Professor Margaret Snowling CBE, FBA, FMedSci
Doctor of Science
Wednesday 20 February 2019 - Orator: Professor Chris Jarrold
Maggie Snowling is a former Bristol student who, in common with many of our graduates, has gone on to great things. She is a psychologist with an international reputation for her work on children’s reading and language. In her current role, as President of St John’s College Oxford, she is now driving developments in higher education. However, as may be the case for many of our graduates today, her career path was far from obvious to her to begin with.
Maggie attended a school that was not particularly strong, and so obtained A-level grades that were not high enough for her to follow her ambition to study medicine. It was through clearing that Maggie came across psychology, became intrigued by the subject, and ended up accepting a place to study psychology at Bristol. She arrived here, as the first member of her family to go to university, in 1973. She enjoyed her time in Bristol, and it was in her studies of psychology that she really found her niche.
Some of the teaching that so inspired Maggie was a product of its time and differs from what we would be allowed to do now. For example, in her first practical class on the accuracy of eyewitness memories, one of the lecturers charged into the room brandishing a very convincing replica gun! Her tutor and project supervisor was David Routh who was known and loved by many of us on this stage. As Maggie notes, he was never the most organised lecturer, but had an infectious intellectual curiosity. It was at his instigation that Maggie approached her subsequent PhD supervisor at UCL, Uta Frith, who first suggested she work on dyslexia. As it happens, Maggie had experience of dyslexia within her family. She therefore took up this idea, setting much of the course for her later academic career.
Nevertheless, Maggie’s subsequent path to where she is today still contained many twists and turns. She spent the years following her PhD teaching on courses for speech therapy trainees. Driven by her desire to make a tangible difference in the world, Maggie trained to become a clinical psychologist. As a result of the placements required by this training, she discovered that her real interests still lay in research — specifically, in the study of atypical development and with a focus on seeking therapeutic interventions.
Maggie became principal of the West End School of Speech Therapy training, and then shortly afterwards accepted a Professorship at the University of Newcastle. A move to the University of York soon followed, where she spent 18 years doing much of the ground-breaking research that she is famous for.
This research focusses on children’s reading and language skills. Maggie is one of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of dyslexia. As such, she has played a key role in shaping our understanding of that condition as one that is typically underpinned by issues of encoding and representing speech sounds. However, she also works on intervention trials aimed at supporting individuals with language difficulties. Indeed, a key aspect of her approach is to marry a sophisticated theoretical analysis with practical interventions that seek to make a real difference to people’s lives.
As a result, her work has influenced the teaching of reading in schools across the UK. She was consulted when the Phonics Screening Test was introduced in 2012. She was also heavily involved in the Rose Review of Dyslexia which reported to government in 2009. Maggie’s impact has been recognised by a series of high-profile awards. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. In 2016 – around the time Maggie was visiting Bristol to celebrate 40 years since graduating – she was appointed a CBE for services to science and the understanding of dyslexia.
These achievements show Maggie’s outstanding academic skills and drive to deploy those for the bettering of both society and the individual. Her route to where she is now also demonstrates her persistence, independence and willingness to embrace opportunities. I think one can see the genesis of those skills in Maggie’s time in Bristol, and these have now led her to the highly responsible and prestigious job that she holds in Oxford, where she is the first female President of St John’s College in the 457 years of its history.
Another legacy of Maggie’s time at Bristol is her passion to ensure that everyone, from all backgrounds, has access to higher education. This is an agenda that she has pursued in her time at Oxford as Chair of the University’s Intercollegiate Equality and Diversity Forum. Although Maggie would describe herself as someone who has only recently become active in this area, her underlying passion for equality is visible throughout her whole career. Maggie’s skills and achievements are considerable. However, this commitment to equality of opportunity, which I know is shared by very many of our current students, resonates strongly with what we seek to achieve at the University of Bristol today.
Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Margaret J Snowling as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.