In Memorium

Professor David Sugden (1945-2019)

Emeritus Professor David Sugden, former Professor of Special Needs in Education in the School of Education, and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor, died on 13 March.

David was born and educated in South Yorkshire.  After three years at Loughborough, he became a Sports Master at Dunsmore School for Boys in Rugby (now Ashlawn School).  A keen sportsman throughout his life, David expected all of his pupils to play a full and active part in school and local teams.  He himself played rugby for Rugby.

In 1970, David moved to the USA to study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he graduated with a BSc, an MSc and – after an interlude teaching at St Mary’s College of Education, in Twickenham – a PhD.  His academic interests were by then focused firmly on children with learning difficulties, in particular on children with difficulties in motor skills.  During his time in California, he worked in a variety of schools and clinics, and alongside therapists from the Martin Luther King Hospital, with children who were experiencing learning or movement difficulties, visual disorders, and behavioural issues.  He also worked with children on different points of the autism spectrum.  Throughout this time, David continued to play competitive rugby, and he also established and coached the first women’s Rugby Union team in California, at UCLA.

In 1977, David was appointed Lecturer in Physical Education at Leeds.  He moved to the School of Education in 1981, and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1985, to a Readership in Motor Development and Impairment in 1991, and to a developmental Chair in Special Needs in Education in 1992.

David’s research focused almost exclusively upon children, in particular the acquisition or the performance of motor skills in children with and without disabilities. His work included the examination of atypical groups such as children with cerebral palsy and those with developmental coordination disorder. From the outset, his work crossed disciplinary boundaries. He published over 120 academic articles in educational, psychological and paediatric journals, and wrote extensively for both paramedical and educational literature. Publications of particular note include the Movement Assessment Battery for Children (the first and second editions of which he was co-author) and the accompanying Ecological Intervention for Children with Movement Difficulties, together with books on motor development and impairment. He was a member of numerous academic bodies, including the BPS, ACPP, NASPSPA, NASEN, PEAUK, and was a Chartered Psychologist and Fellow of the International Academy for Research into Learning Disabilities; an International Fellow of Kinesiology; and a Fellow of the British Physical Education Association.

David’s research always fed directly into his teaching and supervision. He was an inspiring teacher, whose energy and passion for his subject were infectious, and was particularly in demand for his mastership courses on children with movement skill difficulties and those on generic aspects of special educational needs. He also used his deep subject knowledge and broad experience to inform keynote addresses and workshops in the UK, the US and Europe.

Always formidably productive in both teaching and research, David also quickly developed a reputation for leadership.  He was Dean of the Faculty of Education from 1992 to 1994, and then Chair of the School of Education from 1995 to 1998.  Appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor in 1998, David proved himself over the next six years a calm and indispensable trouble-shooter and manager of change.  His held the Staff and Students portfolio, and his other responsibilities as Pro-Vice-Chancellor included culture, the strategic direction of the Medical School – he even had a short spell as Acting Dean of Medicine – and introducing new arrangements for health and safety.  David’s values were collegial, his initial instinct being to negotiate and to persuade, but he had grit, and stood no nonsense.  This was a quality which was to serve him well when he led the innovative and complex merger with Bretton Hall, of which he was to become Acting Principal for its final independent year (2000-01).  One of his first acts there was to dispense with the Principal’s Range Rover, a move which clearly signalled a new regime;  and he won much respect for his candid and principled engagement with the Bretton staff during a difficult period for that institution. 

He was an accomplished public speaker, and was particularly effective, for example, in addressing graduands and empathising with parents when presiding at University degree ceremonies.  His family often featured in his speeches, and he was delighted to be presiding in the Great Hall when his own daughter graduated.

Towards the end of his tenure as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, David was asked to assume perhaps the University’s ultimate interim role, as Acting Vice-Chancellor, to provide leadership during a four-month interregnum in 2004.   That period included a memorable recital by Murray Perahia which David helped to mastermind to mark the restoration of the Clothworkers’ Concert Hall.

David was devoted to the University and took real satisfaction in helping it, even after he completed his last University office, as Dean of the Faculty of Education, Social Studies and Law.  His acute talent for sizing up people and situations, and his ability to express in clear language highly nuanced ideas and opinions, made him much in demand, for serving on University boards, panels, and committees, in which capacity he particularly enjoyed unpicking and resolving the knottier problems faced by the institution.

David retired in 2010, and there was a Festschrift in his honour in October of that year. His research and teaching continued, however, as did his close involvement with many other aspects of University life.  His broad commitment to education was also reflected in his work as a school governor, most recently for the Grammar School at Leeds.

David was passionate about his work and had a genuinely international academic reputation. He was also a remarkably warm and generous man, with an often irreverent sense of humour and a keen sense of fair play, who enjoyed making time to encourage and develop junior colleagues. He will be sorely missed by former students and colleagues alike.

A private funeral is being held on 3 April – on which day the University flag will be flown at half-mast in David’s memory – and a University memorial service is to be arranged