Obituary: John Nisbet, professor of education

John Nisbet
John Nisbet
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Born: 17 October, 1922 in Rosyth. Died: 5 October, 2012, in Banchory, aged 89

John Nisbet was a former wartime intelligence officer whose boredom with RAF life in peace time led directly to his immense contribution to education over the ensuing 50 years. Having been recruited and trained for Y Service, the unit monitoring enemy radio messages in parallel with the Bletchley codebreakers, he found his Italian language skills redundant before he even started, Italy having surrendered as he finished his basic training.

Though other intelligence posts followed, which he really only found fascinating in hindsight, he ended his war in the Far East, after arriving in India to news of the Hiroshima bombing which, along with the attack on Nagasaki, heralded the surrender of Japan.

As a security officer in Malaya he found the post-war RAF dull and formal and jumped at the chance to escape. It came in the form of teacher training for which he could volunteer, enrolment granting him an immediate release. So began a lifetime’s career in education, its study and practice, which earned him an OBE and saw him influence the profession internationally.

He was born in Rosyth after his parents returned from working in Iceland where his mother was a nurse and his father had set up a medical mission. His father bought a medical practice in the town and young John was educated at Canmore School where he remained, travelling the 18 miles to school each day on the train, after the family moved to Lochgelly when he was seven.

The youngster, whose father died two years later, was an able pupil and from Dunfermline High won a bursary to Edinburgh University, where, in 1940, he joined the university’s Home Guard unit. They were issued with an arm band and rifle from the 1914-18 war, their role to defend Edinburgh Castle in the event of an invasion.

The following year he trained in the Officer Training Corps and worked during the holidays in the Observer Corps control room in Dunfermline. He started learning Italian as an extra at university, which proved useful when, two years into his degree, he was called up for the army. He was poised to report to the Edinburgh Recruiting Centre when his Italian lecturer asked if he was interested in a scheme training linguists for the Intelligence Service.

At 19 he was enlisted as an Italian linguist to work in Y Service. Ironically, having been recruited following an interview in London, he was sent to Edinburgh University for a one-year crash course in Italian. Back there, against the ruling of his adviser of studies but having being given the nod by the Dean, he continued his English Honours degree and eventually graduated, while on leave, in 1945.

He did his basic RAF training in Arbroath in 1943 but by that August Italy had surrendered and he spent the winter in a monitoring RAF station near Rugby with ten other redundant linguists.

In early 1944 he went to officers’ school and was later posted to Tangmere, near Chichester, joining a Canadian fighter wing as an intelligence officer for the invasion of France. When the wing flew into Normandy in June 1944 he was posted to Command HQ in London to prepare for countermeasures against the expected V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket attacks.

Writing his autobiography many years later, he observed: “I now realise how fortunate I was in all this. I had a fascinating series of jobs, none involving any particular risk yet closely in touch with the front line of action. Yet I didn’t fully appreciate what was going on.

“Occasionally, when a pilot failed to return, or when the Wing Commander’s Spitfire disintegrated when it was hit by a chance anti-aircraft shot as he led the wing in a sweep over France, we faced reality. The pre-invasion days were intensive, often with little sleep, but totally committing.”

At Fighter Command he also had a spell writing communiqués for the War Cabinet and following VE Day was posted to the Far East for the invasion of Malaya. His troopship was delayed and he arrived in Bombay just as the war was ending. Later posted to 17 Squadron in Madura, India, he crossed the Indian Ocean in a converted aircraft carrier and went ashore in Malaya, with eight men and spare engine parts, in a Macduff-registered fishing boat.

He’d first become hooked on golf, aged seven, on the nine-hole Lochgelly course and during his time as a security officer in Malaya he managed a game – the first to play in the Cameron Highlands when they opened up after the Japanese occupation – only to lose his ball at the 4th hole. Based in Kuala Lumpur and becoming bored, he learned about the teacher training opportunity in a letter from his brother Stanley, also to become a Professor of Education, and seized the opportunity to get out.

By April 1946 he was back in Edinburgh training as a teacher and took up his first post at his old school in Dunfermline. Meanwhile, he continued his studies in his spare time and passed a BEd course with distinction, later completing his PhD on the effect of family environment on intelligence.

He moved to Aberdeen University as an assistant lecturer and later turned down a job in the Scottish Schools Inspectorate. He remained at Aberdeen University where he discovered a vivacious research zoologist occupying the next door room in his accommodation. He proposed three weeks later and they married in 1952. He and his wife Brenda went on to have two children.

In 1957 he was elected a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and three years later became acting head of the university’s education department. The family spent the summer of 1961 in San Jose, California, where he taught in the psychology department and achieved an important qualification for promotion, the HBTA – Have Been To America.

Appointed to the first Chair in Education at the university in 1963, he received one of the first research grants, to study the age of transfer to secondary school and, with his assistant Noel Entwistle, published two books from the project. Together they later wrote the text Educational Research Methods.

Education was now a valid research activity which could contribute to the work of teachers in the classroom and to government policy. Between 1965 and 75, he was involved in writing six books and numerous articles; spent summers teaching in California, Australia, New Zealand; visited South Africa; started research projects in Norway and the Netherlands and edited the British Journal of Educational Psychology. “It was a thrilling time of non-stop-effort, challenging, exciting and new,” he said.

He also began to be appointed to national committees including the General Teaching Council. In addition to being an inspiring lecturer, he chaired the Educational Research Board of the Social Science Research Council in London and the Scottish Council for Research in Education and was the first president of the British Educational Research Association. Edinburgh University awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his international research reputation. He regularly worked for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, sat on the Consultative Committee on the Curriculum and chaired the Scottish Committee on Primary Education.

In his leisure time he spent many weekends at the family holiday cottage in Glenbuchat, Strathdon, and was a keen hillwalker, climber and orienteer, activities he pursued well into retirement.

Widowed in 1995, he continued to work and travel internationally, going around the world in 22 days in his 80th year.

He is survived by his son Andy, daughter Liz, granddaughters Jo and Sarah and great-granddaughter Natalie.