Notwithstanding his much-admired work as an adviser for the Association of School and College Leaders, Stephen Szemerenyi will be best remembered as the former head teacher of Finchley Catholic High School for boys in north London, writes Damian McBride.
Educated at Cardinal Vaughan and Christ’s College, Cambridge, he taught Classics and Ancient History at Highgate School from 1965-80, followed by a brief period at Hemel Hempstead School.
When he was appointed head teacher at Finchley Catholic in 1983 it bore little relation to the proud and pioneering institution founded by Canon Clement Parsons in 1926. The school was heavily undersubscribed, discipline and academic performance were poor, and several of its buildings were virtually derelict.
Described by the Finchley Times as “an educational traditionalist with radical ideas”, the new head began to rebuild the reputation of the school, cracking down on bullying and classroom disruption, and ensuring that academic excellence was nurtured and celebrated.
He also rebuilt the physical fabric of the school, using the new financial freedoms provided in the 1988 Education Act to invest in new buildings and equipment, and to bring its classrooms into the computer age.
He secured the school an invitation to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Cathedral in 1986, and persuaded local MP Margaret Thatcher to pay her first visit to the school in two decades, opening a new technology block in 1989.
A devout Catholic, he strengthened the school’s relationship with St Alban’s parish in North Finchley and forged its first formal teaching collaboration with St Michael’s Catholic Grammar School for girls.
In 1997, to his surprise and delight, Finchley Catholic High School was one of just eight secondary schools in London awarded an Ofsted “Oscar” for excellence.
When he stepped down as head teacher in 1999, he left a school transformed. Canon Parsons created and built the school; Stephen Szemerenyi saved and restored it.
He was awarded the OBE in 2009 for services to education, and was living in semi-retirement with his wife Jan when he died on New Year’s Day after a short illness.