‘Being a teacher has been a real honour’

Chris Whitfield who is the interim head at St Edmunds Catholic School in Portsmouth and is retiring soon
Chris Whitfield who is the interim head at St Edmunds Catholic School in Portsmouth and is retiring soon
Former Great British Bake Off contestant Enwezor Nzegwu takes part in a 24-hour treadmill relay at Portsmouth University Gym to raise money for cystic fibrosis. Fellow participant Dannii Hutchins gives support. 'Picture Ian Hargreaves  (180224-1)

Bake-Off star organises 24-hour charity run at University of Portsmouth

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He has been hailed as the saviour of a struggling secondary school in Portsmouth and the man behind one of Hampshire’s most successful schools.

But Catholic headteacher Chris Whitfield – who assures me he is retiring this week despite two previous failed attempts – takes a more modest view of himself.

He says: ‘The success of a school is the sum total of the teachers around you. I couldn’t have done anything on my own.

‘While I have always pushed a broad and balanced curriculum to help produce well-educated and well-rounded children, the teachers are the ones at the chalk face. And I have been blessed with outstanding staff.’

The 66-year-old former head of top-performing Oaklands Catholic School in Waterlooville is giving this interview on his last official working day at St Edmund’s Catholic School in Landport – which he joined last October when its former head stood down amidst a succession of disappointing exam results.

Little wonder he can’t stop smiling as the school is celebrating a stunning 11 per cent leap in its ‘gold standard’ pass rate of five or more A* to C GCSEs including English and maths this year.

Chris says: ‘My role here was a nurturing one. It was very important to me personally that St Edmund’s was successful, and I’m delighted with the results which I’m confident the school can better next year.

‘When I was asked to come on board by the chair of governors and the Bishop (Crispian Hollis) last year, it would have been easy to say “no way” but it’s a lovely school with fantastic staff and students.’

The married father-of-four was appointed Knight of St Gregory for his services to Catholic education in 2007. But his religion, influenced by his Methodist parents who converted to Catholicism and a boarding school education from the age of four led by Dominican friars, is a private affair.

He says: ‘I remember my mother gave a lot to the church. She was there every morning cleaning and welcoming the parishioners. My father, an accountant, also played the organ for the church.

‘Having faith motivates you and gives you more purpose in life. And there is no doubt in my mind that Catholic schools have a very important role to play in educating children to respect people and other faiths and religions.

‘I could never be an atheist, but religion is something very personal for me and I wouldn’t dream of imposing it on anybody else.’

There was a time, however, when Chris questioned his faith.

He takes out his wallet which holds several family pictures. Three of them are portraits of his third son Damian, who died in 2001 aged just 21 after he was struck by a car as he walked home from a night out with friends.

Looking lovingly at the images of his smiling son, he says: ‘Damian was a lovely, talented boy and he broke a lot of hearts when he passed away. When something like that happens it does question your faith, it challenges you.

‘It shook our faith at the time but the whole community pulled together for him. More than 800 people attended Damian’s funeral. That says something about the Catholic community.’

He adds: ‘We’ll never get over the loss. To lose a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. Standing by the grave of your son is not easy. I carry Damian around with me, and he’s in our hearts all the time.’

Damian’s untimely death precipitated the end of Chris’s career at Oaklands, where he spent 23 years until 2007 and helped build up the school’s strong reputation with a diet of rigorous academic subjects, expand the sixth form from 80 to more than 180 students, and increase the proportion of Catholic students attending to 70 per cent.

He says: ‘What happened to Damian made me rethink my priorities. I decided Oaklands needed a new head to give it a fresh look and I started making plans to move on.

‘If you ask my colleagues how I changed after what happened to Damian, they’ll tell you I mellowed. I realised there were things that were more important in life.’

Initially, Chris planned to retire and do charity work, but then an opportunity presented itself to head up an 400-pupil school in Bangkok where he spent the next three years helping to implement international GCSEs and A-levels.

When he returned home in 2010, Chris was looking forward to settling down with his wife Julia, 63, a retired primary schoolteacher, whom he married in 1971 (the couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary on July 31 this year).

But then the St Edmund’s job came up.

Now that Chris will definitely be retiring, he has no plans to slow down – though he will find more time to indulge his love of crime thrillers by the likes of James Patterson, John Grisham, Dan Brown and Stephen King. He may even have a go at writing his own ‘whodunnit’.

He says: ‘I’m finished with paid work, and I’m definitely retiring this time! I’d like to do volunteer work for the diocese and ideally help in hospitals. There are a lot of people out there that need help.

‘I’ve been very lucky with my health. I go to the gym twice a week, I run, I played rugby until I was 50, I played squash until two years ago.

‘I have a few years left in me – it would be a waste if I just sat around.’

Reflecting on a 43-year-long career and happy home life with his wife and sons Andrew, 36, Matthew, 33, and Peter, 31, who have all followed their father into the teaching profession but meet regularly for a game of rugby, Chris says: ‘I’m at my happiest when everyone is happy.

‘Teaching is a calling and it is still one of the noblest professions because it is responsible for helping children grow into young people who will make their own way in life. The job has been an honour.’