Jim Blance: Inspirational schoolteacher and scholar of the uses of literacy

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The Independent Online

Jim Blance was an inspirational teacher who will be remembered by many former pupils in South Shields and Haydon Bridge. He always said that inspired teachers depended on inspiring pupils, but the real point was that there was a certain gaiety in his classes where everyone got taken seriously. You knew when he was up for it when you found him leaning back in his chair like a sheriff in a John Ford movie, feet up on table, hands behind head, counting you in with a sideways, slightly toothy grin. After warm-up encounters where everyone was given the chance, as it were, to play themselves in, classroom sessions went anywhere he fancied. This morning's editorial in The Times? What some bloke said to him in The Vigilant? Or perhaps the relationship between Jean Paul Sartre and a film he'd seen at The Regent cinema the night before? Blance was showing us that life and learning was one and the same if only you had eyes to see.

And he had eyes to see: that you didn't need permission to discuss art; that culture wasn't confined to books; that knowledge was too important to be left to intellectuals, that the greatest comedian could be found on the next desk, the best dramatist on a No 11 bus, the smartest economist at the bookies.

Only someone as gifted as Blance could offer this in terms neither banal nor self-serving. And once he thought you could go forward, and wanted to, then an exacting relationship developed. The nice part could involve smoking Jimmy's (or his mother's) cigarettes and enjoying the banter, but the harder part involved getting put straight with an intellectual rigour not normally encountered in those parts of town.

When I got to university I found he had been teaching us contemporary cultural studies all the time – in a language we could understand with examples we could grasp. He once started a class with the significance of a scene from Stanley Baker in The Criminal and ended it with an essay by the grand dame Juliet Rhys Williams on the Balance of Payments Crisis in the British economy, and no one noticed the mid-flight switch. Blance's idea of learning was steeply curving, left-leaning and, like the Red Arrows, usually joining up in the end.

James Murray Blance was born in South Shields in 1940. He was brought up in Regent Street. His father, James William, was a blacksmith's striker at Brigham's shipyard; his mother was Caroline McDougall. His sister, Greta, was born three years later. Somewhere not far down the line, the Blances came from the Shetlands.

Laygate Lane Juniors was his first introduction to life and learning. Laygate was not Headmasters' Conference, but in Robert Wilson and John Gray it did produce the country's leading physicist and philosopher in a single generation, and Blance was one of the crop. He passed his 11-plus, and after the Boys' Grammar School, won an Open Exhibition, followed to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Exeter College, Oxford.

Oxford was a breeze. He even found time to do some PPE. After that, he might have gone south and broken into broadcasting or racing journalism; he had the talent and the contacts, and the field was opening up, but instead he bought the tweed jacket that denoted "teacher" and the dark-coloured shirt that denoted "slightly Bohemian, likes jazz", and headed home.

He taught for 10 years in Shields: one year at Brinkburn Secondary Modern, one year at the Marine & Technical College then eight years back at the Boys' Grammar, where he joined a distinguished team of history teachers, including Messrs Constable and Robson, who were still smashing the class system in education by putting a lot of bright Shields kids into Oxford colleges.

In 1973 he took up a promotion at Haydon Bridge. He loved the Wall, the craic, the golf, the cricket and the racing. He reckoned, not without reason, that Hexham racecourse was the most beautiful in England. He also put some of his winnings into some likely top- class foals, and for many years played a leading role in organising the annual Hexham Music Festival. Most importantly in these years, he met and married Christine Dodgson, a young biology teacher at the school.

The 1990s, however, proved a low decade. First, he ran into poor health, mainly diabetes, and though a mean left-arm spinner and a sportsman after the finest traditions, was not exactly one for the gym. Second, teaching changed. The new schedules and career patterns were not for him. Those of you who have anything to do with training teachers, hear this: here was an incomparably gifted teacher who was comprehensive and inclusive in the only sense that matters – in the classroom – who found himself increasingly out of sympathy with what was happening in schools.

He retired in 1993, the year that his marriage ended. During these years, his love of life went on, especially with two strapping sons to keep him sharp, but he was not always happy. This was put permanently to rights one morning in 2002 when, by chance on Battle Hill, Hexham, he met an old flame – a Shields girl, Marjorie Henry, recently return-ed from London. From that morning on, Jim and Marje tended their allotment with loving care, and many good things grew there.

Robert Colls

James Murray Blance, schoolteacher, sportsman, scholar in the uses of literacy: born South Shields 17 May 1940; married 1978 Christine Dodgson (divorced, two sons); died Hexham 23 July 2009.