In memory of Gina Owens

Helene Guldberg and Wendy Earle pay tribute to a long-time supporter of spiked who died last month.

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Georgina Katherine Owens – a long-time political activist, teacher and supporter of spiked – died on Monday 26 March after a prolonged struggle with cancer. She was 54. Despite all of her efforts, and those of the doctors and nurses who cared for her, she lost her fight for life. She did not give in gracefully; she fought until there was nothing more she could do.

Gina, as she was known, lived a full and political life. She was a good friend and committed supporter of spiked, and of its predecessor publication Living Marxism (which was published from 1988 to 1997, and then as LM from 1997 to 2000). She also contributed to the work of the Institute of Ideas (IoI). The IoI runs an annual sixth-form debating competition called Debating Matters, which will unveil the Gina Owens Prize for the Sharpest, Wittiest Argument at this year’s national finals in June/July 2007.

Gina was born in Milford Haven on 31 October 1952 to John and Dorothy East, and grew up in Pembrokeshire with her brother Mark. She graduated with a degree in philosophy from the University of Sussex in 1973, and with a primary Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) from the University of London’s Institute of Education in 1975. She taught across the primary-age range in inner city schools in London, Cardiff and Manchester, including working as a peripatetic teacher to the children of Travellers at Battersea City Farm, London. In 2000, she moved away from the classroom to work as a senior lecturer in primary mathematics at Bath Spa University College. Her career was cut short when she was hospitalised with lymphoma in June 2006.

We were both involved in political debate and activism with Gina from the 1980s right through to the present period. Gina was a leading member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which published Living Marxism, until the party wound up in the mid-1990s. Her special qualities made her an exceptional leader. She was politically inspiring and constantly questioning; she lived Living Marxism’s motto, ‘Question Everything’. She had strong organisational abilities and, above all, was interested in people and how they thought about the world.


Gina on holiday in Sicily, 1997

Gina made a lifelong impact on the people she fought political battles alongside – first in Cardiff, with her former husband Mick Owens, and later in Manchester. Many of Gina’s former comrades attended her funeral, and told of how much they had learned from her. Many of them spoke about her love of life, her intelligence, passion, determination, her wit. She helped to open many people’s minds to new ways of thinking about the world. When the RCP wound up, Gina never gave up on the fight to raise the horizons of humanity, and continued to rail against misanthropy, illiberalism and irrationalism, particularly their manifestations within the sphere of education.

She hated the ‘nonsense’ that the current British government perpetrated in the name of education and child welfare. She was a warm but firm teacher, and knew that children sometimes needed cuddles and at other times a firm restraining hand. She felt that official restrictions on how teachers related to their children undermined pupil-teacher relationships.

Gina always spoke her mind. She made sure that educational orthodoxies were never simply nodded through but rather were questioned, examined, debated. She wrote on spiked about how the bureaucratisation of education was detracting teachers from the ‘satisfying challenges of teaching’, and impeding the ‘dynamic and inspirational relation that children and teachers have to their material and to each other’ (see We need flexibility and autonomy, by Gina Owens).

In recent years, Gina contributed to the Times Educational Supplement as an agony aunt for newly qualified teachers. She had a special interest in education in Japan, and contributed a chapter to Cultural Difference, Media Memories: Anglo-American Images of Japan (published by Cassell, 1997).

Gina had a very special warmth, and it was this that made her such an exceptional teacher and mentor to so many people. She brought imagination, creativity and integrity to her teaching, and to political debate. She could always see, and bring out, the best in the many children and students she taught – while also being able to recognise their flaws and shortcomings.

A fitting celebration of Gina’s life took place at Westerleigh Crematorium near Bristol, England, on 4 April 2007. It was very hard to say our farewells to such a special friend. Many people sent in testimonials that were read out by the humanist officiate Peter Herridge (see the testimonials below). She still had so much she wanted to do, and so much else to share with us all.

Gina was survived by her younger brother Mark and her half-brother Michael. She will be sorely missed by her family, friends, former comrades and colleagues. But she issued strict instructions that people should not mourn her passing, but rather should celebrate her life. She insisted that after her funeral ceremony all the attendees were to get drunk and strut their stuff to ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba. Of course, we dutifully obeyed. Gina always did have a special knack for making us do what she wanted us to.

If you would like to contribute to the Gina Owens Memorial Prize Fund, please make cheques payable to ‘Debating Matters’, and post to: Gina Owens Memorial Prize Fund, Debating Matters Competition, Signet House, 49-51 Farringdon Road, London, EC1M 3JP.

Testimonials:

Margaret Edwards: I first met Gina in 1969, when she was 17 and I was 15. I was immediately impressed by her style, as she was wearing a floor-length coat and ‘Julie Driscoll’ painted-on eyelashes. Since that time Gina has always played a major part in my life. As students we shared a flat in London and I still remember Gina solving the problem of peeling wallpaper by hammering 6-inch nails into the walls. It was during this time that we began spending our weekends at Red Gate at Greenham Common and Gina’s interest in politics was born.

Gina and I were always extremely close and always referred to each other as sisters. This special relationship incorporated my mother Peggy and my husband Dave and children Bethan and Ben. When Bethan discovered that she had no godmother she asked Gina to fill the position. Gina explained this would not be possible, but said she would be proud to be her ‘godless mother’. When Ben was born, this role was extended to him, and Gina has always been a unique godless mother and special person in all of our lives.

Because of our shared cultural Pembrokeshire roots we always spent some of the summer holidays each year visiting Pembrokeshire and hiking the coastal path, visiting our favourite beaches. Gina loved the ruggedness of the coast and also the space and light that we found there. Our dream was to buy a cottage there. We joked about being senile old bats together, getting along on our Zimmer frames. She insisted on swimming in the sea on each visit, regardless of whether there was horizontal rain, sea mists and even, as there was on one occasion, a hailstorm. Gina loved everything to do with nature.

