Katharine Perera, 1943-2016

An expert on children’s reading who was closely involved in the merger that created the University of Manchester has died

November 3, 2016
Obituary: Katharine Perera, 1943-2016

Katharine Perera was born near London on 12 December 1943. She studied English at what was then Bedford College, University of London and did Voluntary Service Overseas in Malaysia (1965-66).

It was there that she met her husband while he was refereeing a rugby match and he borrowed a pen from her.

She went on to teach English at a secondary school on Merseyside (1967-72) and then became a lecturer in English language, literature and linguistics at Padgate College of Higher Education (1973-76), acquiring an MA in linguistics from the Victoria University of Manchester along the way.

In 1977, Professor Perera joined the university herself as a lecturer in linguistics.

She was awarded a PhD in 1989 for a thesis on The development of prosodic features in children’s oral reading, promoted to senior lecturer in the same year and professor in 1991. She published a book on Children’s Reading and Writing: Analysing Classroom Language (1984) and served as editor of the Journal of Child Language (1986-96).

During this period, she also contributed to a report for the Department for Education and Science on the national school curriculum in English. This was then a highly contentious topic and one of Professor Perera’s recommendations read: “Children should write in standard English when appropriate.” She remained adamantly (and successfully) determined that it should be published in this form, despite a personal intervention by the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, arguing that the last two words should be removed.

After a successful academic career, Professor Perera was appointed pro vice-chancellor (1994) and then senior pro vice-chancellor (2000). She played a major role in the 2004 merger between the Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) that created today’s University of Manchester. She was particularly prominent in promoting equality and diversity, for example by helping lead the university’s submission to the Athena SWAN gender equity scheme.

“When I started as a very new lecturer in the early 1990s,” recalled Kersti Börjars, now professor of linguistics at Manchester, “Katharine was my official mentor. This was a role that she kept in an unofficial capacity until [a few weeks before she died].

“The only part of this that makes it unusual is the length of time Katharine functioned as my mentor. There are many, many people around the university, especially women, who would say that Katharine’s mentorship, official or unofficial, has made all the difference…[She always possessed] what one colleague described as ‘her enigmatic gift to make others feel special’.”

Professor Perera died of cancer on 1 October and is survived by her husband, Suria.


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