Obituary - Paula Williams, 1952-2010

21st January 2011 at 00:00

The terms colleagues use to describe Paula Williams are unusual, even given the effusiveness that typically follows a sudden death.

"She was the most remarkable person I've ever met," one said. Others name the head of Whitburn CofE Academy, South Tyneside, as the single greatest inspiration in their own successful careers.

Paula Williams was born in Sunderland in 1952. As a child, she had an undeniable devilish streak: she inevitably bridled at being told what to do by her two older sisters.

She loved the natural world and campaigned against animal cruelty. And so she chose to read biology at Newcastle University, and then to devote her professional life to passing her love of science on to schoolchildren.

Her first job was in west London, but within two years she was back in Sunderland, teaching biology at Bede School. Here, she was no more inclined to follow orders than she had been as a child. Asked to dissect frogs in class, she responded by releasing the animals in a local park. The headteacher summoned her to his office and told her he would merely order in more frogs. "Yes," Miss Williams replied. "And I'm sure they'll enjoy the park as well."

Nonetheless, she was rapidly promoted, becoming head of science at a time when this was still relatively unusual for a woman. In 1990, she was appointed senior teacher at nearby Harton Comprehensive School; six years later, she was deputy head.

In senior management, she proved herself formidable: there was no policy document she was unable to digest, no area of education she had not researched.

In 1999, she was encouraged by local authority officials to apply for the headship of Whitburn CofE School, an 11-16 comprehensive that had just been placed in special measures. With relish, she immediately set about transforming the school.

She introduced the "school review" system, under which all teachers were observed by senior management at least once a term. The aim was to ensure high standards, but also to offer an immediate support system. Later, she would refuse to fill in Ofsted's self-evaluation forms, claiming that her own support system did the same job more effectively.

In immaculately co-ordinated accessories - expensive shoes and handbags were procured during frequent trips to Italy - she paced the school corridors, stopping only when invited into classrooms by teachers and pupils.

Inaccessibility was not her style. Given the name of any of her 1,000 pupils, she would be able to recount a pertinent fact about the child. And she marked one non-uniform day by delivering a karaoke version of Summer Nights from the school stage.

Under previous leadership, admin and support staff had not been allowed in the staffroom. Miss Williams abolished this immediately: inclusivity, she believed, was a vital quality in a school. She similarly rejected all opportunities for pupil selection.

Within a year and a half of her arrival, Ofsted pronounced Whitburn effective, with good features; by 2009 it was outstanding. There was no smugness in triumph, however: when neighbouring schools received similarly positive reports, Miss Williams always sent a congratulatory bottle of champagne or bunch of flowers.

Indeed, her pursuit of pupils' best interests did not stop at her own school gates. She helped establish Schools North East, a collective of 1,200 state and independent schools.

Several North-Eastern headteachers now attribute their own professional success to Miss Williams. She was always willing to listen and to offer advice. "She was the biggest single influence on my career," one said. "You could use superlatives of the highest order to describe her," another added.

In 2009, she oversaw the opening of new buildings at Whitburn. She had personally negotiated with contractors throughout. Rejecting plans for an altar in the school hall, she commissioned a picture window overlooking the sea. "If you can't find spiritual inspiration from looking at the sea, where can you find it?" she said. She did, however, couple such lyrical touches with the more prosaic - a school bell, for example, that alternated the sound of cows mooing with Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.

Last year, she applied for academy status for Whitburn. This was officially granted two days before she died.

The last time many members of staff saw her, she was at their Christmas lunch, dressed in a Santa hat. Typically, she made a point of talking to every single person at the table.

Pneumonia struck suddenly over the Christmas break. Paula Williams died on 3 January.

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