Open Learning - Nevill Mott
I forget how I first met Nevill; I think it was through Brian Jackson, who
joined me in founding the National Extension College in Cambridge. I could
hardly believe our luck. The Cambridge Establishment had been adamantly
hostile to the kind of proposal we were making for an Open University. Our
magazine, Where?, which was edited by my wife, Sasha, in 1963 contained
the first proposal for an Open University and used that name instead of the
University of the Air. Showing how green we were, we started off by
suggesting the new university might be a second University of Cambridge,
using the colleges and the Cavendish in the vacation but with correspondence
courses and cassettes in term time. To begin with, our supporters could be
numbered on the fingers of one hand.
One of the main objections was that the vacations were the time when the
dons did their ‘real’ work, their research and writing. They could not
simultaneously teach a whole new second lot of students. So we trimmed our
original proposal: outside staff would be brought in to teach during the
vacation. We got the agreement of the then Battersea Poly to do this. The idea
of physicists from the poly supervising practical work in the Cavendish was
more greatly detested than the rest of what we were proposing. It was
anathema to almost everyone, but not to Nevill; he was unusual in so many
From then on he was a supporter of the National Extension College (set up
in 1963) in its role as a pilot project for an open university, and of the Open
University (OU) when it happened. Even though he was the Cavendish
Professor and Master of a college, he was unlike most of the elite of the
university in being almost as much concerned about people who had been
deprived of higher education as he was about the more fortunate who had
made it to Cambridge.
A little later on, when the Open University was about to become a fact, and
the amazing Walter Perry had been appointed its first Vice-Chancellor, Nevill
invited Perry to dinner at Caius College to meet the NEC trustees. As I
remember, Perry was then thinking the OU should have its headquarters in
London. With Nevill as the genial host he always was, I think we persuaded
Perry that it would be much more appropriate for a new university, and a new
kind of university without internal students, to be in a new town like Milton
Keynes, which had the additional advantage of being at the geographical
centre of the country. Perry took up the idea immediately, and within a few
Reminiscences and Appreciations
days negotiations had started with Jock Campbell, the Chairman of the New
Town Corporation. Campbell could hardly believe his luck.
When I retired from being Chairman of the NEC, Nevill took over for the
period 1971 to 1976. What do I remember of him? How much I liked him, to
start with. I can’t think of many people in my life for whom the word
‘benevolent’ was so truly apt. He shone with benevolence and a similar
quality, goodness. More than merely seeming to like the odd lot of people we
had got together, I am sure he truly did like them and was amused by them.
When he disapproved of something that was being proposed, he certainly
made his view plain. He did not suffer foolishness gladly. But even when he
was exasperated, he was so nice about it that no one could take offence. His
childlike quality—which I believe outstanding people usually have—was also
endearing, as was his willingness to support a new Cambridge college that
was definitely outside the fold.
Nevill gave a sense of confidence to the small staff of the NEC that they
otherwise could have lacked, and his close interest in the detail of a
distanceteaching college was a source of great encouragement to everyone.
He would have been pleased that the National Extension College is now so
flourishing under the direction of Ros Morpeth and the chairmanship of
Geoffrey Hubbard, and that it has found a very sizeable place for itself
alongside the Open University.
LORD YOUNG OF DARTINGTONis a sociologist and Director of the Institute of
Community Studies. He is an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy and Churchill
College, Cambridge. He was the originator of the Open University and founder of the
In his autobiography Nevill Mott tells us that, when he became Cavendish
Professor of Physics at Cambridge in 1954, he was persuaded by Sir Philip
Morris, the Vice-Chancellor of Bristol, to devote time to national educational
issues. He joined Geoffrey Crowther’s Committee on Education from 16 to
18 in 1956, and in 1959 the Ministry of Education’s Committee on the
Training of Teachers, chaired by John Fulton. Nevill was invited to take the
chair of a subcommittee principally concerned with the shortage of
mathematics teachers. Thus he began a series of commitments to educational
issues which lasted into the 1980s.
I first worked with Nevill in 1961, when we both became members of an
advisory committee concerned with the Nuffield Foundation’s programme for
the development of a new A level physics course. Nevill chaired this small
group of academics and teachers. We soon realised how difficult it was to
construct a curriculum to meet the needs of pupils who would subsequently
enter a wide variety of degree courses. Nevill and I wanted the new course to
concentrate on classical physics, but the teachers argued that it must include
quantum physics, particularly for the majority of the pupils who would not
continue with physics in depth. Debate between the school and university
worlds ultimately made a valuable contribution to the great success of the
Nuffield physics course.
