In Memory of Margaret Mallett FEA

Friends and colleagues of Margaret share their memories.

To add a memory to this page please email your text to the English Association office.

Margaret Mallett

Margaret Mallett: Reflections on her life and work

As given by David Mallett at St Mary Magdelene Church, Richmond

26th April, 2016

This is a sad time, an unlooked for time, for me, for Margaret’s daughters Katherine and Anna, for Margaret’s five grandsons….Henry, Freddie, Rafael, George and Oscar….all of whom she nurtured, supported and encouraged in every possible way.

And it is clear from the many letters, cards and telephone calls that I have received, that this is a sad time for all those who knew and valued Margaret. Let me quote a little….a kind, generous and spirited colleague whose enthusiasm, wisdom and knowledge of her subject was an inspiration. Who was gracious, who was humble about her talents, who was modest, generous a joy to know. And her Northern relatives will miss her letters and emails and visits…visits that were very happy times…she will be missed and lovingly remembered.

As I reply to all those letters and cards I will reflect, as I often have, that it was a very happy chance that 54 years ago an 18 year old undergraduate became, and remained totally besotted, with someone whose many qualities he instinctively understood and at once appreciated. How fortunate to be married to someone who whenever you heard their voice the sun came out and you wanted to smile…who you wanted to hug whenever you passed them by…and with whom you had a conversation that was always interesting and often challenging… that lasted more than fifty years.

But as well as sharing a loss we are here to celebrate a life. Margaret was born in 1941….75 going on 45….never an old lady….still in every way the person I first met in Durham.

She grew up in Jesmond….with her parents Bill and Flo and her sister Jennifer, none of them now with us. For the first fourteen years of her life the family lived in a first floor maisonette enjoying that northern cliché…a lavatory and a coal house in the yard down stone steps. It was not a luxurious life. A  spartan week at the Holiday Fellowship, Children’s Hour on the wireless, day trips to Whitley Bay, card and board games. And warm family parties…grandfather clog dancing, uncles doing a soft shoe shuffle,  Bill and Margaret singing Geordie songs… Margaret with perfect pitch but an uncertain grip on rhythm. She thrived…she passed the 11+, Flo kissed the postman. One of her former teachers at Heaton High School, still alive, remembers  ‘this bright little face in the middle of the class, always interested’.

But she lost focus in the sixth form….who works in a flower shop just before ‘A’ levels. So she didn’t read English at Newcastle University but joined the first three year primary teacher training course at St Hild’s College Durham. A fellow student wrote…. ‘Margaret had energy, self belief, determination....and in her life and work achieved the goals she set herself in 1960.

Her first teaching post was in Longbenton, outside Newcastle……40  ‘C’ stream ten year olds, the class no one wanted. Hard in every way. But she was an admirer of Dorothy Heathcote’s work….and so the Headmaster found himself surprised when a visiting HMI informed him that he had one outstanding teacher in his school.

Then to Walthamstow Hall, a residential post in Sevenoaks  where she rejoiced in the stimulation of teaching a class of very clever ten year old girls. Next a year as Head of Creative Studies at Poverest Junior School in Orpington. Here the Headmaster’s opinion of group of hitherto less than committed ten year girls was transformed when they took on the witches’ scene in the Scottish play. This marked the end of Margaret’s full time classroom teaching career but she was on the ‘supply list’ for another twenty years or so…staying in touch with the day to day to day realities of the classroom…even if offering an opinion in a staff meeting was greeted with as much surprise as if the reception class hamster had offered an opinion on the curriculum. Even a couple of days in school could lead to a job offer and once in a while she would encounter a pupil, or even a parent, who remembered a lesson from years before.

Then with five years of teaching completed Margaret turned to making good her ‘academic shortfall ’, embarking on a one year full time Academic Diploma at The London Institute of Education. This was half an MA, five tough papers….men with Oxford degrees in despair as they struggled with some of the lectures. How many here have found D.W. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality an easy read. But then the determination and the all night revision sessions kicked in and she emerged with a distinction, second of the 155 successful candidates  Then a Sussex MA….London wouldn’t have her…no first degree.