Gina was one of life’s givers, which means that wherever she lived in the country she made an impact on people and developed close and lasting friendships. It has been a privilege to have had Gina in my life; her sense of humour and love of life will always remain with me.

Carole Farrell: Gina understood how children learn and she was determined to make their experience fun. This never changed throughout her career. Gina was an early conservationist. When I arrived at Bentworth School, Gina was in the throes of ‘Save the Whale’ campaigning. She used this as an all-round educational experience. No interactive whiteboards in those days, but Gina was always a step ahead in making things real for children. She needed children to realise size and scale, so what did she do? She drew a life-size whale in the playground. How real is that for kids?

On a more serious note, Gina’s true friendship and compassion were second to none. When I lost my husband, who adored Gina, she was there for me 24/7. She stayed and saw me through the dark days. For that I will always be eternally grateful.

Karen Guldberg, Derek Allen and Marcus, Aidan and Stefan Guldberg-Allen: We will miss Gina so much but we will always treasure the times we had with her. We will keep the image of Gina dancing and using an empty water bottle as a microphone while she sang along at the top of her voice to ‘Dancing Queen’ at Karen’s fortieth birthday party. We will fill the garden and allotment with Love-in-A-Mist, a beautiful delicate flower that is also extremely hardy and strong, in memory of Gina.

Ellie Lee: I first met Gina almost exactly 20 years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at Cardiff University coming towards the end of my first year. Gina became the most important influence in my life during my time as a student; she taught me far more than all of my lecturers combined, and ultimately was more responsible than anyone else for opening my mind for the first time to new ideas and ways of thinking about the world. This was not only because of her patience and intelligence, although Gina did possess an enormous talent as a teacher because of these attributes; it was also because of her passion, anger and determination, qualities that more than anything inspired me to want to learn more, in order to be more like Gina. I will always miss her.

Brid Hehir: Lasting memories of Gina will be her early morning singing, sometimes before the rest of us had even stirred and especially when she was taking a shower. She had a beautiful singing voice and seemed to sing so effortlessly and un-selfconsciously. I’m sure that she could’ve been a singer had she wanted to be and had her priorities not been elsewhere.

Jane Sandeman: She was wise, inspirational, could understand things in the round, and just saw things as they were. She was great company and was a charming, gentle human being. I feel very privileged, lucky and enriched to have known her.

Stuart Derbyshire: Gina was immensely bossy and terrifying (!) but was also one of the most dependable, solid and kind people I have known.

Malcolm Hanson: It was a huge pleasure and privilege to work with Gina and share an office with her at Bath Spa for four years. We achieved so much and all with such good humour and fun. When things went badly she would cut through the crap and console me with her sharp words of wisdom, and when things went well we would play some songs from our vast mutual back-catalogue, singing along loudly. I will miss her desperately but treasure the times we worked together. I will especially remember the time we team-taught a primary PGCE session on ‘thinking skills’ which ended with a joint rendition to our bewildered audience of Monty Python’s ‘Philosophers’ Drinking Song’. It was her idea of course! Gina was generous, funny, compassionate, astute and lively, but most of all she was a great mate.

Steve Ward, dean of the School of Education, Bath Spa University: Gina was a wonderful teacher and lecturer. Her students loved her wit and humour and were inspired by her passion for education. She shared her knowledge and experiences of education in Japan and brought students to exciting new understandings about international education. She even got them to love mathematics. As a colleague she was full of ideas for change and improvement. In staff meetings you could always rely on Gina to have something to say and to be in the middle of the arguments. There was no fudging it with Gina and she’d be up there getting cross if it wasn’t right. We’ll miss her vision, her passion, her belief, her laughter and her friendship.

Claire Fox: The Institute of Ideas was proud and delighted to have Gina Owens as one of its members and associates. She was always insightful and thought-provoking in debates about education and schooling, and her research on the curriculum – particularly her critique of the numeracy strategy in primary schools – has been invaluable to helping us understand contemporary trends. She spoke her mind and made sure that educational orthodoxies were never simply nodded through, but always questioned, examined and debated. Gina’s untimely death is a great loss to the world of teacher education, and a great loss to those of us who, like her, are passionate about ensuring that state school children are not betrayed by opportunistic politicians and narrow instrumentalism. We miss her, but will endeavour to ensure her intellectual work continues to make a difference.

Doreen: Gina was gentle, generous, giving and loving yet with a strength and stoicism and a willingness to fight for justice and fairness for others. A lovely, lovely lady who will be dreadfully missed by myself and all those who were privileged to have been her friend.

Kendra: Good things we did together: eating tapas in a new restaurant we discovered, putting the world to rights, drinking wine in Gina’s beautiful garden. Of course, Gina knew the Latin names for the plants. The summer boules parties in her garden were great fun, with Gina insisting that Mark act as wine waiter and keep us all well topped up.

Lisa Flood: Just a short note to say a massive thank you to Gina for her inspirational preparation for teaching maths in the primary school. Gina removed the fear factor of numeracy I had harboured since my own primary education. I now have a fabulous class of six- and seven-year-olds who I am really enjoying teaching maths to and, to my own shock, they are actually making good learning progress

Isabel Hopwood: Thank you Gina for being such an inspirational maths teacher. I actually struggled with maths at school, but now I find it one of the most exciting things to teach and my Masters action research is all about different kinaesthetic ways of teaching the bonds of 10 to Year Threes.

James: I really enjoyed Gina’s lectures and workshops at Uni. She was so passionate and knowledgeable and quite obviously very good at what she does – not to mention the fact that she was such a lovely person.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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