Obituary - Debbie Magill

21st May 2010 at 01:00


Debbie Magill was a product of the 1970s. Clad in dungarees, she campaigned for nuclear disarmament, founded consciousness-raising groups and helped disaffected teenagers to extend their ambitions.

But she was also not afraid of sacking headteachers, stopping meetings midway to highlight participants' personal agendas, and teaching Afghan tribesmen the Hokey Cokey.

Born in Scotland in 1952, she moved to Bristol at the age of three. The youngest of three children, she often felt overlooked by her parents, and quickly developed a competence beyond her years. By the time she was a teenager, her older brother and sister were turning to her for advice.

It was this combination of circumstances that led to her early interest in feminism. She recognised what it was to be undervalued, but also felt certain that there was something she could do about it.

She studied English at Portsmouth University and trained to be a teacher immediately afterwards. Her degree, she felt, put her in a position of privilege, so it was her responsibility to give something back to society.

But before she did, she and two friends set off on an 18-month trip, travelling overland from Greece to Japan. In Afghanistan, they stopped off for a meal with a hill tribe. When elders requested that they perform the English national dance, the women responded by putting their left legs in and shaking them all about.

On her return, she took a job at the Cotswold Community, a therapeutic centre for adolescent boys. She gravitated naturally towards what she called "the naughty corner": however troubled pupils were, she saw value in them.

She had married FE lecturer Nigel Gaymer and they went on to have three children: Sarah, Ben and Eleanor. While Ms Magill took time off school to raise them, she continued her activism work. Committed to non-violence, she set up a peace group with other young mothers: at the age of two, Sarah was already singing "Give Peace a Chance". They also organised street-theatre demonstrations, posing in dungarees and face make-up, while children crawled at their feet.

And she ran assertiveness-training courses for women, teaching them how to impress in interviews and during meetings. She was particularly skilled at the latter: when unspoken agendas began to dominate meetings, she would inevitably stop proceedings and announce, "I'm going to tell you what I think is really going on here."

In 1990, she returned to teaching, as careers co-ordinator at Priory School, Weston-super-Mare. Here, she was determined to show female pupils all the opportunities open to them.

But she was also eager to paint on ever-bigger canvases, progressing to larger and larger schools. By the end of the decade, she was deputy head of Bristol's Withywood school.

Then, in 1999, she was appointed senior secondary adviser for North Somerset. Four years later, she was made assistant director, and in January 2005 she became deputy director for education at Devon County Council.

She did not shy away from difficult tasks: she was regularly forced into confrontations with parents, teachers and union representatives, arguing for the closure or amalgamation of a school. But her opponents respected her: she was inevitably honest and shunned wheeling and dealing in favour of straightforward talk.

And she was not exempt from her own commitment to rationalisation and reorganisation. In Devon, she developed a strategic vision for the council that ultimately made her own post redundant.

Her first marriage had ended in 1998, and she later married Malcolm Brown, a fellow teacher at Priory. He introduced her to a range of outdoor pursuits, including hill-walking, sailing and surfing. "Putting on a wetsuit is like putting on a romper and wellies when you're a kid," she said. "You can just roll around, and it doesn't matter."

But she was not content simply with these pursuits. After early retirement in 2007, she wanted to set up a successful business - this was something she had not done yet. So she established Transform Training, delivering emotional intelligence lessons to school leaders. The business had just taken off when Ms Magill was diagnosed with advanced cancer in August last year.

Throughout her life, she had always sought greater and greater challenges. Cancer, she said now, was simply the next big job to tackle. She died in April, aged 58.

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