Obituary: David Butts MA, MLitt, OBE, teacher, radio and TV producer

Born: 14 November 1920, Wallington, Surrey. Died: 8 June 2016, St Jean de Cole, France, aged 95.

Teacher, producer and pioneering educational technologist. Picture: Contributed
Teacher, producer and pioneering educational technologist. Picture: Contributed

David Butts, who has died recently aged 95 at his home in France, made significant contributions to educational media, educational technology and research during the innovative era from the 1960s to the 1980s. These introduced new approaches to curriculum development and a wider range of media including educational television, helping to transform the process of learning.

Born in Surrey, David attended Wallington County School then attended King’s College, London University, before being evacuated to Bristol when war broke out in 1939. At 19, he joined the RAF as a radio operator while learning air traffic control and logistics. This enhanced one of his greatest strengths, the spoken word, but no doubt developed other skills in leadership and administration. Stationed in Egypt, he started as an admin officer, ending up as Flight Lieutenant. In wartime Cairo, being an outgoing man, David threw himself into the local life as much as possible. He helped run the scout troop where the local boys were multi-lingual – often starting in French and finishing in English. Here began his love affair with French culture. He also got involved in theatre and musical reviews, demonstrating a talent for both acting and writing.

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At the end of the war, David attended Keble College, University of Oxford, to read English. His lecturers included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. He rowed on the Isis and, on Sunday evenings, debated theology with a group known as the Sinners Circle (much later his views becoming more agnostic).

In 1947, he met his future wife, Jeannette in St Malo, Brittany on a summer course studying French. He followed her home to the island of Mull to meet her family: Jeannette’s father was both head teacher and provost of Tobermory. After teacher training at St Andrews and Dundee, David and Jeannette married and began their new careers as teachers in Aberdeen.

Moving to Edinburgh in 1954, David became a producer in schools radio. By 1958, his skill and creativity had won him a place in BBC schools television, which took him all over Scotland making documentaries on everything from Highland fishermen to shipyard workers and even the Dior fashion house. Promoted to BBC education officer, he evaluated the needs of teachers and the effectiveness of the output from schools’ broadcasting in the classroom.

Following early experiments in television for classroom observation, the Scottish Education Department decided in 1965 to fund sophisticated production services in two colleges, one of which was Jordanhill College of Education in Glasgow. David was appointed by Jordanhill as director of educational television and by April 1966 he had designed a television studio with three cameras, a mobile recording van for recording lessons, a 16mm film unit for location work and a four channel cable transmission system throughout the college. Those studio and location classroom observation programmes were built into the college curriculum. A cable link from Jordanhill to the Glasgow Educational Television Service facilitated in-service teacher training in Glasgow. The high quality of the TV programmes produced soon gave them a national as well as college role. They won many national awards.

David was a motivational director who realised the need for a strategy for the developing use of audio-visual methods in education. The answer, he realised, lay in the relatively new discipline of educational technology. This “systems approach” defined aims and objectives, delivered the learning experience and then evaluated the outcomes, feeding the results back into the system to improve the next run of the course.

In 1969, David organised a prestigious international conference on educational technology in Glasgow which established Jordanhill’s reputation as a leader in the field and his own standing as a theorist and innovator. I attended that conference whilst still a teacher and was inspired by David to adopt this radical approach in my own classroom. I joined his audio-visual media department in 1972 as one of two lecturers running self-instructional courses.

In 1976, he commenced the next part of his strategy, initiating a post-graduate Diploma in Educational Technology for serving teachers, lecturers, librarians and trainers. This was designed as a distance learning course, following the example of the Open University. The course began in 1978 using weekly booklets, activities and feedback, slides, audio tapes and very early (and difficult) experiments with telephone audio-conferencing. The course was subsequently validated by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA), which enabled university level degrees and diplomas to be awarded by colleges and polytechnics. Many students rose to senior positions carrying with them the ethos and tools acquired on the diploma course. The influence of those heady days can be seen everywhere in current practice including new areas like e-learning and on-line teaching.

Such would have provided an enduring legacy in itself. But David had further ambitions: he realised that interpreting the often concealed messages of new media were increasingly important skills for young people, as discriminating consumers of media and producers in their own right. Anticipating the need for trained teachers in this area, he initiated a Post-graduate Certificate in Media Education. This eventually became a Master’s degree.

In all of his work, David aspired to “a massive attention to detail combined with an unflagging creativity”. This was evident in the smooth operation of a large and complex department; he displayed creativity through documentaries on the progressive Kilquhanity House School, urban renewal in Glasgow, the new towns and the films he made on historical topics.

In 1980, aged 60, he moved to the University of Stirling, undertaking teaching and research work as well as an evaluation role in a major collaborative project of the university in teacher training. By 1985, he had completed a Master’s in French Literature. As a result of his work in media and educational technology, David was awarded an OBE in 1983 for services to education.

David and Jeannette were blessed with a son, Alan, daughters Kirsty and Susan and a grand-daughter Debbie.

In 1986, David and Jeannette moved from Stirling to Bridge of Allan – then started house hunting in France. They found the ideal place in St Jean de Cole and began a new phase, joining choirs and participating in Dordogne cultural life.

After finally retiring at the age of 77, he and his wife left Bridge of Allan permanently in 2006 for France. Sadly, Jeannette died in 2008. He continued to live independently despite failing eyesight, characteristically using modern reading technology to keep him abreast of current affairs. He carried on singing with his choir and making house renovations and enjoyed the company of friends and of family, whenever possible. On 8 June, David died suddenly in his swimming pool after spending a happy day with his grand-daughter.