While visiting Sir Frederick Gibberd College, a new state school in Harlow with an academic sixth form, in September last year, I was introduced to a young classics teacher called Chris Pilcher. After graduating from Bristol University, he’d worked as a multimedia journalist before changing career and, together with his colleague Harrison Moore, asked many interesting questions about the New Statesman. As a trainee teacher he was part of the pioneering group who helped establish the school after it was founded in 2019. He was working with Classics for All – which supports state schools, many in areas of socio-economic disadvantage, to introduce or develop the teaching of classical subjects – and he qualified in 2021.
Sir Frederick Gibberd College, which is named after Harlow’s chief architect and planner, is on the site of the former Passmores Comprehensive School, opposite the flat my grandfather lived in after he retired and moved from east London to the Essex new town so that he could be closer to his son, my father. I know this area of Harlow well. As Dee Conlon, the estimable head teacher, took me on a tour of the new classrooms, I looked out from high windows across rough tracks and woodland, through which I’d once run in an inter-school cross-country race, and down on sports fields where I’d played football for my school. I felt a sharp tug of longing for something irretrievably lost.
Mr Pilcher, who also did some sports coaching, told me about his ambition to make classics fun and accessible for children who in different circumstances might never have had the chance to learn Latin. (“SFG”, as staff and pupils call it, is the only state school in the town to teach Latin; 26 per cent of the children there receive pupil premium funding.) He was originally from the south-west and had attended the independent Taunton School. What attracted him to SFG was what he called its “mission”. Later, as it began to rain, I stood with him as children waited in lines for their mobile phones to be returned at the end of the school day. They were tired but the process was orderly and calm.
Sometimes you encounter someone, however fleetingly, who leaves a deep impression. Since meeting Mr Pilcher, I have often thought about him – his decency, gentleness, his sense of mission. A few weeks ago, during a meeting on Zoom about the school, I discovered that Mr Pilcher had died suddenly while taking part with two other SFG teachers in the Hackney Half Marathon. They were running to raise money for the mental health charity Mind in West Essex. The school remained in a state of mourning and one of the staff began to cry when Mr Pilcher’s name was mentioned.
“Our SFG family has lost a beloved member and words fail to describe our grief,” Dee Conlon said. She is right – sometimes there are no words. I met Chris Pilcher only once, but I shall never forget him or what he represented and wanted for the children he taught.
This item is from the Editor’s Note in the New Statesman’s Summer Special. It appears alongside: What Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are getting wrong about Brexit
This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special