Then came two years as a one of two Research Officers on the School’s Council ‘English in the Middle Years of Schooling’ project travelling to schools around the country.  Her co- researcher returned to Australia leaving one completed chapter and a box of notes and tapes. So alongside a bit of lecturing and supply teaching and one then two babies ( Katherine and Anna you know who they were) she set to, usually after 11.00pm, to write up the report…good enough to feature alongside works such as Vygotsky’s ‘Thought and Language’ in a Myra Barr’s list of my eleven best books about education. Margaret was genuinely surprised when the list was published…she thought the report was long forgotten.

And here I would like to pay tribute and offer a word of thanks to my late mother. There was always peer pressure, indeed competition, to become a ‘grandmother’. And in the late 1960s, early 1970s Margaret was pretty unusual, certainly in suburban Chislehurst, in putting the securing of her career ahead of starting a family.( Margaret was hugely amused by the look of amazement on a young (male) doctor’s face when he asked sympathetically, seeing she had been married five years and was approaching 30, ‘how long have you been trying to conceive’ and getting the reply …’ oh about three months.). So my mother was immensely pleased to have two granddaughters but also understood that Margaret’s career was important to her. And so for many years she travelled twice a week to care for them during the day and later, when they were older, after school. I would just add here that the nature of my role at the Bank of England at this time, wide ranging and self managing, meant I could step in when the children were ill, half term came round or a school event required a parental presence.

Then from around 1973 until 2001 Margaret lectured at Goldsmiths College in New Cross on BA(Ed) and MA courses. Charismatic and inspiring I heard, always committed, more than once I drove her to an evening session when her temperature was well over 100 degrees. As academics must there was a steady flow of articles and booklets but then came the call to take on a doctorate, London University were prepared to have her now. She chose to look at non-fiction….’the Cinderella of Children’s Literature', and from this work came three books, one a united Kingdom Reading Association winner. You won’t find her work acknowledged in government guidelines but if you look her ideas, the recognition of the importance of non-fiction texts, are in there.

Retirement from Goldsmith’s signalled a step up in her writing….for English 4-11, Books for Keeps, The School Librarian and three more books. One the Primary English Encyclopedia- the Heart of the Curriculum, the book they said could not be written, was published in its fifth edition earlier this year. Another was a UKLA prizewinner.   All were written with students in mind, books, she said, that would have helped her as a student or new teacher. All were written with a firm eye on classroom practice. Her heart was always in front of a class, of whatever age. Above all else she wanted share whatever knowledge and understanding that she had acquired over the years , to show how theory and practice melded, how every teacher could be a researcher….all with the ambition of contributing, in however small a way, to helping every child have the best possible education.

So while I may have been the love of her life, as she certainly was mine. And while she loved and supported her family, valued and appreciated the companionship of her friends and professional colleagues, read and played with her grandchildren …. dominoes, beetle, rockpools. And while she loved walking, the theatre, the cinema, books of all kinds, lunch at the Ritz, dinner at The Ivy in West Street….what mattered most was her writing, even the twelve hour days as a deadline approached. And, for me, there was nothing more pleasurable than working with her on an emerging text….even if to change a phrase here, reject a paragraph there or even, worst of all, to change a ‘nice’ to a ‘lovely’ led to, for the only time, raised voices in the Mallett home.