From 1965 until 1971 Nevill was chairman of the Physics Education
Committee set up jointly by the Royal Society and the Institute of Physics.
During this period the main concern of the committee lay in teacher training.
Late in 1969 the Royal Society established a Standing Education Committee. I
chaired this committee until the end of 1979 and Nevill was a member until
1982. The range of our work extended from primary schools to postgraduate
courses as well as coordinating the work of four ongoing committees for
specific subjects—biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics—each of which
was run jointly by the society and the professional body for each subject.
It was not easy to find Fellows of the Royal Society (FRSs) who were
knowledgeable about a wide range of educational issues and willing to devote
a considerable amount of time to promote any change. Nevill Mott, however,
was an exception. He was at his best working on his own, or perhaps with a
few colleagues, but he always enjoyed the help of the society’s education
officer, Donald Harlow, a former successful schoolteacher. Over the years,
Nevill chaired several ad hoc groups studying specific problem areas. Reports
were usually published after approval by the Standing Education Committee
Reminiscences and Appreciations
and the Royal Society Council. I served on some of these groups and can
testify that Nevill was a conscientious chairman who spent a lot of time on
the committee’s business between meetings. He particularly liked to visit
schools and colleges for informal discussions with teachers on their own
ground. Don Harlow used to arrange these visits and occasionally I would
join them. This ensured that we had some first-hand experience of the
problems under consideration.
The Standing Education Committee’s reports were circulated widely
among appropriate professional bodies and sometimes national conferences
were organised to promote discussion. Nevill several times acted as chairman,
with great charm and persuasive power. Occasionally the Royal Society
prepared papers for wide circulation in schools. One of its bestsellers was a
booklet on metric units in primary schools; eighty thousand copies were sold
between 1969 and 1973.
I now give some example of the studies undertaken by Nevill on behalf of
the Standing Education Committee.
In 1968 the Council of Engineering Institutions and the Royal Society
instituted a study of the supply of schoolteachers in science and mathematics.
The conclusions, published in 1969, showed there were significant shortages
of mathematics and physics teachers. It was decided that the Royal Society
should collect statistics on these shortages on an annual basis and discuss
them with the government. Nevill often accompanied me on these visits to the
Department of Education.
The new Standing Education Committee set up a study group consisting of
eight FRSs who were invited to make recommendations concerning the
training of science and mathematics teachers. Nevill was chairman of this
important group. Five working parties, all involving practising teachers and
trainers as well as FRSs, were set up to provide detailed information for the
final report. A large consultative group, with a widely based representation,
was also convened to advise as the work progressed. I remember that Nevill
devoted a substantial amount of time to this study. He visited schools, teacher
training colleges and university departments of education to familiarise
himself with current practice and for informal discussions on how to improve
both recruitment and training in the future. The final report, The Training of
Teachers of Science and Mathematics, was published in 1972. It contained
fifteen specific conclusions and recommendations. Well received, it
undoubtedly made a worthwhile contribution to the ongoing debate during
During 1972–74 Nevill Mott was concerned with environmental science
courses for students intending to teach science to 11–13 year olds. Again he
visited colleges and schools before preparing a report for the Royal Society. In
1976 he was concerned with primary science and in 1977 he became deeply
concerned about the needs of talented children.
A small study group was set up to support and advise on Nevill’s personal
researches into the controversial issue of whether special support was needed
for talented children in the state sector of education. As usual, Nevill made
numerous visits to institutions and consulted widely before his group issued a
discussion paper in 1979, ‘Science and the Organisation of Schools in
England: Implications of the Needs of Talented Children’. In his
autobiography Nevill explains that some members of his committee felt that
talented would-be scientists might not receive the attention and stimulus they
needed in every comprehensive school. Mixed ability teaching was coming
into favour towards the end of the 1970s and priority appeared to be given to
the needs of the average child. Furthermore, there was controversy between
those who believed a single integrated science course was preferable to three
separate courses in biology, chemistry and physics. Nevill also points out that
the Association for Science Education, in a paper called ‘Alternatives for
Science Education’, seemed to favour a pattern of education which appeared
to his group to be more about science as a social activity than a job of work.
