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Obituary - David Saunders - 1939-2010

David Saunders was a natural wordsmith. There was no language he could not learn, no point of grammar he failed to master. Indeed, it may have been his attunement to the subtleties of speech that enabled him to establish quickly and effectively exactly how failing schools needed to improve.

David Saunders was born in January 1939, into a working-class family. He was a consistently studious child, and was eventually accepted to Trinity College, Cambridge to read medieval languages.

While improving his Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, he also set about improving himself: by the time he graduated there was little trace of his working-class accent left.

Languages were a talent, but also a passion. He spoke French and German so fluently that native speakers often mistook him for one of their own. But he also collected other, more obscure languages: he spoke Dutch, for example, as well as Arabic.

He was, friends said, a "language sponge". When war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, he was drafted in by the naval reserves, who instructed him to learn Serbo-Croat and then teach it to British servicemen. This proved surprisingly useful during his retirement years, when he was able to astonish Croatian hoteliers by speaking to them in their own language.

It was the opportunity to work with languages that drew him to teaching. In 1961, he was appointed German and French teacher at the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe; in 1965, he moved to Coventry to take up a post as head of languages. His first headship, at Brunner School in Cleveland, followed five years later.

Then, in 1977, he arrived at Deer Park School in Gloucestershire. He immediately announced his decision to improve performing arts facilities: schools, he said, would one day be judged not merely by exam results, but also by their cultural provision for pupils.

This was a natural decision for him: along with a love of foreign languages, he had a keen appreciation of the value of word-play and public speaking. Each morning, he would work his way through The Times crossword. And he could recite hundreds of limericks off by heart.

The Saunders Arts Centre was opened shortly before he retired in 1991. But, he said, he planned to be "anything but inactive" in retirement; soon afterwards he began inspecting schools for Ofsted. This role, he hoped, would enable him to help struggling teachers in a range of schools; he found it inevitably frustrating that they tended to respond to his visit with barely disguised fear.

During this period, he was also parachuted into a number of failing schools as interim head. These included Lilian Baylis Technology School in south London, where he responded to the stress by taking up smoking again.

Indeed, while he relished the outcome of such headships, he found the work increasingly tiring. In private life, he was notably sensitive: when a close friend died, he spent a long time staring at the empty seat at the dinner table, a single tear rolling down his cheek. But in school, he never allowed himself such emotion. His role was to be strong and decisive; he was not unknown to insist on the dismissal of teachers he felt were not quite good enough.

Eventually, tired of the travel involved in such headships, he took a job with Cambridge Education, correcting Ofsted reports. This, it turned out, was no less taxing in some ways: he became increasingly irritated by inspectors' - including former English teachers' - inability to write grammatically accurate reports.

But it did allow him increased time to spend at home. In 1961, he had married his childhood sweetheart, and they subsequently had three children, Tom, David and Isobel. After his divorce, in 1997, Mr Saunders moved to King's Lynn to be with his new partner; they were together for 10 years.

In Norfolk, he was a regular at his local pub quiz, single-handedly ensuring that his team always came first or second. Geography was his particular speciality: "They have no geography!" he would moan at the TV, whenever quiz-show contestants stumbled over such questions.

He had been relaxing at home when he suffered a massive haemorrhage in October. He collapsed while in the shower, preparing for dinner with friends. Doctors were unable to save him.

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