It was my very great privilege to have been Margaret’s husband for fifty years. I shall miss her more than I can say but I always was, and always will be immensely proud of her

David Mallett

The last time Margaret emailed us she wrote:

‘Just back from a lecture at my old college - HildBede in Durham - very flattered to be described as 'a distinguished alumnus'. My theme was ‘ Texts that teach and inspire: my life in Education'.
I think that sentence says an awful lot about Margaret; her quiet modesty… but also her determination and drive. On top of her tireless work for the EA, she gave lectures, inspired students and wrote reviews, papers and books such as A Guided Reader to Early Years Primary English : Creativity , Principles and Practice. In another email she wrote about updating her Primary English Encyclopedia into a 5th edition. Despite this busy schedule, she found the time to encourage and support the authors and illustrators she admired…and who admired her back. She was incredibly supportive to Brita and I over the twenty years we knew her. Her practical experience about the essential and multi-purpose values a non-fiction picture book should have in both classroom and home influenced the way we think about, and value, making books and will continue to do so. Dr Margaret Mallett was an old school academic and she was a dear friend and ally to many. We will miss her very much.

Mick Manning FEA. Children’s author and Illustrator

I first met Margaret when I was invited by John Paine to join the Editorial Board of English 4-11 in 2000. Of course, I knew of her contributions to children’s books long before that. Margaret immediately made me feel at home on the panel and she was always so generous with her knowledge. But we shared lots of laughs too. One of my great regrets when I had to give up my commitment to the Editorial Board for personal reasons was that I would miss regularly seeing Margaret and basking in her great knowledge of children’s books.

Dee Reid, Literacy Consultant

It is her extensive knowledge of children’s literature that many of us will remember about Margaret and in particular, her knowledge of non-fiction children’s literature. Margaret also had the most thoughtful and warm nature and always had time to talk through ideas and projects. I feel blessed to have had support and friendship from such a generous person.

Jo Bowers, English 4-11 Editorial Board

Margaret Mallett had a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of children's literature, and her reviews of new titles in Books for Keeps and the School Librarian were hugely admired. She was able to get to the heart of a book and deliver a perceptive judgement that was both just and generous.

I loved hearing her talk about shortlisted titles for the English 4-11 Awards. Her descriptions were fascinating and illuminating, and the highlight of the evening for me. She was always interested to hear about new publishing projects and ideas and was generous with advice. She will be greatly missed.

Janetta Otter-Barry, Otter-Barry Books

A highlight of the children's literary calendar was listening to Margaret talk passionately about the special qualities she saw in a book and why it was worthy of an  EnglIsh Association's  4- 11  Picture Book Award. Then chatting at the reception afterwards about family and friends.

Margaret wrote beautifully and lucidly about children's literature drawing on a depth of knowledge.  The articles  and reviews she wrote for Books for Keeps and the TES made fascinating reading.  Publishers really took note of  what she had to say.

Margaret will be sorely missed.

Nicky Potter, Children's Freelance Publicist

I will always think of Margaret with the greatest fondness.  She was always so positive, encouraging and gentle.  As a member of the English 4-11 editorial board, she would always make time to talk to me, ask me about my work and comment on my articles.  Margaret was so complimentary and I was always in awe of her because she was just so knowledgeable but humble too.  She will be greatly missed by all of us.

Rebecca Kennedy, English 4-11 Editorial Board

Margaret had encyclopaedic knowledge of children’s books and had published widely but regarded her achievements with modesty while being generous about other people’s work.  A rare spirit.

Eve Bearne FEA, English 4-11 Editorial Board

I was fortunate enough to work alongside Margaret as a member of the editorial board of English 4-11. I will remember her for her clarity of thought, the way she could always find just the right words, her friendliness and down-to-earth attitude.  Her contribution to the world of Children's Literature was hugely important; she was truly an inspirational person.

Pam Dowson, France

Margaret was a really lovely woman, and she knew more about literacy than anyone else I know. She will be sadly missed.

Sue Palmer, Literacy Specialist, Edinburgh

I first met Margaret when she gave the opening lecture at our Primary Conference - Non-Fiction: the Cinderella of Children's Literature? - in York in March 1998. Within two months she had written up her lecture as an article for the Spring 1999 issue; within six months we had co-opted her to the Editorial Board of English 4-11 - the best decision we ever made. She will be sorely missed.

Helen Lucas, English Association

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