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Obituary - Roger Simper, 1943-2009

Roger Simper knew as much about most academic subjects as the people who taught them. But the Leicestershire headteacher never boasted about his knowledge, preferring to let others speak. Nonetheless, anything he said was always worth hearing: he had a talent for the pithy phrase, and bequeathed his successor a range of school-based aphorisms.

Mr Simper was born in the Norfolk town of North Walsham in 1943. As a schoolboy, he befriended fellow North Walsham pupil and eventual Conservative education secretary Gillian Shephard: he accompaned her on the piano when she sang.

He went on to study economics at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, then trained as a maths teacher at the Institute of Education, London. He had always wanted to teach - he believed deeply in the need to improve pupils' lives. "There are no problem children," he later said, "only children trying to solve problems."

His career began in Birmingham, and he was soon appointed head of maths at Bishop Challoner Secondary School. He then moved to Richard Aldworth comprehensive in Basingstoke, initially as head of maths and later as senior teacher.

But he was more polymath than maths teacher: his interests stretched to music and literature, and he regularly directed drama productions.

Mr Simper had an unusual ability to retain information: colleagues could recite a line of poetry to him and he would instantly be able to tell them its source. Fellow heads of department regularly found that he knew more about their subjects than they did.

But he also applied his logician's mind to more practical school issues. "Problems aren't problems," he said. "They're things to solve."

In particular, he developed an interest in timetabling. The best school timetable, he believed, was compiled only after extensive staffroom consultation and discussion. That way, it would reflect the direction the school would be going in over the forthcoming year. His book, Practical Guide to Timetabling, was published in 1980 and remains the standard work on the subject.

In 1981, Mr Simper was appointed head of Abington High School. A profoundly original thinker, he used his new position to introduce a number of measures that would not become widespread for more than 20 years.

So Abington pupils in the 1980s benefited from the type of cross-curricular work mandated by the Government in its curriculum 2008. He also introduced one-to-one tuition for underachieving pupils. And, realising the importance of environmental awareness, he began to promote green issues in the early 1980s, building a garden, pond and wildlife area within school grounds.

He also encouraged originality in others. Staff were challenged to come up with their own ideas, however off-beat. Mr Simper would listen quietly, and then try out each suggestion, determining what worked best. "You can't change people," he would say. "But you need to recognise their strengths and weaknesses."

His belief in consensus and co-operation was also appreciated more widely: in the late 1980s, he was appointed chairman of the Leicestershire branch of the Secondary Heads' Association. And he helped to develop a funding formula for Leicestershire Council. "Get the basics right," he said, "and the pupils benefit."

Mr Simper was naturally modest, preferring to highlight others' achievements than to boast about his own. It was only in later years, for example, that colleagues discovered that he had represented Cambridge at cricket. But this was not a reticence born of shyness: he happily danced on stage in top hat and tails as part of a fundraising assembly.

His devotion to his job left little time for hobbies outside school. But, on retirement in 1995, he realised a long-held ambition to walk across England, from North Walsham to north Oxfordshire. And, following years of short-story writing, he began work on a novel.

Nonetheless, he retained an interest in education. His wife, Susan, worked as an education consultant in Stoke, and Mr Simper advised the council on timetabling and curriculum development.

In November last year he was diagnosed with a degenerative heart condition. Attempts to arrange a transplant failed, and he died at home on October 11. He was 66 years old.

Mr Simper is survived by his wife, and his children Matthew and Rebecca.

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