Obituary - Richard Speed - 1935-2009

20th November 2009 at 00:00

The standard anti-teacher cliche is that those who can't do, teach. Richard Speed, a design and technology teacher who built his own house, repeatedly made a lie of this.

Born in 1935 in Somerset, young Dick grew up watching his father building tables. By the age of seven, he could use a saw; soon afterwards he was happily carving fruit bowls.

But he felt that he should have an academic as well as a practical qualification. And so he enrolled in a joint honours degree in English and design and technology at Loughborough University.

He emerged from university an evangelist for design, and immediately took a job as a design and technology teacher in St Albans, Hertfordshire.

Gainfully employed, he was now able to marry his childhood sweetheart, Pam. The pair had met when she was only 15; her family had insisted that they were chaperoned on dates. Dick's introduction to her family was not propitious: her grandfather remembered him stealing apples from his tree as a boy. But he overcame initial objections and the couple married in 1958.

Just over two years later, they moved to Oxfordshire. Unable to afford a house, they instead bought a plot of undeveloped land in the village of Hatford, living in a caravan for 18 months.

Mr Speed drew up designs for the house himself. He then offered an architect cousin a deal: he would carve him a bedhead and bedside tables in exchange for blueprints for a house. Mr Speed went on to build all the fittings and furniture himself.

In 1962, he took a job at Faringdon Secondary - the start of what would be a 23-year career at the school. A keen believer that anyone could do anything, he broke with convention and introduced cookery, sewing and knitting lessons for boys. This was complemented by woodwork and metalwork lessons for girls.

He also set up an after-school craft club, where pupils made their go-karts by taking apart Pam Speed's scooter. Mr Speed always took particular pleasure from this club: he was thrilled that pupils came because they wanted to, not because they had to.

Always keen to better himself, he undertook a second BA from the Open University, followed by a masters from Reading. He then took a year's sabbatical from Faringdon to complete a PhD in design and technology at Nottingham University. Nonetheless, he deliberately chose not to use the title "Dr". The qualification was for his own satisfaction, he said; few of his friends even knew about it.

He had been appointed deputy head of Faringdon, a job he relished. But, ever the design evangelist, he wanted to introduce craftwork to more than one school. So, in 1985, he took a job as design and technology adviser for Oxfordshire County Council.

His interest in education did not end with the working day. In 1990, he set up an arts and crafts summer school, which offered a range of courses to adults.

And he encouraged Pam to learn: he bought her a sewing machine and taught her to clean spark plugs. Earlier this year, when illness had restricted his mobility, he gave instructions as she planted vegetables in the garden. He spent a lot of time out there, building a greenhouse for the vegetables. On a whim, he decided that he wanted fresh goat's milk, and so bought several goats. These were followed by chickens, and later sheep.

As a child, he had developed an interest in jazz, listening to his father play the piano. It was an interest that grew into a passion: he would hitchhike to London to hear Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald, always carrying an empty suitcase as he believed passing drivers would be more likely to stop for him.

Later, he would take pupils to hear big-name artists. He established Live Jazz, an Oxford-based organisation promoting concerts across the county, encouraging artists to allow pupils to play with them on stage.

He was 71 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. During two years of illness, he built a conservatory on the family home and put in concrete steps. He died on October 20 and was buried in a wicker coffin, a reference to the basketwork classes he loved.

Richard Speed is survived by his wife Pam and their two sons, James and John.

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