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Head to leave school after 17 years

Neil Turrell
Neil Turrell

Teaching a class of 30 teenage boys may not sound like "sheer indulgence" to many but that is how it feels to headmaster Neil Turrell, pictured, even after 17 years at the helm of Maidstone Grammar School.

A maths teacher at heart, Mr Turrell has seen some 3,000 pupils through the Barton Road school and, despite his strict style and deep, authoritative voice, he can’t hide that he is genuinely fond, and immensely proud, of every one.

He smiles as he recalls holidays where the shout "Hello Sir!" has gone up from a former or present pupil.

Some teachers might cringe at the thought, but not him.

"I would be pleased to get on a plane and find one of my former pupils was flying it," he says. "I find working with the pupils here a privilege. They are like pupils anywhere; they need guidance and structure.

" If you offer them leadership, you get back everything and more. I have got back an amazing amount of respect, affection, endeavour, courage. It’s a great pleasure that many have gone on to do well."

The feeling may be mutual. As I leave, I am asked (not by Mr Turrell himself) to publicise events for former pupils to come back and say farewell to him, when he leaves the school next month.

He admits that saying goodbye "is going to be tough" and, despite his firm, military background, he is clearly emotional about the prospect.

Although he is reluctant to single anyone out, the death of a pupil from leukaemia a few years ago, and a colleague’s death last year, are two exceptions.

"The response of the community to those things tells you such a lot about your strengths and the way you work; people support each other," he says.

Pride, honour and tradition are words which crop up frequently. "It has been one of the greatest challenges of my life. It has given me a great honour to serve the school," he says.

Although a modern school, tradition is an important element. Mr Turrell uses a fountain pen, and there are ink blotters around his desk. (I feel a little sheepish with my chewed ballpoint.)

Latin is still taught but he says: "The task of Maidstone Grammar School in 1549 was to make sure that boys had skills in Latin which could take them into professions and not be tied to the land.

"Today, essentially, it is to give pupils, largely boys, opportunities to make their way in the world."

However, he does have issues with the system – and, as chair of Maidstone and Malling Head Teachers’ Association, as well as a headmaster – he isn’t afraid to voice them. "My greatest regret is the extent to which we measure everything; to such an extent that, if you like, we know the value of nothing.

"We don’t want people just regurgitating inert facts – what value is that to a civilised society? When pupils ask ‘Do we need to know this?’ it is because they are more concerned with whether they can pass a test."

He adds: "Being at MGS isn’t simply about passing examinations. It is about growing as a person; trying to make yourself the best that you can, and working with other people."

Mr Turrell had many years working with people other than grammar school pupils before MGS. After working as a radar engineer in Europe and North Africa, much of it during the Cold War, it was the arrival of his first child which prompted him to opt for a teaching career, spurred on by his wife Trish, also a teacher. The couple have two children, Ben and Nancy.

His first job was a baptism of fire, teaching maths to pupils at an inner city school in Newcastle. But teaching maths is still a passion. "I think, like any subject, if you approach it in the correct way and you can root some of what you can do in people’s experiences, they’ll take to it," he says.

The job stood him in good stead for jobs to come, which included head of maths at Mascalls School in Paddock Wood and a headship in Staffordshire.

Although initially his departure next month had been for retirement, he is now preparing for a final teaching challenge, leading a school in Singapore, accompanied by Trish, and his daughter and son-in-law, who will also be based there by coincidence, but he is sad that he won’t be at MGS for results day.

That job next year will fall to successor Dr Nick Argent, from Elizabeth College, Guernsey, who will welcome a new intake of Year 7s in September. "They aren’t eaten and consumed on the first day," laughs Mr Turrell, with a wry smile.

There are drop-in sessions for former pupils to say farewell in the big hall on Tuesday, July 14, 3.30pm-6.30pm, and Wednesday, July 15, 4.30pm-7.30pm.

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