidence and encouraged them to be responsible. `We were at that time talking about educating for autonomy and responsibility.' She believes that such ideas are still relevant for any society seeking to rebuild itself on democratic lines.

Dr Bradburn has had long battles with ill health. Between 1975 and 1988 she had three operations for cancer. During the last two, regular Masses were said for her in the nearby Catholic church, as well as prayers in the local Anglican church and the Methodist church where she is a local preacher. Conscious of being supported by prayer, she afterwards felt `as if I was freewheeling on a bicycle with the wind of God behind me, gently pushing me along'. Her faith, she says, has been nurtured by her church and her long association with Moral Re-Armament.

Before retiring from the university in 1978 she began relishing the prospect of life in a country cottage far away from the bustle of Liverpool. But, challenged by a letter from a friend, she again turned to God for direction. She felt she was being asked to stay in Liverpool and give her best there. She has recently been elected to her local Ecumenical Council.

She has never regretted giving her life to education, which she sees as being concerned with two main areas - one involving knowledge, understanding and skills, and the other values, beliefs and responsibilities. The latter area she regards as vital: on it depends the quality of civilization.

Now that she is retired, she is not easily drawn on current controversies in British education. But she speaks with enthusiasm of her admiration for the way in which teachers are coping with the many changes being thrust upon them, and the spirit in which they have accepted the challenge of the new national curriculum.

She particularly welcomes the fresh emphasis now being given to `education for citizenship'. She sees it as an exciting cross-curricular opportunity to enrich pupils' vision through a study of human achievements. Civic knowledge by itself is no guarantee of civil behaviour, she declares. `Citizenship is not just about keeping the streets clean and knowing how Parliament works.' Pupils need to be presented with inspiring goals and to be able to study the lives of pioneers whose courage and sacrifice have brought lasting benefits to mankind.

Dr Bradburn has never allowed herself to be inhibited by theories of `indoctrination' - which assert that you should never let your own sincerely-held beliefs be known. She sees no contradiction between being true to her own views and the right of pupils to do their own thinking. The character, attitudes and goals of teachers are crucial in the classroom, she says. `Every life professes a faith and exercises a silent propaganda.'

A touch of amusement
Young children in particular `don't learn from isolated ethical principles so much as emulate, and try to identify with, ethical people'. Effective teachers create a climate conducive to this intuitive learning, she asserts.

Such thinking led her to write her biography of Margaret McMillan. Dr Bradburn wanted to focus attention on the forces that shaped Margaret McMillan, particularly the faith that enabled her to `translate moral indignation into intelligent, effective action'. She talks of Margaret McMillan's obvious love for children and, beyond that, her vision of a new and better society and her unflinching commitment to its creation.

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies Dr Bradburn was a leading champion of early childhood education in Britain. Now a world authority on Margaret McMillan and her pioneering of nursery education, Elizabeth Bradburn can look back with gratitude and a touch of amusement to her seemingly accidental introduction to this vital but often neglected sector.

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