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Christabel Burniston

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Founder of the English Speaking Board (ESB), Christabel Burniston died on October 27, aged 97.

ESB pioneered a radical new approach to oral skills. One-to-one elocution lessons and exams seemed old hat and elitist in post war Britain. Burniston’s vision was for children to develop and be tested on speaking and listening skills in a supportive group. She anticipated the GCSE and National Curriculum approach to speaking and listening by more than 40 years.

When Burniston was interviewed on Woman’s Hour in 2001, in connection with her nonagenarian first novel The Brass and the Velvet, presenter Jenni Murray greeted the tiny but feisty lady with a big hug. “I’ve always wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Without you I probably wouldn’t be doing this job today,” she said.

Murray’s reaction was typical. Thousands in the performing arts and broadcasting industry believe that the ESB, which Burniston started in 1953, taught them the basics of good oral communication, developed their confidence and indirectly, launched their career.

At first ESB worked mainly in mainstream primary and secondary schools. It trained teachers and examiners so that real learning was embedded for participating children.

Today Burniston’s legacy is that ESB operates in the whole social and education spectrum, including state and independent schools, vocational colleges, the business world, special needs and prisons. Increasingly, both in the UK and abroad, it also serves the needs of second language users of English.

Born in Leeds in 1909, Sarah Elizabeth Christabel Hyde was the youngest of four sisters born to a musically inclined father and literature loving mother with radical political views. It was a liberal upbringing – vividly described in Burniston’s autobiography Life in a Liberty Bodice (1991) – in which conversation, literature, drama and music were as natural as breathing.

After qualifying as a teacher she taught at Cheadle Hulme School in Cheshire for five years and then, after the war, became county drama organiser for Lancashire, having earlier married Stanley Burniston and given birth to a daughter. In 1950, after the collapse of her marriage and a bout of illness, she started her own drama school, the North West School of Speech and Drama. ESB followed three years later.

Burniston was a council member of the Society of Teachers of Speech and Drama from 1947 to 1991. She also adjudicated for the British Federation of Festivals (formerly British Federation of Music Dance and Drama). Ever energetic, she covered most of the UK and Northern Ireland festivals and was renowned for single-minded indefatigability and sensitive judgement.

At the same time she was external examiner in spoken English at the Education Institute of the Universities of Aberdeen, Cambridge, Durham, Leicester, Newcastle and Nottingham. She also undertook lecturing, examining and adjudicating tours to Hong Kong, Egypt, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. She wrote many handbooks on oral communication.

Made MBE for services to education in 1978, Burniston’s later years were spent in Cheltenham as president of ESB rather than director. There, with the support of Jocelyn Bell, her professional colleague and personal companion, she never stopped promoting ESB.

Burniston is survived by her daughter Elizabeth Macfarlane, drama teacher and actor and four grandchildren, one of whom is a student at LAMDA.

Susan Elkin

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