Jim Cogan: Teacher and charity founder

James Atcheson Cogan, schoolteacher and charity worker: born Liverpool 15 May 1937; staff, Westminster School 1964-99; Founder and Director, Students' Partnership Worldwide 1985-2003, honorary president 2003-07; OBE 2003; married 1966 Jenny Douglas (two sons, two daughters); died London 27 September 2007

Wednesday 05 December 2007 01:00

In 1981, at the Election Dinner of Westminster School, Enoch Powell had been amongst those giving their erudite and witty verses in ancient languages, and after the main event people milled around outside in the fine summer weather. There was Jim Cogan, a trenchant presence in the flowing crimson regalia of his post as Master of the Queen's Scholars and Under Master, inveighing exasperatedly against the system of which he was so much a part. He was appalled by the contrast between this exotic symbol of a certain sort of civilisation and the fires burning across the river in Brixton, less than two miles away, in the terrible race riots.

Cogan was well aware of the unease that accompanied the deep pleasure he had in his job as English teacher in this privileged setting. The charitable projects in which he was involved in Africa and Asia came from a wish to give more widely. He felt strongly, too, that young westerners would benefit hugely by living among people with little of material worth, but a great deal, often, of human generosity. These convictions lay behind his founding of Students' Partnership Worldwide (SPW) in 1985.

SPW started as an opportunity for gap-year students to work in the developing world, with occasional return visits by teachers to schools in UK. Now it focuses more on HIV/ Aids education, the environment and youth leadership, most of the volunteers coming from the eight countries in Africa and Asia in which the work is done. Cogan worked energetically for the organisation for 18 years as its Director, all without any pay.

Jim Cogan would go out of his way for people. His generosity spread from personal initiatives to larger scale attempts to help people. Two of his ventures in Africa are ongoing. One the Good Earth Trust uses compressed earth, with small infusions of cement, to make ingenious bricks (which require no fire, and therefore no consumption of valuable wood), cleverly interlocked to make domestic and larger-scale water tanks for conserving rainwater.

The second project Alive and Kicking involves factories in Kenya and more recently in Zambia to make footballs. African adults and children often cannot afford modern-style footballs, which are imported, cost 20 each, and wear out quickly. Cogan's footballs are made of leather, withstand the roughest terrain, can be repaired and reinflated, create work for the unemployed, make use of the skins of dead cows, and cost less than 5 each. One hundred thousand have been bought by Uefa for free distribution in African schools.

Born in 1937, Jim Cogan did National Service in Nigeria with the West African Frontier Force. After Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he read Greats, before changing to English, he worked briefly at Rugby School, then Jamaica for a year, and loved these contacts with ordinary people in the countryside, as indeed he had on summer holidays in Ireland with his farming relatives, helping with the harvest.

From 1964 until 1999, he taught English at Westminster School. He loved Shakespeare and had a deep storehouse of English poetry off by heart. He argued that one source of Shakespeare's genius was his living at a time when the oral rustic tradition was still in full vigour, but in creative juxtaposition to a rapidly expanding literary world. One of Cogan's plans or hopes for his old age was to write a book on Shakespeare, with special reference to the unconscious and to nature.

Jim Cogan was totally unpompous. He was a wonderful teacher of literature, informal, unconventional and challenging. He was always personally stimulating; and also humorous, provocative and debunking. When bored and he was a restless man, easily frustrated if he felt nothing of importance was being risked he would feel impelled to make something happen, sometimes by creating an intense argument, sometimes by causing embarrassment.

Jim was married for 41 years to Jenny Douglas, whom he had met when he was head boy of Liverpool College and she was at the sister school, Huyton College. Jim was an excellent sportsman, and loved sailing and walking. He seemed much younger than his age, and full of life. He died suddenly, over London, on a plane bringing him back from a work trip in Africa.

Michael Brearley

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