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Tenacious, kind, and a man who helped change things for the better

PUBLISHED: 18:45 16 April 2019 | UPDATED: 20:29 30 April 2019

Headmaster Derek Robson and the Duke of Gloucester tour Culford School  Picture: ARCHANT

Headmaster Derek Robson and the Duke of Gloucester tour Culford School Picture: ARCHANT

Archant

Tribute: How go-ahead headmaster Derek Robson helped transform Culford School. He has died, aged 83

September, 1972: 

Brothers and sisters together as Culford School, the boys' school near Bury St Edmunds, becomes co-educational and welcomes former pupils of the East Anglian School for Girls   Picture: ARCHANTSeptember, 1972: Brothers and sisters together as Culford School, the boys' school near Bury St Edmunds, becomes co-educational and welcomes former pupils of the East Anglian School for Girls Picture: ARCHANT

Derek Robson, the son of a Methodist minister who had been a miner in County Durham, became headmaster of Culford School in 1971. The school, four miles north of Bury St Edmunds, lay in 450 acres of parkland.

“In an era in which many traditional independent boarding schools had to modernise in order to survive, the incoming headmaster had been appointed to implement changes,” explains John Humphries, Old Culfordians' liaison officer and former registrar of Culford School.

“In this case, Derek Robson soon oversaw Culford becoming the first direct grant co-educational school in the UK. This was through full amalgamation with its sister school, the East Anglian School for Girls, which had developed over 35 years on Culford's original site in Northgate Avenue, Bury St Edmunds.

“His 21 years at the helm were ones in which a somewhat static environment became a dynamic one, with the creation of many new features involving boarding houses, teaching blocks, playing-fields, kitchens and dining facilities, and a vast assembly hall, together with structures of management.

Former Culford School headmaster Derek Robson. ‘His 21 years at the helm were ones in which a somewhat static environment became a dynamic one, with the creation of many new features’   Picture: CONTRIBUTEDFormer Culford School headmaster Derek Robson. ‘His 21 years at the helm were ones in which a somewhat static environment became a dynamic one, with the creation of many new features’ Picture: CONTRIBUTED

“His liberal approach led to inevitable tensions with conservative elements, but, by the time he left, many aspects of school life had been transformed.”

Derek Robson was born in Birmingham in 1935. He was educated at Prior's Court, Newbury, and Kingswood School, Bath (from 1949 to 1954). “Here, he held the school record for the 100 yards, played the part of Macbeth in an acclaimed school production and showed academic excellence,” says John Humphries.

“Kingswood's legendary headmaster, AB Sackett, was responsible during his 30 years in office of encouraging pupils to consider teaching as a career. Some dozen or so of Derek's contemporaries became headmasters of independent and state schools.”

An impromptu game of short tennis between headmaster Derek Robson and the chair of governors at the opening of the new sports hall at Culford School   Picture: ANDY ABBOTTAn impromptu game of short tennis between headmaster Derek Robson and the chair of governors at the opening of the new sports hall at Culford School Picture: ANDY ABBOTT

After graduating in history from Queen's College, Cambridge, Derek taught at the City of Norwich School. He met Barbara Moss, assistant and later head of physical education at Norwich High School for Girls. They married in 1962 and soon moved, on his appointment, to Norfolk's Wymondham College, the coeducational state boarding school.

Later, he moved to Carnegie College and School of Physical Education in Leeds. Then came Suffolk.

After Culford, he became education secretary for the Methodist Church and secretary to the board of management for Methodist Residential Schools. With its 57 voluntary-aided primary schools, nine member- and three affiliated-schools, it took him to many parts of the country.

“Retirement came in 1997, although he continued as a school governor of The Leys, Cambridge.

A view of Culford School in 2003   Picture: ANDY ABBOTTA view of Culford School in 2003 Picture: ANDY ABBOTT

“He and Barbara returned to East Anglia to enjoy living on the North Norfolk coast, where they pursued active lives and he continued sailing, taking up watercolour painting, volunteering with the National Trust at Felbrigg Hall, singing with The Kelling Consort and enjoying the arrival and company of their grandchildren.

“His commitments as a Methodist local preacher, for which he was awarded a certificate for 50 years' service, continued. However, the onset of Alzheimer's in his final years brought to an end full participation in family and social life.

“He leaves a widow; children Helen, Mark and Simon, together with their married partners; and nine grandchildren.

“Many people will recall his commitment to the causes he cherished, tenacity for getting things done, readiness to face new challenges, individual acts of kindness and sound advice, quite brilliant speeches at retirement/leaving events and memorial services, as well as religious devotion to the movement into which he was born.

A private cremation followed by a service of thanksgiving was held on Monday, April 29 at St Andrew's Methodist Church, Sheringham.

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