Irene Schwab obituary

My mother, Irene Schwab, was an archaeologist, academic and teacher who was committed to radical leftwing projects.

Born in Colindale, north London, she was the middle child of Mia (nee Hirschberg) and Peter Schwab, Jewish refugees who fled Germany in the 1930s and became co-directors of a small costume jewellery business in London. After attending Copthall County grammar school in Barnet, Irene studied archaeology at Birmingham University. She went on to excavate sites in Southwark, Orkney and the Middle East, and later led the Inner London Archaeology Unit.

In the 80s she shifted careers to run literacy classes at Centerprise, a pioneering community centre, bookshop and publishing house in Dalston, east London. Most students in the Hackney Reading Centre at Centerprise were African-Caribbean, and Irene encouraged them to write and publish in their own voice and language.

She recalled in a 2017 oral history of Centerprise encouraging students to think “about varieties of English [as] not being bad or broken, but just different, and that it’s OK to write in the language you speak, whether that’s creole [or] cockney”.

During this period she co-wrote Language and Power with Roxy Harris and Lucy Whitman as part of the Afro-Caribbean Language and Literacy Project set up by the Inner London Education Authority. A collection of learning materials, it encouraged its readers to relish the creative power of non-standard varieties of English and their social and historical contexts.

In 1985 Irene gave birth to twins, Alexei and me, fathered by the Marxist activist and translator Ed Emery. Irene raised us independently, supported by her community of feminist friends.

Then in the 90s came adult literacy teaching at City and Islington College. In 2003 she moved from teacher to trainer, co-developing a postgraduate course for literacy teachers at the Institute of Education. Further co-authored or co-edited books followed, including Teaching Adult Literacy (2010) and Training to Teach Adults English (2015).

For a doctorate in education at University College London (2017), she completed a thesis considering how literacy teachers’ initial theoretical training prepared them for the messy realities of the classroom.

Outside work, Irene completed a fine art degree at Middlesex University during the late 90s. She also volunteered with the Red Cross international family tracing team, the same organisation that had helped her family leave Germany. She walked and travelled extensively, including trips to the former USSR and Antarctica.

She is survived by Alexei and me, her grandchildren, Rosa and Emil, and by her siblings, Susan and Stephen.