Former principal celebrates 100th birthday

Dr Gwen Owen, Principal of St Mary’s College – a predecessor institution of the University of Gloucestershire – has celebrated her 100th birthday.

Principal from 1970 to 1979, she studied BSc Chemistry, Physics and Botany at the University of London, graduating in 1942. In 1943 she gained a BSc special degree in Chemistry and in 1944 was awarded her Institute of Education and Teacher’s Certificate from the University of London. She taught for two years at Skinners’ Company School for Girls in London before working as a research assistant, first at Bedford College and then at the Department of Chemical Pathology at St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School.

She gained her PhD in 1950 in organic chemistry then returned to teaching at Chatham Girls’ Grammar School then Edgbaston High School for Girls. She later became Head of Science at Walthamstow High School for girls (her old school) before becoming Headmistress of Bighouse Girls’ Grammar School in Yorkshire. Before coming to Cheltenham she was Vice-Principal of St Martin’s College of Education in Lancaster.

The 1970s were a difficult time as the government halved the number of teacher training places on offer. Part of the reason St Mary’s survived was because of its excellent reputation, usually ranked top three for women’s colleges nationwide. Gwen was deeply involved in the increased partnership working between St Paul’s College and St Mary’s College, which would eventually lead to amalgamation in 1979. There were also changes to the courses on offer, with the BEd replacing the certificated teaching course (and an increase in the number of firsts awarded during the 1970s), the introduction of a postgraduate certificate in education, the validation of the BSc in Geography and Geology in 1977 and an increase in overseas students, particularly from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Nigeria.

By the late 1970s the college welcomed American exchange students through the Brethren Colleges Abroad programme (and we still welcome American exchange students today). The first degree ceremony was held in Cheltenham in 1977 – prior to this students had to travel to Bristol as Bristol University had validated our BEds.

Computers were also first introduced to college in 1974 and the library considerably expanded to keep up with the diversification of courses on offer. In 1976 St Mary’s College became the Open University Centre for Cheltenham and the college also began to offer in-service professional part-time courses for existing local teachers. Gwen also oversaw efforts to validate the BA Hons Combined Studies humanities degree, which was introduced just after she left in 1980.

Whilst at St Mary’s Gwen was a member of the Gloucestershire County Education Committee, the Gloucestershire Association of Christian Teachers and Chair of the Gloucestershire Voluntary Overseas Committee.

When she left St Mary’s she took up a post as Research Fellow at the Faculty of Education, University of Birmingham, researching the staffing of colleges of education. In a newspaper article from the time she left she said “from the first time I went to grammar school I knew I wanted to be a teacher”, and “the only way to teach effectively is from a background of knowledge. The college motto is ‘Learn in order that you may teach’ but I think the opposite is just as true”.

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