This is a story about three generations with the OU – my mother, my daughter and myself.
My mother, Barbara Walton, was born in 1914, in North London, I was born in 1942, also in North London, and my daughter Alice was born in 1972 in Bletchley, though we moved back to North London when she was 3.
My mother was the youngest child of a grammar school educated civil servant father and an uneducated mother. All her education was at St Aidans, a private Church of England girls’ school in Crouch End. She achieved matriculation and started work at 17 as a typist. Her third job was as a secretary with the new BBC television service at Alexandra Palace (where I also worked in 1969-72 as a BBC producer with the new Open University Production Centre). She loved this work, but had to leave in1938 when she married my father, a professional clarinettist, as the BBC did not then employ married women in ‘ordinary’ jobs.
I was born just over 3 years later, my sister in 1943 and my brother in 1948, and for the 34 years of her marriage she was a housewife and mother, and also an active tennis player and then golfer. She always regretted the limits of her education and was determined to ensure that her children had the best possible opportunities. As a result, both my sister and I went to North London Collegiate School, getting Middlesex free places at 11.
In 1972, 5 months before the birth of their first granddaughter Alice, my father, at the time principal clarinet with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, died suddenly at the age of 55. My mother was 57. Six months later, she decided she had to do something to earn money and fill her time. She found a part-time job as a guide at Hatfield House, and took a step to fulfil her lifelong wish to get a degree by applying to study the Arts Foundation Course, A100, at the OU. She had to wait a year before she could start, as an ‘E’ student. She took to it immediately, and her life revolved round her interesting job, her golf, and her OU studies. Summer schools were her annual holiday, and her evenings were filled with reading, listening, viewing and assignments.
She went on to the Social Sciences Foundation Course, followed by a series of mainly history and literature courses. An attempt at a music course gave her the first signal of her growing deafness. The 17th Century multi-disciplinary arts course was perfectly suited to her work at Hatfield where she was promoted to Assistant Administrator in charge of all school and group bookings and organisation of the guide rotas. Trying to spin out her degree as long as possible, she looked especially for 30 point courses as well as courses with a summer school and as an ardent feminist was delighted when, towards the end of her degree, ‘The Changing Experience of Women’ came on stream. She was very downhearted after the exam for her final course, one of the classical history courses, convinced she had remembered nothing and was showing the first signs of senility, and had to put up with the mockery of her family when she got a distinction!
She finally graduated in 1986 with a 2.1; my daughter, my sister and I watched her cross the platform at Wembley on June 26th with the sounds of ‘Wham! The Final Concert’ playing in the background from the Stadium. She was 71, and although it was too late for her degree to further her career, she carried on working until she was 80.
Woven into her history is my own. I went on from school to Cambridge University, starting with classics and then moving to modern history, ending up with a rather hotch-potch degree. I took a PGCE at the London Institute of Education but then received a job offer as a studio manager with the BBC. After 4 years, and having married Mike Fage, a BBC colleague, I became a producer, first with the FE department and then with OUPC at Alexandra Palace, working on courses for the Faculty of Educational Studies. I left just before the birth of my first daughter Alice, feeling that 6 weeks maternity leave wasn’t quite long enough!
Over the next few years I continued with a few contracts with OUPC and in 1977, a year after the birth of my second daughter, I started as a tutor-counsellor for the then Arts Foundation Course, A101, largely at the instigation of my mother who had decided this was just the thing for me! I remember the Arts Staff Tutor telling me that the ‘counsellor’ part of the job was rather like being a mother, and the quick rebuttal by the Senior Counsellor, Katy Jennison, that it was rather a different kind of role.
I loved my teaching at Enfield and later Tottenham Study Centres, and began a team teaching arrangement with my two fellow tutor-counsellors, Brenda Stevenson and Len Doyal, so that instead of each of us teaching our own group, we offered a tutorial each week to all students and two of us would be there, sometimes teaching and/or counselling together, sometimes separately. It was one of the most enjoyable periods of my working life and we had a thriving attendance and a lively group.
I had already decided that I wanted to join the OU full-time when my younger daughter was at school, and in 1982 a 15-month Senior Counsellor post based at the London Regional Centre came up. When that was over I worked part-time as an Assistant Senior Counsellor and took the OU course ‘Education for Adults’ – a very useful and salutary experience! Then I worked for 6 months at Walton Hall as a Course Manager with what was by then the School of Education, until I was able to return to the London Region to a permanent Senior Counsellor post in 1986. I loved this job – my special responsibility was careers and vocational guidance, and organising workshops and advice, and doing research, was both enjoyable and rewarding. Sometimes a student would tell me that at, say, 45 they were too old to change career, and I would tell them of my mother, an OU student who started a career at 58 and was still working. I was fortunate too to work with two inspirational Regional Directors, Roger Mills and Peter Syme, as well as talented Senior Counsellor colleagues in London and other regions, such as Mavis Heron, who did excellent work with students with disabilities; Jonathan Brown and Diane Bailey, whose development of educational guidance networks was nationally important; and later Margaret Johnson who won a Higher Education Teaching Award for her work on language and learning skills.
In 1990 I was seconded to Regional Academic Services as one of two Assistant Directors, working to the Director David Sewart and alongside Helen Lentell, a skilled staff developer, as the other AD. I spent part of this time on the team responsible for establishing the framework for the new computer system, CIRCE (Corporate and Individual Records for Customers and Enquirers) – a tight-knit team, led by Peter Bristow, of users and Management Services staff with a strong team culture – we all drank ‘Kanga Rouge’ and Australian fizz (brought by Queenslander Jack Ryley from MSD) to celebrate milestones, and listened to Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge and the Archers on the way home. I can always remember how long ago it was because we celebrated the birth of Pip Archer (on 17th February 1993)!
I returned to London again in 1994 and in 1997, when Peter Syme moved to Scotland as Scottish Director, I became Regional Director in London. It was a time of great change and upheaval, including a major reorganisation of staffing and services, which was very far from easy for all concerned. Perhaps even more significant for London, though, was the move of the London Regional Centre from the Victorian Parsifal College in the Finchley Road to a new building in Camden Town. Some people had a great affection for Parsifal College – I was never one of them. True, it had individual offices for academic and administrative staff; but it was a nightmare to maintain and leaks and problems with the heating were a regular occurrence. We had the chance to design the interior of the new centre in Hawley Crescent and led by Assistant Director James Matheson who worked closely with the architects, a really creative design was achieved with group areas for faculties and teams, private pods for small meetings, and downstairs a suite of meeting/tutorial rooms and a ‘café’ area with an outside deck. Not everybody liked it, of course, especially the semi-open plan environment, but it seemed to me the perfect location, just down the road from Camden Market, entirely appropriate for a university aiming to recruit younger students.
I retired in 2004, and my colleague Rosemary Mayes took over. Retirement has been a very different life, much more family oriented. But I still have friendships with former colleagues, both from London and other regions, and value them highly.
Now, more than 35 years since my mother started her first OU course, my daughter Alice is an OU student too, very much part of the modern world of distance education. She is currently taking her second Information Systems Masters module, from New Zealand where she now lives, working as Applications Technical Specialist, Learning and Teaching Systems, at Victoria University Wellington. We all have many reasons to be grateful to the OU which has been so much a part of our lives. For my part working for most of my career with the OU has been an immense privilege.