Obituary: Peter Snape

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The Independent Online
Peter Snape had a distinguished career in two related fields of education: first, as a pioneering comprehensive school headmaster, then as the wise General Secretary of two associations of secondary heads.

The first 40 years of his life followed a common enough trajectory: from a humble home in Leeds via a good grammar school to Exeter College, Oxford, to read English; then teaching posts in grammar schools, repaying the debt. And when, in 1964, he took on King Edward VI School at Totnes, in Devon, it was still a boys' grammar school in the same tradition.

But he had come in the interval to see the limitations of that tradition, both in what it provided and in who it provided for. He therefore warmly welcomed the comprehensive policy of 1965. He accepted its philosophy wholeheartedly, but quickly perceived the problems it would present in implementation, and set himself to overcome them.

First, the size of the new schools demanded a new management style. In this, Snape learned avidly from American experience. Leadership by dominance had never been his style. Now he happily devolved and consulted, though he was agile - and respected - enough to get his own way on the important issues. He even mastered the hieroglyphics of 1960s' curriculum notation.

For the curriculum had to be broadened to motivate the wider intake. Himself always concerned for the arts, Snape found a valuable resource in the activities and people of Dartington College of Arts on his doorstep. And where curriculum led, assessment followed. At King Edward VI School, Snape gave a home to the "Record of Personal Experience" scheme, designed to help slow learners find pride and status, and persuaded local employers to accept it. The idea, in modified form, has since been subsumed into the Department for Education and Employment's National Record of Achievement.

Snape's success at Totnes was outstanding. It owed something to a favourable catchment area, and something also to the support of his heroic CEO, Joslyn Owen. But most of it was the fruit of his own personal gifts of intellect and personality. His fame soon spread, not only within what is now the Secondary Heads' Association (SHA), but also within a component of it, the Headmasters' Conference (HMC). In 1975 he was invited to become an "additional" member of HMC, one of only ten heads of maintained schools co-opted to the club. He never concealed his disapproval of selection, and still more of the Assisted Places Scheme, but his fairness, charm and humour, not to mention his ability to swap quotations with the best, made him friends and admirers no less in HMC than in the Head Masters' Association.

So when in 1983 a new General Secretary was sought for both bodies together, Snape was the obvious candidate. His arrival in post coincided with the biggest upheaval in the teaching profession at least since the Second World War. Pay, conditions of service and status were all matters of bitter dispute. Heads were set against staffs, teaching unions vied with each other for members by encouraging disaffection, local authorities were divided: only the government spoke with one voice, in a tone of impartial contempt for all parties in the public educational service. In this maelstrom no one did more than Snape to keep secondary heads above water. It was a remarkable achievement, recognised but undervalued by his appointment as OBE (in 1988) and it required all his many qualities to bring it off.

Two more of these deserve mention. One was his unquenchable sense of fun. Time and again he would come up with a wry comment (often endearingly self-deprecating), which defused the tension and thus enabled tired committee- members to reach a decision or suspicious negotiators to come to an agreement. But perhaps his greatest quality was integrity. Snape was all of a piece. Amateur and professional, practical and visionary, administrator and wit, egalitarian devoted to excellence - he was all these things at once, not in conflict but in balance.

Yet in the last resort Peter Snape was a private man, most himself within a mutually devoted family. His wife Anne, partly through her talent for specialist decoration, created a delightful home as a setting for their "marriage of true minds". She bore him four children of whom, to their intense sadness, their doctor son Adam died in 1994.

That loss and his own uncertain health spread something of a cloud over his last years. In retirement he wrote a guide-book to Totnes, Ten Sites in Totnes (1990), but that great comic novel of public life, which his letters and his conversation showed he had in him, remained alas unwritten. He died in hospital during heart surgery for which he had waited more than a year.

John Dancy

Thomas Peter Snape, educationist: born Leeds 4 June 1925; Headmaster, Settle High School, Yorkshire 1960-64; Headmaster, King Edward VI Grammar School (later Comprehensive), Totnes, 1964-83; General Secretary, Secondary Heads' As- sociation and Headmasters' Conference 1983-88; OBE 1988; married 1951 Anne McColl (three daughters, one son deceased); died London 30 April 1997.