Obituary - Simon Turner

25th March 2011 at 00:00


Simon Turner was a man of obsessions. He loved France, he was fascinated by the two world wars and he adored the music of Jacques Brel.

And the Blackburn-based French teacher also possessed the charisma necessary to persuade generations of school pupils that these were, in fact, subjects worth obsessing over.

Simon Turner was born in Hertfordshire in October 1957. His mother was a French teacher, so family holidays were invariably spent in France. From an early age, Simon developed a love for all things French.

This was not his only childhood love. He was also fascinated by the First World War. There was a French connection here, too: he was specifically interested in the effects of the wars on France.

After school he studied French at Aberystwyth University. The degree included a period at the Sorbonne, during which time he acquired both detailed knowledge of Paris life and a third obsession - the music of Jacques Brel.

Eager to pass his Francophilia on to others, he enrolled in a teacher-training course at Christ Church College, Canterbury. Here, he met Christine Reeves, a fellow trainee. They married in 1985.

Mr Turner's first job was at Mount St Mary's, a Catholic boarding school in Sheffield. Over the next decade he also taught at a secondary modern and a sixth-form college, both in Kent.

In 1991, he joined Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Blackburn. From the start, colleagues noticed that he had a "magic touch": a natural charisma that entranced staff and pupils. He was a gifted raconteur, delivering assemblies about his trips to First World War battlefields to a rapturous audience.

Colleagues recall him sitting on an iron railing at one end-of-term staff party, typically holding forth to the assembled masses. Midway through an anecdote, he fell backwards off the rail, narrowly avoiding a splash-landing in the garden pond.

He had a repository of stories about such scrapes and narrow escapes. He was painstakingly methodical whenever planning holidays or exchange trips, but he also had a talent for making mistakes at crucial moments: leaving the keys in the lock, for example, and walking away.

Nonetheless, he was unfailingly positive. No matter how difficult a task, he could make it seem easy. Once, the headteacher asked him to deliver a one-year Spanish course to the lower sixth. Mr Turner enthusiastically agreed. Nine months later, the head learnt that he had never previously studied Spanish. For the entire year, he had been only one lesson ahead of his pupils.

He also began working for an exam board, first as a marker and then as principal examiner. He had an inherent sense of fairness and took pride in making sure that marks were justly awarded.

He was appointed head of careers in 1995. The school had not previously offered work experience and Mr Turner quickly established a programme for this. He organised careers talks and - characteristically risk-taking - persuaded a former pupil, now at sixth-form college, to come back and tell Year 11 how much better his life would have been if only he had stayed at Queen Elizabeth's.

In 2000, he was promoted again, this time to deputy head in charge of pastoral care. In many ways, this was the perfect role for him. He was intuitive, but he also had a quiet intensity. For the duration of a conversation, those he spoke to felt like the only people in the world.

Again, his sense of justice came into play. No matter how bad pupils' misbehaviour, he would ensure that they received a fair hearing. Similarly, not only did he establish a school council, but he also actively campaigned for its recommendations to be implemented.

Throughout all this, however, his three obsessions never lost their appeal.

Every year he took pupils to Paris, delighting in telling them the city's stories. Photography was another love, and he used this to further his interest in First World War battlefields. He began to research the origins of Blackburn soldiers, photographing their houses and then visiting and photographing their graves in France.

And he would incorporate the work of Jacques Brel into sixth-form lessons wherever possible. He was briefly in contact with Brel's daughter, discussing the possibility of translating the singer's biography into English. This plan, however, did not come to fruition.

Health problems forced him to leave Queen Elizabeth's in 2008. His condition had improved and he had begun making summer holiday plans when a winter cold developed into pneumonia. He died on New Year's Day.

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