Proud to be in the same job

31st January 1997 at 00:00
Geoff Barton pays tribute to his headteacher, David Edwards, pictured left

When David Edwards was awarded the headship of Huntington School, York, just before Christmas, there was a feeling that a remarkable deputy would make a remarkable head. "Local candidate romps home in leadership race," announced the staff magazine. And so began a more than usually festive last few days.

As term ended, David laid on champagne for the entire staff and, in a brief, informal speech he described how humble he felt in being asked to take over a fine school. He had worked there for nine years and spoke proudly of its young people, its supportive parents and governors. But he reserved his most fulsome praise for its staff, urging us to use the holidays to relax, to spend time with our families and friends. Then, in an emotional toast to "Our School, " the holidays began.

That night - the Wednesday before Christmas - we held a reunion for former upper sixth students. There was wine and food, an hour of chat, and then a hastily-organised cabaret of staff and student talent. Halfway through the evening, David sidled over and offered to give an impromptu rendition of a sketch he had written and performed some years before at Oxford. He had taken it to the Edinburgh Fringe in a show called Knockers. ("It had seemed the right name at the time," he bashfully explained.) Sixth form and staff applauded wildly, observing effortless timing, sharpened wit, a real gift for performing. A student not noted for eulogies turned and whispered: "He's going to be an amazing head."

With the new year came the news that the school had been successful in its bid to achieve technology college status - a bid which David had worked on energetically and with characteristic vision to shape and finalise. Now, it seemed, as the new head, he had been granted the substantial resources to build a new kind of school. It was the culmination of all his efforts.

On Sunday, January 5, the final night of the holidays, at the end of a dinner party with the chairman of governors, David Edwards suffered a heart attack and died. He was 46. Staff were informed at 9am the next day, at a specially-convened staff meeting - the first day of the new term.

Most of us took days to absorb the news. To imagine a man of such energy and verve, of so potent a combination of intellectual and social skills - to imagine him gone was unthinkable. But the sense of loss was not just for the man, but the optimism he embodied.

This is not an obituary. As the scramble for speedy retirement packages gains pace and a year of more anti-teacher carping gets under way, no one needs further cause for anxiety or sadness. Instead, at the risk of sound-ing glib or phoney, this is an attempt to find something celebratory in our loss.

David Edwards was a remarkable man to have known. He built and led a formidably innovative science department at Garforth comprehensive in Leeds. As a teacher, he inspired the respect of rogues and high-fliers alike. A passionate scientist, he won the Royal Society of Chemistry's Chemical Education Award in 1990.

The science textbooks he wrote changed the way such books were subsequently written. As chief examiner for GCSE and A-level, and a key member of the team developing the Salters Science projects, he shaped the teaching of science in Britain and, latterly, the USA.

But he was far more than this. For friends, colleagues and hundreds of students he was a reminder of what good teachers are - people with a gift for harnessing our talents, for giving us confidence. But most significantly, he made us feel that to be a teacher, despite the relentless media sniping, is perhaps the most important thing you can do.

And as we mourn him, that's what keeps coming back - the overpowering sense that here was a man who devoted his life to education, rose above the mediocrity which frequently dogs debates about methods and standards, and showed us that being passionate about young people, your subject, about standards of moral values - that these aren't things to be ashamed of; that they are part of what makes life worth living.

David Edwards made us, in other words, proud to be part of the same profession as him - proud to be teachers.

Geoff Barton is head of English at Huntington School, York. The fee for this article will be donated to the British Heart Foundation

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