Nevill’s paper considered the suitability of mixed-ability teaching methods
in science, particularly for talented pupils. Streaming and setting
arrangements were also discussed. After careful consideration the group
favoured setting in science and mathematics from at least age 13 onwards in
non-selective schools. He also hoped that the separate sciences would
continue to be available in most secondary schools. Concern was expressed
that falling numbers of pupils might jeopardise these recommendations.
In November 1979 the Royal Society held a one-day discussion meeting on
science education in secondary schools to decide priorities for the 1980s. In
one of the main talks, Nevill described the Royal Society’s view of the needs
of talented pupils with a variety of ambitions and abilities. Although some of
those present felt that his position was too elitist, it seems to me that the
discussion was timely and may well have influenced future events.
As a further contribution to the national discussion of the requirements of
high-ability children, and with the help of the Leonardo Trust, Nevill
organised a weekend conference on gifted children and their contemporaries.
It took place in Cambridge during September 1981 and I was one of the many
educationalists who attended. Being well aware of the view that his report
was elitist, Nevill made a well-balanced and conciliatory speech at the
beginning, the text of which is reproduced in his autobiography.
I now look back to the 1970s and to all the educational activities I shared
with Nevill Mott, a few of which I have mentioned here. Education at all stages
in the development of individuals is a large-scale and complex process. It is very
rare for one person or even a committee to have a revolutionary effect on
developments; change more likely comes about by slow evolution. Certainly
our reports did not lead to dramatic changes, but it seems to me now that we
must have influenced the direction of change. Several of the issues to which
Nevill Mott devoted valuable time have continued to attract attention as
circumstances change. In particular, I have noted recent concern by some
politicians about the ongoing needs of talented children. Without doubt, Britain
still needs to maximise the output of talented people from its education system.
Reminiscences and Appreciations
I certainly believe that Nevill’s contributions in the field of education were
very worthwhile. He presented his carefully thought-out opinions effectively,
but he was always ready to acknowledge legitimate diversity of opinion.
Nevertheless, I think he usually reached the right conclusions in his carefully
prepared lectures and reports.
SIR CLIFFORD BUTLERwas educated at Reading School and Reading University.
He was a staff member of the Physics Department at Manchester University (1945–
53) and Imperial College (1953–70). Thereafter, he was Director of the Nuffield
Foundation (1970–75) then Vice-Chancellor of Loughborough University (1975–85).
He represented the Vice-Chancellors Committee on the Schools Council (1965–84).
Taylor & Francis
The range of Nevill Mott’s interests was so great that there must be a cloud
of witnesses to the stimulus he gave to younger people.
I was never his student or coworker but no one had more influence on my
work and my career. It began at a prize-giving when I was a metallurgy
student in Cardiff; I received a copy of Mott&Jones, which I still treasure.
Much of it I did not understand then, but my supervisor, Hume-Rothery (H-
R), in what was then the Department of Inorganic Chemistry at Oxford,
encouraged my awakened interest in the magnetic and electrical properties of
alloys. As a result, when I had moved to Imperial College to lecture in metal
physics and Nevill had asked H-R to review the transition metals and their
alloys for his new journal Advances in Physics, Nevill agreed to let H-R have
me as a joint author on their physical properties. That was of great help to me
as I then spent the next two years in the United States, working for the first
time with other experimental solid-state physicists, and discovered that one
did not have to be reared in the Cavendish or the Mond to use liquid helium.
Much of the work I did there was inspired by clues drawn from Mott&Jones,
and on my return, Nevill asked me to write what became my second Advances
article. It was on spin-disorder scattering, a topic which Nevill realized had to
be more appropriate for explaining the resistivity of gadolinium than the
model he had put forward for nickel twenty years earlier.
By then P.M.S.Blackett was head of the Physics Department at Imperial,
but I think he only realized he had inherited a metal physicist when Nevill,
visiting his old friend, indicated that he was interested in my work. Later, in
1963, when Nevill needed an editor for Advances (Brian Flowers having
decided he could not convert it to a journal of nuclear physics, and many of
the articles being still in solid-state physics), he invited me to do the job. That
job I did for thirteen years, constantly helped by Nevill and by the hopes of
authors that he would become aware of their work.
