Obituary: Professor Harry Armytage

Pam Poppleton
Friday 19 June 1998 23:02 BST

HARRY ARMYTAGE had a distinguished career as Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and later, as Professor of Education in Sheffield University, over a period of 32 years from 1948 to 1980.

As a scholar, his output of publications was prolific. As early as 1954, he had already published 110 articles in academic journals and five books, including a major work, Civic Universities: aspects of a British tradition (1954). He regarded any account of education as incomplete without reference to the historical and social conditions in which it was embedded, as witnessed by his Social History of Engineering (1961) and Heavens Below: Utopian experiments in England 1560-1960 (1962).

However, his major work which will be remembered by students of education was undoubtedly Four Hundred Years of English Education (1964) which became an essential entry on everybody's reading list. Armytage's later scholarship extended to accounts of American, French, German and Russian influences on English education.

As a social historian of the future as well as the past, he wrote and lectured widely on the predictable effects of the technological revolution and the demographic changes that were later to create such havoc in the school system.

In the debate that led up to the massive expansion of higher education in the 1960s, Armytage famously contributed an article to the New Statesman in March 1961 in which he observed that a university in Coventry was long overdue and added "why not a university in Scunthorpe?" Why not indeed, in order to bring higher education to the people? It was the Armytage style to press a serious point by using a seemingly flippant example, but his experience in Sheffield had convinced him of the value of harnessing local resources and immersing students in the environments in which they would later work.

His protest fell upon deaf ears when Sussex, Essex, Warwick, Norwich and Lancaster proved to be chosen sites. He lost the battle but did not lose the war. Coventry now has its university (by default), but Scunthorpe must wait a little longer.

Born in 1915, Armytage graduated in 1937 with first class honours in the Historical tripos from Cambridge University and proceeded to a Certificate in Education and an MA. He went immediately into school teaching as Senior History Master at Dronfield Grammar School on the outskirts of Sheffield. After Second World War service, he married and returned to Dronfield, and his move to the Education Department at Sheffield University seemed the natural next step.

Educator, scholar, polymath, communicator, raconteur; these are the words that people use when asked to describe the man. He was also a political animal, though less a socialist than a man of independent mind who was proud of his humble origins and chose to work in an industrial environment where he could raise the level of people's hopes and aspirations. He was also a modest man and would say that he had never taken up tempting offers from elsewhere because he preferred to be a big fish in a small pond rather than a small fish in a big one.

That small pond has subsequently become a big one, not least due to his contributions to Sheffield University, which has good reason to be grateful to someone who worked so effectively to bring town and gown together and to talk and negotiate with students during the unrest of the 1970s. He also committed himself to the daily, unforgiving round of committee meetings, faculty boards, and working parties to strengthen the university and maintain teacher education within it.

He served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor from 1964 to 1968 and was a member of the planning committee for the New University of Ulster. The New University of Ulster in Coleraine awarded him an honorary degree in 1977 and he was finally admitted to the degree of Doctor of Letters by Sheffied University in 1991.

In the mind's eye, Armytage is always surrounded by students. He was a charismatic teacher and an accomplished raconteur able to illustrate a lecture from his store of frequently scurrilous anecdotes which are remembered long after time has obliterated the substance. He also gave unstinted time to the supervision of many Master's and PhD degree theses for students who are now to be found in leading positions in many parts of the world.

Together with Claude Eggertson of the University of Michigan, Armytage developed an exchange scheme which, by the early Seventies, had brought some 200 Michigan students to Sheffield to join with British trainees for six months at a time, and members of staff in the Sheffield department to exchange with their Michigan counterparts. Many friendships and joint research projects later helped the department to extend its international links.

His other innovation, a residential course held every year at Beatrice Webb House in Dorking, Surrey, proved to be the highlight of the year for both American and British students, who were able to visit many different types of schools and experience a different culture.

After his retirement in 1982, Harry Armytage and his wife Frances (a historian) travelled widely. Harry spent two years as the Gerald Read Professor of Education at Kent State University in Ohio. Sadly, this period of more relaxed activity ended with Frances's illness and death in 1996.

Harry Armytage did so much for so many, and students and colleagues alike will remember him as a great man.

Pam Poppleton

Walter Harry Green Armytage, educationist: born Kimberley, South Africa 22 November 1915; Lecturer in Education, Sheffield University 1946-65, Senior Lecturer 1952-54, Professor 1954-82 (Emeritus), Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1964-68; Gerald Read Professor of Education, Kent State University, Ohio 1982-85; married 1948 Frances Horsfall (died 1996; one son); died Sheffield 13 June 1998.

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