Obituary - Tom Rolf, 1927-2010

28th January 2011 at 00:00

Tom Rolf travelled hundreds of miles around the country trying to find the perfect school to work in - but in the end he was happiest in the secondary he helped to create.

The maths teacher moved from the East to the Peaks, to the city and then the rolling hills of East Devon during his varied career. Ambition took him to the capital, but his loyalty remained with the newly formed comprehensive whose birth he had witnessed.

Mr Rolf grew up in Manchester. To get to Stretford Grammar School he had to walk past Old Trafford, a journey which inspired a lifetime of devotion to Manchester United FC and Lancashire Cricket Club.

His father worked on the railways and Mr Rolf was the first member of the family to go to university. After serving in the RAF from 1945 to 1948, he graduated with a maths degree from what was then the University College of Hull and then trained as a teacher.

Mr Rolf's first job was at the former City School in Lincoln. In 1957, friends from the local tennis club set him up on a blind date with Janet, a primary school teacher. The pair met in May, were engaged by September and married on 28 December. During their courtship Mr Rolf, eager to further his career, had secured a job at one of the country's first comprehensive schools, Colne Valley in Saddleworth, near Huddersfield. Janet was supportive, even travelling to the interview with him, and they married quickly so they could live in the area together.

At Colne Valley, Mr Rolf was head of department and loved working at the school. The staff were young and eager to socialise and were enthusiastic about working in such a new and different way. More importantly, it confirmed his view that comprehensive education was the best and fairest type of schooling.

He and his wife, who taught at a local primary school, loved living in the area - best known as the setting of sitcom Last of the Summer Wine. Their first daughter, Susan, was born in 1959. But by 1961 Mr Rolf was keen for another promotion and the family moved to London after he was made deputy head of Holloway School in north London, then a grammar school for boys.

His ambition led him into school leadership, but his colleagues and family always thought his move into administration was ironic as he had scored a distinction on the practical elements of his teacher-training course.

By 1966 he was keen to become a head, and so he contacted Ernest Butcher, then headmaster at Colne Valley, for a reference. Mr Butcher was planning to move and suggested Mr Rolf apply for his job. It was not the only post he was offered, but he and his family were keen to return to the Peak District, where they still had many friends.

He was delighted to be head of the school and spent time organising social events for colleagues. They knew him well from his previous spell at Colne Valley and constantly had to correct themselves after addressing him as "Tom" rather than "Sir". Mr Rolf found this hilarious.

One highlight of his years there was the visit of then prime minister Harold Wilson in 1970. It was a hectic decade - Mr Rolf had to deal with the raising of the national school leaving age to 16 and organise the construction of new buildings. Despite the frenetic nature of the position, he had no interest in working in any other schools and believed he could not be happier.

But by 1976 he was keen for another challenge. He took a cut in salary in order to be a senior adviser for Devon County Council. By now he and Janet had two more daughters, Linda and Jennifer. The family moved near to the town of Ottery St Mary in East Devon. They had hoped to enjoy the seaside during that long hot summer, but as soon as they arrived on 1 September, the rain began to fall.

Mr Rolf was responsible for supporting school leaders in East and North Devon. He became known for his pithy and accurate summing up of situations, his accuracy and his good timekeeping.

Although Mr Rolf spent his working life being concerned about what he saw as the unfairness of grammar schools, paradoxically his children ended up going through selection.

His reputation lives on in Devon and his widow has received many letters of tribute from school leaders since Mr Rolf's death in December. He had suffered from Alzheimer's for the past three years but retained his interest in sport and politics.

He is survived by Janet, Linda, Jennifer and six grandchildren.

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