Obituary - Ted Warn 1924-2011

19th August 2011 at 01:00

Ted Warn's pupils were "the delicate": children of slums and brothels, born into disadvantage and disability. With studied patience, the former RAF sergeant spent his career modelling the kind of quiet heroism he had so admired in others during the Second World War.

Edward Warn was born into East End poverty in March 1924, sharing a home with his parents, grandmother, aunts and uncles. There were, however, occasional treats for Ted: his mother worked as an usherette at the Odeon and would bring her young son to the cinema with her on Fridays.

Naturally bright, Ted was accepted into George Green's grammar school. When war broke out he enlisted in the air force, working as a compass-setter on Lancaster bombers. As part of the ground crew, he regularly watched his friends fly out of the base, never knowing whether or not they would return.

It was on the air base that he met Nancy Syverson, a young member of the Women's Auxilliary Air Force. He was standing by the bus stop; she was coming home after a night out. Ted caught sight of the snappily dressed young woman and immediately thought: "This is who I'm going to marry." He was 19 years old.

He did not talk about the war after it had ended. In later years he joined the British Legion, but was irritated that its members focused on battles and death. He would rather think about the home-front heroes: the women who conjured up meals from basic supplies, who spent sleepless nights in bomb shelters, who held their families together. It was these civilians who helped him when, at home on furlough, he was deafened in one ear by a nearby bomb blast.

After being demobbed, his first job was in accounts. But this proved unfulfilling and he decided to train as a teacher.

He always had a soft spot for the underdog, a desire to help anyone in difficulty. After a couple of years in mainstream schools, therefore, he took a job at Phoenix Open-Air School for the Delicate in Bow, east London. Here, he speedily progressed to deputy head and then headteacher.

Many of his "delicate" charges not only had special needs, but also came from backgrounds of extraordinary poverty. Several were the children of prostitutes. One such girl was unable to come to school one day because she had no clothes to wear. Mr Warn quietly gathered up some second-hand clothes and ensured that they found their way to the girl.

On another occasion, he summoned a boy who had stolen a leather jacket into his office. "We both know what you've done," he said. "So you can either give the jacket back and apologise, or I can take you to the police." The boy duly handed back the jacket.

Giving children chances, he believed, was what education was all about. Many of his pupils were unlikely to survive into adulthood. But he insisted that they were as deserving of education as any other children. Grammar school had allowed him to flourish, despite his background; he saw no reason why others should not have the same opportunities that were afforded to him when he was young.

He and Nancy had three daughters, Patricia, Dorothy and Susan. In order to support his family, Mr Warn took on a second job. Every day he would come home from school, eat dinner, watch the news, and then set off to teach night classes at Greenwich College. Initially coaching policemen for exams and teaching English to foreign students, he was eventually appointed deputy principal.

In the late 1970s, he applied for the headship of Hawthorne Cottage School, three special schools on a single site: for deaf children, for blind children, and for "the delicate".

Eventually these three schools were combined, a decision Mr Warn felt was not in pupils' best interests. He felt similarly strongly about inclusion: he believed that special-needs pupils' education and health would inevitably be compromised in mainstream schools.

After 10 years at Hawthorne he retired. He and Nancy moved to Sussex, where Mr Warn enthralled local schoolchildren with a two-hour talk about the war. Again, he had no interest in discussing the fighting: he spoke about the home front, about children playing on bomb sites.

The real thrill of life in Sussex, however, was the detached house that he and Nancy lived in. He would repeatedly reiterate his amazement that he could walk all the way around his own home: "When I think back to when I was a lad, I think, 'Haven't I done well in my life?'"

Ted Warn died on 15 June.

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