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Obituary - Janet Denovan 1955-2009

When her church set up a music group, Janet Denovan was among the first to volunteer.

"But you don't play any instrument," the organiser protested.

"Yes," Mrs Denovan said. "But I want to help."

This was entirely in character. During her 34-year career, there was nothing that the primary headteacher was not willing to volunteer for, from serenading staff members at karaoke to swinging from a flying trapeze.

Janet Ibbotson was born in Scunthorpe in 1955. The daughter of a steelworker and a school cook, hers was not an educated background. But, encouraged by primary teachers, 11-year-old Janet earned a place at the local grammar school.

She did not forget what those teachers had done for her. From that moment on, she was determined to become a primary teacher, inspiring pupils as she had been inspired.

So, after graduating from Nene College in Northampton, she returned to Scunthorpe as a teacher at Bottesford Junior School. Five new teachers began that September, including a young graduate called David Denovan. The pair began playing squash and drinking together; they married in 1981.

With the birth of their first son, Gareth, in 1983, Mrs Denovan gave up work. Owen followed two years later. But her spell as a stay-at-home mother did not last long: she missed school far too much.

So she returned to the classroom and within a few years was appointed deputy head of Lincoln Gardens Infants. By the early 1990s, she had progressed to her first headship, at East Halton Primary, a 60-pupil village school. Within two years, she had returned to Lincoln Gardens, this time as head. Finally, in 2003, Mrs Denovan moved on to lead nearby Barton St Peter's CofE Primary.

Many of her pupils came from disadvantaged backgrounds: some were in care, others the children of drug addicts. A committed Christian, Mrs Denovan keenly believed that her role was to create a welcoming, family environment for these pupils.

And she imposed no limits on this. When one looked-after boy ran into difficulties with his foster family, she suggested to David that they adopt him. Her husband demurred; instead, she installed a chair in her office for the boy, so that he could talk to her whenever he wanted.

Similarly, she insisted on being part of everything that went on in school. "We're all in this together," she would say, as she drove sick staff members home, or accompanied pupils on youth-hostelling weekends away.

She did not believe that field trips should be limited to pupils: she would regularly take teachers for dinners or spa days, participating in both activities with relish. And her rendition of Simply The Best became a standard feature of karaoke evenings.

Alternatively, she would suggest staff shopping days in Hull. Shopping was a particular speciality: she loved the challenge of matching clothes, beads, scarf, handbag and shoes. She was equally skilled at hiding the evidence: new purchases would sit in her car until David had left the house.

But her willingness to volunteer was rarely dictated by ability. On one weekend away, she watched as pupils learnt a succession of circus skills. "Are you scared to have a go?" the trapeze artist challenged. In response, Mrs Denovan shimmied up the ladder, caught the trapeze and leapt off.

"Right! I've done it," she told the children, after dismounting. "Never again," she added, sotto voce, to staff.

On another occasion, she drove past a group of runners preparing for a 10km race. On a whim, she went home, changed her clothes, and joined in. Nine kilometres later, aching and winded, she refused to give up. "Wasn't I silly?" was her only comment later.

In fact, she was an enthusiastic sportswoman: she established football and rugby teams at several schools, and consistently impressed fellow heads with her competitiveness on the pitch.

To know her was to see life embraced at every opportunity. So her sudden descent into illness was entirely unexpected: she contracted a virus of the throat in October. By December, she was speaking and swallowing through a tube. After a lifetime of opting in, illness gave her no choice: she died before Christmas, aged 54.

Janet Denovan is survived by her husband, David, and their two sons.

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