A fitting epitaph to an inspiring educator


Late last year, Simon Viccars – a passionate and dedicated teacher and school leader – lost his fight against cancer. Before he passed away, during a brief period of recovery, he wrote this article for SecEd. We publish it now by way of tribute to an educ

In the 1990s, grant-maintained schools were liberated, budget-wise from local authority top-slicing, particularly for INSET and consultancy (ground-breaking back then)! 

Suddenly there was a lot more training money available – mainstream schools organised their own training programmes to support improvement plans and individuals’ development. Halcyon days! Up 500 per cent as a budget I remember in my then deputy’s job.

Many colleagues took advantage to study for “free fee-paid” part-time Master’s degrees – I did the same, graduating after three years in 1999 with the benefit of Accredited Prior Learning Assessment (APL).

At the graduation, I remember the vice-chancellor speaking to the assembled audience of proud families. The recipients of a wide range of qualifications in that audience came from, essentially, two areas of employment – health and education. The vice-chancellor’s message was that, although they were very different public services, both professions shared one common quality: they were the noblest contributors to our society in that both uniquely “gave back”. In very different ways they both made people into better people. 

I never forgot his words, but recently have had cause to reflect on them again. After a lifetime to my 50s blessed with relatively good health, despite the “pressures” (which I see as privileges) of working as a head in deprived area secondaries, I have been diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin Lymphoma of the immune system – blood cancer.

One Wednesday in June I drove to my school desk at 7am as usual. I received a doctor’s call at 10:30am – “get here quickly!” – and was in hospital by noon. The intensive tests began, leading to eventual diagnosis. I am conscious that other readers might have experienced similar stories.

For several weeks I was isolated in a single room for fear of catching infections from any source (no white blood cells). I communicated with school (iPad, mobile phone – efficient PA) – it was running fine operationally on a day-to-day basis towards the end of the summer term.

Now, after putting institutional educational needs first for more than a decade of school leadership – I was encouraged to see the other noble profession again from that vice chancellor’s speech of 14 years ago.

I have no doubt of the value of learning, I am dedicating my working life to it. I have no doubt of the nobility of teachers, instructors, teaching assistants and other school staff at their best, driving student standards and achievements ever-upwards. 

And now, after more than six weeks of chemo treatment and slow initial recovery, I have seen volunteers, porters, nurses, sisters, trainees, consultants and doctors first-hand as they too served others, their patients, as a big disciplined team, trying to make them comfortable and well in their own needs.

Health staff have their aspirations too, their career structures and hoped-for specialisms, their training and mentoring programmes, their pay and conditions of service grumbles of course – but my, are they flexible and effective. 

The ward staff have to contribute to a several shift system including “nights”, they cover other wards at short notice (often complaining like a teacher might going to an emergency cover); patients died, relatives were comforted; correct and complicated medicines were checked and given, counselling offered; record-keeping was accurate; different sections (pathology for blood, porters for scans, dispensary for treatments) co-ordinated well; skilled diagnosis was done from expensive equipment; doctors and consultants were knowledgeable, secure in conversation; patient care aspects were of a high order. System management and quality was evident but not “loud”. People were proud of what each did.

I hope my staff in school give as much care in all their engagements, to young people and adults, employers and parents, as I see here, with as much commitment. And I hope my staff smile as nurses and porters manage to do even when under significant pressure, and that they find time to banter in the right places – relationships become so much easier. Of course intense 1:1 healthcare has a different pressure to timetabled classes, but relationships still underpin significantly all that we want to achieve.

Education and health are both, indeed, noble occupations – crucially worth sustaining and, importantly, worth paying the right price for as a civilised and advancing society. I will argue that forever.

The vice-chancellor was right in 1999. When I retire in what, I hope, after full treatment, will be a few years yet, I’ll be very proud to keep saying: “I was a teacher, a member of one of the two of the most noble professions in our society.”

  • Simon Viccars passed away in November after a six-month battle with cancer. He was headteacher of Sir Herbert Leon Academy in Milton Keynes and was a hugely valued and long-serving member of SecEd’s editorial advisory board. A tribute and donations page has been established in his memory in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. Visit http://macmillan.tributefunds.com/SimonViccars



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