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Serving them all my days

Being 94 won't stop teaching assistant Jim Clarke from nurturing children's literacy skills. Roger Bushby reports

It's a fair bet to say Jim Clarke is one of Britain's most experienced teaching assistants - and at the age of 94 almost certainly the oldest.

For the past 22 years, since his wife Evelyn died, the man who flew Halifax bombers in the Second World War has been holding reading sessions at Willowbrook primary school in Thurnby Lodge, Leicestershire.

Every morning he drives to the village school to do his unpaid two-hour session in either one-to-one or group reading.

"Coming to school keeps me young and I get that extra bit of satisfaction helping the children with their reading," said Mr Clarke, a former civil servant.

He worked in the now defunct Ministry of National Insurance in London and wanted "something to do" when he retired.

"This came up and I've been doing it ever since," said Mr Clarke, who is now as familiar with the characters from Meg and Mog and The Very Hungry Caterpillar as he once used to be with the ins and outs of sick pay and pension arrangements.

"It's lovely when the children are asked who wants to read with me and all their hands shoot up," he said.

Mr Clarke certainly gets a five-star rating from his pupils.

"I always have a great time reading with him," said six-year-old Brandon Holland. Kallie McManus, another six-year-old, said: "He's kind and it makes reading fun."

It is a long time since Mr Clarke heard Sonika Sunderji read. She is now 10 years old and in Year 6.

"I remember he used to write lovely things in my exercise book," she recalled. "He really helped me by sounding out all the words."

Kirk Hales, headteacher at Willowbrook, said: "Everyone loves Jim. He's prepared to give up his time for the benefit of the children. He's amazing - and a great role model.

"He gets a bit short of breath at times and his hearing is not what it used to be - but he puts his hearing-aid in and he's fine."

Mr Hales added: "Don't be fooled - Jim is good and really helps the children.

"He comes in at about 10am and sits in the library area, and reads to the infants until lunchtime.

"He is definitely our most experienced assistant - the more people like Jim we can introduce to the children, the better."

School is not quite enough to fill up Mr Clarke's retirement. He is also very keen on playing bowls, and is the oldest member of Leicester's male voice choir.

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