Obituary - Stephen Szemerenyi 1942-2012

20th January 2012 at 00:00

Though he was not a natural union man, it was not entirely surprising that Stephen Szemerenyi became an expert in pay and conditions: he was committed to detail, logic and fairness.

Stephen Szemerenyi was born in Hungary in October 1942; his family moved to London after the Second World War. Unable to speak English, Stephen was placed in a primary classroom and expected to get on with it. (He did know one word: "sausages". This was not particularly well received when he offered it in answer to the teacher's questions.) This attitude stayed with him for life: he just got on with things.

He went on to read classics at Christ's College, Cambridge, and, after spending holidays volunteering at a school in Hackney, east London, eventually qualified as a teacher.

He took up a job at Highgate School in north London. A natural workaholic, Mr Szemerenyi told his wife, Jan, that his workload would decrease once he was more experienced. But then he became housemaster, and later boarding-house master, and somehow the workload never did decrease.

He joined a teaching union purely as a precautionary measure. But he had a keen sense of justice and, as chairman of the Highgate common room, would step in to help colleagues who were being treated unfairly by senior management.

Highgate, an independent school, did not offer him the chance to make the difference he had hoped for when entering the profession. And so he moved to the state sector, becoming deputy head of Hemel Hempstead School in Hertfordshire.

In 1983, he was appointed head of Finchley Catholic High in north London. From the start, he was a disciplinarian. The fashion for boys' earrings had begun and he confiscated any he saw. The earrings themselves mattered less than establishing the importance of school rules. But fairness was paramount: his pupils always knew where they stood with him.

Finchley was one of the first schools to be allowed to manage its own budget, later becoming grant-maintained. Mr Szemerenyi loved the flexibility that this brought. When the status was later abolished, he was unhappy about being back under local-authority control. In 1999, he decided to retire.

It was at this time that he began working as a field officer for the Secondary Heads Association, now the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). He had an impressive memory and a strong grasp of detail, and had always enjoyed maths. So it was not long before he became the union's pay and conditions specialist. He produced an annual guide for members, bringing acerbic wit to a generally humour-free topic. Still valuing firmness and fairness, he negotiated with the government and other unions during the implementation of the teachers' workforce agreement. But he was equally tough with ASCL members who did not implement the agreement. In 2010, he was appointed OBE in recognition of his work.

Stephen Szemerenyi's cancer became apparent in May 2011. He died on 1 January this year. He is survived by Jan, their children Paul, Michelle and Lucy, and his two grandsons.

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