25th September 2009 at 01:00
Gill Carey 1960-2009

"Hello gorgeous!" These words, echoing down school corridors, inevitably announced the appearance of Gill Carey. Better known as "Scary Carey", the head of Northern House Special School had, as everyone who worked with her agreed, an uncanny ability to relate to children.

Born in Anglesey in 1960, Mrs Carey was fascinated from an early age by emotional and behavioural problems. Her career choice was never in doubt: her degree, from City and Liverpool College of Higher Education, was in education of the mentally handicapped. After graduation, she worked at a hospital school for six years before being appointed to a teaching post at Northern House in Oxford. It immediately became obvious that she had a natural talent for knowing what each child needed.

Her work was her life: she needed no other interests. When she married, it was to Joe, a psychiatric nurse who shared her fascination with mental health. Although she valued time with Joe and their children, she regularly arrived at school on Monday with the words: "I've had a thought ... ". In fact, she had usually had several.

In 1996, she was promoted to deputy head. Regularly sent to intervene in difficult behavioural situations, she began to deploy her "sergeant-major voice", a high-decibel bark that silenced everyone around her. It was at this point that she acquired the "Scary Carey" nickname that would be passed down through successive year-groups of pupils.

Three years later, she developed a rare cancer of the pelvis, and when the headship became vacant it was felt she was too ill to take on the job. However, in 2005 the school was unexpectedly left headless and Mrs Carey stepped in. She was appointed full-time headteacher.

As head, her ability to put special-needs pupils at their ease became even more valuable. Many had been repeatedly excluded from mainstream schools and would attend their admissions meeting chin on chest, refusing to make eye contact.

Mrs Carey would greet them with an arm outstretched, insisting on meeting their eye. By the time they left her office, most were laughing and asking whether they could start at Northern House that afternoon.

She welcomed change, enthusiastically piloting a range of new schemes. A programme to admit Year 1 children ensured that behavioural problems could be tackled before they led to a downward spiral of exclusions. And she established a group to enable isolated parents to communicate with one another.

A 2008 Ofsted inspection called her "charismatic". Staff demurred: "We just called her gobby", a colleague said. Her dirty laugh could be heard from distant corridors.

When she won the 2009 Teaching Award for southern England primary head of the year, a Radio Oxford DJ described her as "the Angelina Jolie of Northern House". She responded by pinning a picture of the award-winning actress to her office door.

This door was never closed. Whether staff were looking for help with a troublesome child or advice with a personal problem, Mrs Carey always had advice to offer.

They often found her sitting behind a row of tea cups, their contents languishing at varying degrees of tepidity. Pupils who behaved well were allowed to make her a cup of tea and she could never bring herself to refuse.

After years of chemotherapy and radiotherapy - inevitably on a Friday, enabling her to return to school on Monday morning - doctors told her that the treatment was ineffective.

But, numbing herself with increasing amounts of morphine, she was determined to see out the end of the summer term. With characteristic tidiness, she died on August 31, the final day of the school year.

Gill Carey is survived by her husband, Joe, and her children Katie and William.

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