8th May 2009 at 01:00
Phil Smith 1964-2009

As a pupil, he was a punk-rocker rebel. Thirty years later, as a headteacher, Phil Smith was still challenging the system.

Smith, who died in April, spent his career acquiring a reputation for forthrightness, unwillingness to sit in an office and impatience with tedious meetings.

Born in 1964, he was the son of missionary doctors serving in north India. Theirs was not a life of rarefied expat compounds. Instead, young Phil learnt to take a keen interest in the local community.

When his parents moved jobs, they sent their sons to boarding school in England. There, Smith became a punk-rocker, testing the boundaries of his private school world.

He studied art at Bristol University, then trained as a teacher. While at university, he met Louise, also a trainee teacher. They married shortly afterwards and had two children, Finola and Anthony.

After a year teaching in Burton-on-Trent, Smith's desire for adventure took his young family to Bangkok, where he and Louise worked at the international school.

But the ensuing four years offered more adventure than he had anticipated. While in Bangkok, his marriage broke down. He then met Jane Campbell, a fellow teacher who would become his second wife.

In 1995, they returned to England and Smith took up a deputy headship in Sussex. In 1998, he and Jane had a son, Hamish; a daughter, Ishbel, followed in 2001.

Initially, he had no headship ambitions: he wanted to be in the classroom. But he gradually concluded that he could serve pupils better if he were running a school.

So, in 2002, he became head of Carlton Hill Primary in Brighton. It was a challenging school, rife with poverty and misbehaviour. But leafy suburbs held no appeal for Smith; he preferred working with the underdogs. His role, he believed, was to ensure that no child felt rejected by school

"Just be you," he told his pupils, and he lived by that philosophy himself.

He had no time for the well-intentioned meanderings of local authority meetings, and regularly played the naughty schoolboy. Once, he stood up and declared: "Do you have anything more to say? If not, I'm going to pick my children up from school." This willingness to speak his mind endeared him to colleagues; he was only saying what they all thought.

He continued to listen to pupils. Instead of sitting aloof in an office, he was always in classrooms, reading stories or playing games. Assemblies were not about lecturing pupils - they were an opportunity for two-way debate. In fact, assemblies were his great love. They were a chance to share his life with pupils, to talk about his children and his travels. Out with family, he would regularly be greeted by pupils exclaiming: "Oh! It's Hamish and Ishbel!"

By 2006, Carlton Hill was among the top-performing primaries in Brighton, and Smith was looking for new challenges. So he left to lead Discovery Primary in Greenwich in south-east London, an extended school being built from scratch. Discovery was in a deprived area near the Olympic site. Smith embraced the planning involved, keen that his pupils should not also be deprived of the best school facilities.

During the inevitable office-bound hours that ensued, he constantly listened to music. It was his relaxation, and he would regularly sit up late, strumming his bass guitar. He also cooked to relax, to the delight of Jane. True to form, he had no time for recipes: following instructions was "nonsense", he said.

On March 12, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. But he refused to allow doctors to give him a timeframe: he wanted to focus on living, not dying. Five weeks later, not long before his 45th birthday, his heart gave out as he sat in the sunshine.

He was buried in a churchyard corner, with the down-and-outs and the drunks. The man who had championed the underdog in life would also lie with them in death.

He is survived by his wife and four children.

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