Nevill was by then the guiding spirit of publishers Taylor&Francis, setting
the company on a road of growth that has continued to the present day. He
recognized that a scientific publishing company needed the real involvement
of members of the academic community it sought to serve, and I was
honoured to be invited by him to become a non-executive director and later
his vice-chairman. I do not think I would have dared to accept the succession,
when he stepped down as chairman, had he not accepted the role of honorary
president, making himself always available with wise advice.
Reminiscences and Appreciations
At Imperial College, too, he was a great source of strength as a senior
Research Fellow after his retirement from the Cavendish, helping individual
students and assisting the Solid-State Physics Group to acquire visibility in the
shadow of the long-established major groups in other fields.
Nevill records in his autobiography that the greatest pleasure of a life in
research is putting others on the way to success. He certainly did that for me
and many besides. Furthermore, he never gave the impression of doing it de
haut en has; I will always remember that when a graduate student in a
northern university was doing work that interested him, Nevill did not
summon him to his presence but wrote (in that tiny handwriting we all
remember) to ask, ‘May I come and visit you?’
PROFESSOR BRYAN COLES, FRS,died on 24 February 1997 aged 70. He was
Professor of Solid-State Physics at Imperial College for twenty-five years and Pro-
Rector from 1986 until his retirement in 1991. His research interests were in
magnetism and related phenomena in metals. He edited Advances in Physics for
thirteen years and served as Chairman of the Board of Taylor&Francis from 1981 to
Editor, Chairman and President: three roles in
The publishing firm of Taylor&Francis began as a small family business to
print Proceedings of the London Philosophical Society. From these small
beginnings in 1798, Taylor&Francis has grown into an international
publisher of stature and the Philosophical Magazine into a leading world
This transformation of the firm began in the years when all aspects of the
country’s life and work had to be rebuilt after the Second World War. Sir
Nevill Mott was closely involved in many aspects of this development.
Professor Mott was at the University of Bristol when he was approached to
take over the editorship of the Philosophical Magazine from Professor Allan
Ferguson, whose health was deteriorating. Mott became editor in 1948, with
Ferguson remaining as reviews editor until 1951, when Mott took over
control of the whole journal. His editorship continued until 1970. During this
time he was responsible for many developments: the establishment of an
editorial board, formalising the previous arrangement of an editor with one
or two assistants; and discussions with the Physical Society to try to ensure
that UK physics journals complemented one another, instead of competing in
their research coverage. Partly as a result of these discussions, the
Philosophical Magazine moved into Professor Mott’s own research area of
solid-state physics. The submission early in the 1950s of a lengthy article led
to the conclusion by the editorial board that there was the need for a review
supplement that could publish material of length. This proposal to Taylor &
Francis led to the new journal Advances in Physics in 1952. A second review
journal, Contemporary Physics, established in 1959, was designed to reach
schoolteachers and undergraduates.
Some members of the postwar board of directors died during the 1950s,
members who had initiated the transformation from family firm to its current
status, and it was hoped that Professor Mott would become a director, but he
had been appointed Cavendish Professor in 1954 and did not have the time to
be even more closely involved with the firm. Although not a director, his
editorial work helped him to initiate structural changes in management
techniques to improve effectiveness as the company grew.
In 1967, five years after his knighthood, Sir Nevill agreed to become a
director, and in 1970 he became chairman. During these years of his
membership of the board, the structures were strengthened which have
enabled the firm’s growth and development over the past thirty years, so that
Reminiscences and Appreciations
Taylor& Francis became recognised as a publisher, not as a printer who also
published. In the reorganisation of the 1940s, the board of directors had been
established with equal numbers of scientists and non-scientists. Sir Nevill
ensured this balance continued.
His retirement in 1975 did not indicate his withdrawal from the company
and its work. He was made Honorary President, a specially created post, and
remained a regular attender at board meetings until well into the 1980s. He
followed all the company’s activities closely and was a splendid ambassador
in all his activities. Letters, written in his own hand and frequently by return
of post, continued to arrive until a few days before his death.
Taylor&Francis owes much of its current success to the contribution made
by Sir Nevill Mott during fifty years of close association. Within the company,
he will long be remembered with affection for the personal interest he took in
everyone involved in the work, from his fellow directors to the newest
member of the office.
MRS E.FERGUSONis currently Chairman of the Board of Taylor&Francis. She is a
social scientist and statistician and daughter-in-law of Professor Allan Ferguson, a
former director of the company and editor of the Philosophical Magazine.
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