31st July 2009 at 01:00
Gerald Capper 1924-2009

"You are one of life's optimists," Gerald Capper was told by a schools inspector early on in his career. It was an assessment that would remain true throughout the rest of his life: he always believed that it was possible to fight injustice and poverty, and to bring out the best in children.

Mr Capper was born in 1924, the son of a Stoke-on-Trent headmaster. Teaching was viewed as something of a family business - both Gerald and his younger brother, Peter, followed their father into the profession.

When the Second World War broke out, Mr Capper was prevented from enlisting on health grounds: he had an eye condition that affected his vision. Instead, he enrolled in primary teacher training in Twickenham, south-west London.

Wartime staff shortages meant he worked where needed, so his first job was as a secondary teacher in Stoke, with classes of more than 40 teenagers. Not long after starting, school inspectors visited. Mr Capper was attempting to tutor final-year pupils in poetry, but their attention was already drifting. It was his valiant struggle to return their focus to schoolwork that earned him praise for his optimism.

Shortly afterwards, he transferred to a Catholic primary close by. Though Mr Capper was not a dogmatic Christian, he only worked in Catholic schools: he felt passionately that faith and charity should play a key role in school life.

And he was unequivocally opposed to corporal punishment: he believed in helping children, not suppressing them.

In 1961, he was appointed to his first headship, at a north Derbyshire primary. But the young head struggled to persuade his more established staff to spare the rod and focus on the whole child. In 1964, he applied for leadership of St Joseph's, a new primary opening in Dinnington, south Yorkshire. It was a chance, he believed, to run his own school on his own terms.

From the start, corporal punishment was outlawed at St Joseph's. And, decades before the introduction of the Every Child Matters agenda, Mr Capper pursued its principles. The role of the school, he believed, was to make a difference, academically and socially.

Mr Capper's poor eyesight meant he was unable to drive, but every Saturday he enlisted the help of his staff to deliver eggs, potatoes and cereal to his poorest pupils. And he worked with traveller families, setting up a local school for them and also helping to develop policy at national level.

St Joseph's served a small mining community, and many pupils had never ventured far. Mr Capper's wife, Mary, had a penfriend in the Netherlands, and he used this contact to establish an exchange scheme. Every year, a group of Dinnington 10-year-olds would visit Leidschendam, near the Hague, staying with Dutch families.

Mr Capper's desire to nurture talent also extended to staff. He tended to employ newly qualified teachers, deliberately seeking out those with artistic flair.

He also enjoyed starting what those who knew him politely refer to as "discussions". He would regularly wander into the staffroom, drop a one-sentence bombshell - "Today, the whole school is going to do art", for example - and leave others to sort it out.

He and Mary married in 1948 and had five children. He was a loving father, but his first commitment was always to pupils. He retired at the age of 58, after 20 years at St Joseph's Primary. Mary died in 1987, and Mr Capper subsequently married a family friend, also named Mary. They travelled extensively, particularly in Eastern Europe.

In recent years, he developed Parkinson's disease, which curtailed his travelling. Mr Capper had previously worked as education adviser for Hallam diocese; he now became increasingly involved in the church.

He died in June, aged 85, and Mary died two days later. But teaching remains the Capper family business: two of his five children now work in schools.

He is survived by his children: Adrian, Anne, Stephen, Margaret and Gerard.

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