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Arlene Gilpin, 1942-2017

Arlene Gilpin

15 November 2017

Arlene Gilpin, Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Education until her retirement in 2004, died recently. Her colleague Dr Philip Powell-Davies, an education and social development consultant, offers a remembrance.

Arlene Gilpin was a teacher, researcher, administrator and mentor of rare talent, insight and energy.

She was born in Allendale in 1942 and grew up in Cumbria, where she attended the White House School, before going on to teacher training college in Sheffield. After a teaching career that took her to Spain and Africa she worked at the British Council from 1980 to 1985 in Singapore, where she helped to establish the teaching centre there. She went on to complete a Masters in Linguistics at Lancaster University before joining the University of Bristol, where she was the driving force behind the School of Education’s English Language Teaching department, establishing joint ventures between the School and International House and designing a new modular MEd in English Language Teaching.

This quickly attracted international attention, largely due to Arlene’s reputation for quality teaching and research and her energy in marketing what Bristol had to offer. Very quickly the department was admitting postgraduate students from all over the world, and Arlene was instrumental in establishing partnerships with governments in Malaysia, Oman, India, China and Africa to support the development of educationists and the systems in which they worked. Such a combination of entrepreneurial and pedagogical talents was decidedly rare in the early ‘90s, and Arlene was certainly a trailblazer in the way she enhanced the profile of the School of Education and brought in significant amounts of income in the process. At the same time, she served on numerous University committees and had a keen interest in the way the University was managed.

Arlene was a very talented teacher and mentor to many hundreds of postgraduate students from all over the world. She was able to draw on extensive international experience of education systems and had an instinctive understanding of issues, problems and solutions. Her seminars and lectures were distinctive in the School for their combination of deep learning and insight, challenging content, impatience with sloppy thinking (whether from students or colleagues), a talent for analysis and explication, and great humour.

Arlene gave a lot of time and attention to students burdened with dissertations and theses. Her supervision sessions were always thorough, clear and forward-looking and students were left in no doubt about what they needed to do next in order to improve their drafts. The large number of students who benefitted from her teaching and advice have since gone on to lead education systems in their own countries, further extending the influence of Arlene’s thinking.

While at Bristol, and in retirement, she took on a number of consultancy roles with DFID, British Council, UN, Unicef and UNESCO. These took her to Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Some of those consultancy assignments saw her working with former research students. I recall a very entertaining assignment with her in Bangladesh reviewing a large DFID education programme in the late 1990s, trudging around the flooded country and delivering seminars in Wellington boots. Consultancy work of this kind further consolidated Arlene’s reputation as a significant and original educational thinker. This was evident in the multi-country evaluation study she led of the British Council’s ‘Connecting Futures’ programme in 2005-06 which helped that organisation to understand better how to work globally to achieve meaningful intercultural dialogue. For the last five years, Arlene had been a senior consultant for the EU’s Tuning Project across Europe, China, Middle East and Africa. Robert Wagenaar, International Director of the Tuning Academy in Groningen, comments: ‘There are many reasons for the Tuning family and the global higher education sector in general to be extremely grateful to Arlene for her exceptional commitment and contribution towards our shared mission to offer the best possible higher education to a new generation of students’.

Arlene was an extraordinary force of nature. She impressed me from our first meeting in 1995 with her piercing intellect and her ability to get a sense of a person on immediate acquaintance. She was occasionally heard to say that she didn't like the cut of someone's jib and didn’t hesitate to challenge self-aggrandising colleagues! At the same time, Arlene had the gift of patience and worked tirelessly with her students. In my professional life as an education consultant, Arlene was a powerful influence and a tremendous working partner. In my personal life, Arlene became a great friend and it was a privilege to have known her.

A long-time resident of Valor in Spain after leaving Bristol, Arlene died peacefully in early September after a long fight with cancer, with her husband Tim and her daughter Emma by her side. 

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