Obituary - Jane Tregoning, 1909-2009

8th January 2010 at 00:00

Despite a career spent delivering lessons to pupils, Jane Tregoning was never technically a teacher.

Mrs Tregoning was academically brilliant, dedicated to working with children and deeply convinced that education was the key to self-improvement. And yet background, class, sex and the educational authorities repeatedly stood in the way of her efforts to become a qualified teacher.

She was born Jane Parnell in 1909, the eldest of seven children of a Cornish tin miner. Despite her labouring background - her grandfather had been an illiterate fisherman - she grew up reading family copies of Shakespeare and Dickens, developing an innate cultural awareness and thirst for knowledge.

Traditionally, the top-scoring pupil in the district was presented with a university scholarship. But when Jane achieved top final-year results, the education authorities decided that this opportunity would be wasted on a girl. So the scholarship was instead awarded to the second-place pupil, a boy.

Jane's father was an unemployed miner: there was no spare cash with which to send his daughter to university. And so the 18-year-old began working as a teacher in her former primary. This was followed by a further 11 years spent teaching in nearby Cornish schools.

While teaching, she continued to learn: she undertook specialist courses in arts and crafts, PE and music, all intended to help in her work with primary pupils.

She did also consider obtaining official teacher certification. But, in the 1930s, teacher status was only conferred on those women who pledged to remain unmarried. She refused to submit to this, choosing unqualified status over lifelong spinsterhood.

Her decision was validated in 1938, when she married Vivian Angwin Tregoning, a Cornishman born on the same street as her. Vivian had failed his 11-plus and gone to work in a tin mine; later, he attended night school and qualified as an architect.

During the war, he was drafted into the RAF in Buckinghamshire. The couple therefore moved to Aylesbury, where their two daughters, Angela and Janet, were born.

There, Mrs Tregoning began to work, first as a supply teacher, and later on short-term contracts. When the family moved to Winchester, she took up work in a local special school, relishing the opportunity to make a visible difference to pupils' lives. A devout Methodist, she drew on the church's principles and ideals throughout her career.

In the early 1950s, she once again applied for formal certification. But when she asked her former college in Truro for proof that she had undertaken courses there, she found that the college had been closed, its documents lost. Once again, her attempts to obtain official recognition for the job she had been doing for decades were thwarted.

Others might have become frustrated or resentful. But Mrs Tregoning lacked any sense of entitlement: people from fishing and mining families, she believed, did not get what they wanted in life.

Despite bitter experience, her idealism remained undented, and her belief in the transformative power of education was passed on, untarnished, to later generations. Indeed, both her daughters ultimately became teachers. When her grandson recently won a scholarship to Winchester College, his grandmother was delighted: she wove a tapestry of the school to celebrate his achievement.

Significant moments in Tregoning family life were often marked with such tapestries. Drafted by her husband, these were detailed tributes to people, places and events. Alternatively, she would craft intricate rag dolls, dressed in perfect Victorian costume.

"I'm losing my marbles," she would regularly complain in later years. But, in fact, her intellect remained undiminished. She had a remarkable capacity to retain information: for example, a longstanding interest in botany resulted in a knowledge of the names and potential uses of almost every plant and flower she came across.

In retirement, she and Vivian had returned to Cornwall. He died in 1998; she continued to live on her own until she was 97. She died in October, at the age of 100. Jane Tregoning is survived by two daughters and four grandchildren.

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