Obituary - Patrick Short, 1942-2010

3rd September 2010 at 01:00

Patrick Short's career in education was, in many ways, the result of accident and fortuity. But it was also a meeting of man and vocation: the experiences of his own life enabled him intuitively to provide troubled pupils with the support they needed.

Patrick Short was born in March 1942, the third in a family of eight. In 1944, his father, a prison chaplain, was posted to the Isle of Wight. That year, two-year-old Patrick sat on his father's shoulders and watched Portsmouth being bombed; later, he was taught to ride a Great Dane by German prisoners of war.

The family eventually moved to the Lake District, where Patrick spent most of his childhood. Naturally bright, he infuriated his teachers by achieving consistently high results with minimal effort. He annoyed them further by refusing to go to university, instead enrolling in officers' training college at Sandhurst.

Invalided out, he then embarked on a career in sales. But he quickly found that the work conflicted with his Christian principles. Disgusted by the unfair dismissal of a colleague, he marched into the manager's office, handed over the keys to his company car and quit on the spot.

This dramatic gesture, however, left him with no means of getting home. So he thumbed down a passing car, and found himself riding with the principal of Brentwood Teacher Training College. "Can I apply?" he asked.

He was accepted on to the course because he could play the trombone: his interviewer needed someone to play in a gig that evening. And so, in 1969, he emerged a PE teacher.

His first job was at Borough Boys' School in Hackney, east London. He had asked to be posted to the most difficult school available: "If I can manage there, I can manage anywhere," he said.

Three years later, he applied for a job at Hampstead Girls' School in west London. One of the interviewees, an elderly woman, asked him: "So, Mr Short, do you have any experience with girls?"

"I beg your pardon?" Mr Short replied, all mock outrage. He got the job.

He remained at Hampstead for 14 years, promoted to pastoral head and acting deputy. He was a natural in the pastoral role: his own rebellious teenage years had given him real empathy towards his charge, and he regularly used humour as a means of reaching out to disturbed pupils.

For years, he had vocally deplored the scarcity of decent coffee in England. And so - uninterested in senior management - he decided to leave teaching and open a coffee shop in his Hertfordshire home town. When the market crash of the 1980s came, however, the business did not survive.

He returned to teaching, as head of ICT at Sir John Cass School, in east London. It was a Church of England school, with a majority of Muslim pupils: this was a set-up that intrigued Mr Sharp. He remained there for three years, before moving to Parliament Hill school, near Hampstead Heath.

A long-standing Liberal Democrat, he increasingly advised the party on matters of education. His sharp intellect and forceful opinions meant that he was a powerful debating partner and critic of the Government.

In 2001, ill health forced him into early retirement. He and his wife Wendy returned to Cumbria, where he provided home tuition for excluded pupils. Again, he took to the work instinctively. He spoke these pupils' dialect, knew their world: he, too, had been a Lakes pupil.

Though he wore them lightly, his religious convictions always informed his work. In semi-retirement, he become chair of Cumbrian Rural Choirs, and he would sing along to music as he cooked. Cooking became an outlet for his natural creativity: his dinner parties were renowned for their complex dishes and challenging conversation. Recently, he was asked to become chairman of a local Sure Start centre. When he struggled to find a manager for the centre, Wendy suggested that he take on the role; by the time of his death, he was managing four separate centres.

This, he said, was the most rewarding job he had ever held. It combined outreach work with a more preventative role: he was able to stop disadvantaged children from becoming the troubled teens he had previously worked with.

He was, therefore, at his happiest when he set out in his car at the end of May. For reasons still unknown, the car skirted on to the wrong side of the road and collided with a school bus, killing Mr Short instantly. Two pupils also died - an outcome he would have found heartbreaking.

Patrick Short is survived by his wife, Wendy Scott, four children, two stepchildren and 14 grandchildren.

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