Marian McNay obituary

Other lives: Teacher whose skills enabled children of Italian descent to learn English

Marian McNay, who has died aged 78, was a highly successful primary headteacher, but her most notable achievement came earlier as the first teacher of classes of Italian children in Bedford who had no English. She matched the children by having no Italian, so overcoming the language barrier was an achievement.

This was 1959, and the Italian community in Bedford was big and growing. The London Brick Company was recruiting men from the poverty-stricken areas of Puglia and Campania to work in the huge brickfields near Bedford, which became the town with the biggest concentration of Italians and their descendants in England. Today they constitute about 30% of a population of 80,000.

The education authority for Bedford was so taken by Marian’s success that it proposed to widen her education with a visit to Italy of several months. But, as my wife, she decided instead (to my undisguised chauvinist relief) to come with me to Oxford, where I had a new job, and teach there.

Marian was born in Madras (now Chennai), where her father, George Milne, a Scot of formidable integrity, worked in the jute trade. The family returned to England before she was a year old. At 11 she went to Croydon high school. In 1953 she left for teacher training college in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire. “No reason to be proud of that,” her loving but severe mother, Barbara, commented, but Marian was to prove her wrong.

In 1956 she began work, teaching at a school off Old Kent Road in south-east London; her class included the young son of a notorious gangster of the era. From there she went to Bedford and lived in a flat in so-called Little Italy, where parents would cross the street to thrust bouquets or sometimes a cake into her arms.

She gave up teaching on the birth of our daughter, Lois. When Lois and her younger brother, Ross, reached school age, Marian returned to the profession as deputy head of the primary school at New Ash Green in Kent. Later, she was head at Edenbridge, near Sevenoaks, but although it was a successful headship it was not a happy time. We divorced in 1972.

On retirement, Marian moved to Witney to be near Lois and her family in Oxford. Here her life came full circle when she took on the role of story reader to primary school children in Cutteslowe, north Oxford, many of whom had no English. Nevertheless, they all knew enough to call her grandma.

Lois and Ross survive Marian, as do her three granddaughters, two grandsons, one great-grandson, and her younger sister, Tina.


Michael McNay

The GuardianTramp

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