Obituary - Clare Critchley 1958-2012

Irena Barker

Clare Critchley was the kind of headteacher who rolled up her sleeves and got stuck in. However hard the challenges she faced, she would persevere, putting in countless hours until things came right.

It was this resilient character and willingness to get her hands dirty that helped her to turn around the fortunes of the village school where she took up her first headship.

Fritwell CofE Primary School, near Bicester, Oxfordshire, was struggling after the sudden departure of its head when Ms Critchley stepped up in 2000. Over the next seven years she worked tirelessly to position the school at the heart of village life and oversaw major building works.

She worked hard to improve teaching quality, too, dealing with teacher performance in a caring and considerate way. The school was eventually given an outstanding rating, one of the high points of her career and a great moment of pride. This was only one of many achievements in a life filled with action, adventure and devotion to children and education.

Born in 1958 in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, Ms Critchley did her teacher training at the College of Ripon and York St John (now York St John University), where she met her husband, Ian, in 1977. Teaching was in her blood - her grandfather had been a headmaster and her grandmother a teacher - and she found her calling early.

She went on to teach at schools in Essex, Stratford-upon-Avon and Beaconsfield, before becoming head at Fritwell. In 2007, Ms Critchley took up a headship at the larger Southwold School in Bicester.

Alongside teaching, she was a very enthusiastic scuba-diver, a hobby she shared with her husband. Her most exciting scuba adventure was in 1990, when she took part in a mission to map the famous SS Thistlegorm wreck in the Red Sea. Her last dive, in March 2010, was among manta rays in the Maldives. She also dived in the murky waters of the UK - even agreeing to clean out a canal lock "as a favour" despite zero visibility and icy waters.

Her passion for scuba-diving was such that she once surprised pupils by turning up to school assembly in her frogman outfit - it took them some time to realise it was their headteacher in the wetsuit and breathing apparatus.

She was also a fan of skiing and exotic travel - and like many teachers she found inspiration for her work in interesting places. On a trip to the island of St Lucia, she stopped to photograph schoolchildren on their way to school in order to show pupils back home how their counterparts in the Caribbean lived.

Her energy and perseverance stayed with her until the end of her life. She was forced to retire in February 2011 after the ovarian cancer she had beaten twice, in 2006 and 2009, returned. But the 54-year-old was still helping to organise the local church fete and working as a governor at nearby Chesterton CofE Primary School until two weeks before her death.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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