Obituary: Helene Shearer, teacher and CAB volunteer

A formidable figure who was compassionate to the core in her career and retirement. Picture: Contributed

A formidable figure who was compassionate to the core in her career and retirement. Picture: Contributed

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Born: 3 December, 1924 in Ayr. Died 30 June, 2015 in Edinburgh, aged 90.

Helene Shearer was the daughter of Charles Hall Shearer and Helen Jane Shearer (nee Bryden), both originally of Ayr. That she was destined for academic life first became apparent when she became Dux of Ayr Academy Primary School. Her secondary years at George Watson’s in Edinburgh confirmed her academic ability.

Just as National Service was ending, she spent a short time in the ATS, rising quickly to the rank of corporal – no surprise to those who came to know her. Afterwards, she thought to follow her brother into the medical profession, but soon came to realise this would not be the best way to serve others. She transferred to the Faculty of Arts, graduating in history and adding a diploma in education at Moray House.

She took up her first teaching post at Loanhead Junior Secondary School where she developed a concern for less gifted pupils. It was also here that she learned her management skills under the tutelage of then headmaster, Robertson Sutherland.

Her next teaching post was at Currie High School where she became Lady Adviser – a promoted post with responsibility mainly for girls in the days before true equality of opportunity. Cynics might now describe it as a role created at that time for those women who had ambitions above their station…

Highly recommending her for the position, her former employers described her as “very much a personality, of distinct individuality” with “initiative and moral courage of a high order, never afraid to be unconventional when the traditional is suspect”, and someone whose relationship with others was always cordial, especially when someone was in difficulty, but who, with the “tardy and inefficient could be formidable”.

Helene’s progressive approach to enabling young people academically and socially attracted the attention of the then director of education who suggested to the headteacher appointed to the new Craigmount High School – described at the time by the Edinburgh Evening News as “the school for the Space Age” – to visit Helene at Currie. The result of that meeting was that she was appointed one of two deputy headteachers of an educational establishment as yet without form. The principal teachers, with the exception of home economics, were all men but Helene was undaunted by this fact. When a part-time post for religious education was created later, another woman joined the board of studies.

Countless pupils, assistant teachers and principal teachers have had good reason to thank Helene for her practical approach to problem solving. If the problem was of your own making and required nasty medicine you took it, but misdemeanours were quickly forgotten. If the problem was personal, she was always there to listen and support.

Always ahead of her time, Helene introduced counselling support and a social activity programme at Craigmount barely thought of by other educational establishments.

Concerned that every pupil should see themselves as being of value, Helene contacted exam boards in other parts of the UK, resulting in the introduction of secondary qualifications for the less academic.

After taking early retirement, Helene spent the next 20 years working tirelessly as a volunteer for the Citizens Advice Bureau from their Portobello office. Many a lawyer would be apprehensive when seeing Helene come to a tribunal to defend citizens’ rights against the establishment. She also found time to act as a Blue Badge Guide, with a passion for Scottish history and a particular love of St Giles Cathedral.

Only once was Helene known to be defeated: by the introduction of computers at the CAB which would not bend to her will. This ultimately led to her retirement from CAB.

At the age of 80, Helene then took up the cause of safeguarding the pensions of retired teachers joining the Edinburgh branch of the Scottish Retired Teachers Association, becoming president and, almost inevitably, national president of the association, while safeguarding the benefits rights of residents of Falcon Court, where she had her retirement flat.

Outside her professional life Helene was an avid reader, particularly of detective novels and the works of John Grisham. In her younger days she played tennis, then golf and then bowls. She travelled widely and loved being a “lady who lunched”. She also greatly enjoyed a game of cards – and a wee tipple of sherry – with a like-minded circle of friends.

Helene was a formidable, inspirational, sometimes unconventional but deeply compassionate lady proud of her Scottish ancestry, of whom many will have their own memories and stories to tell. Those she helped along the way will feel they owe her a debt of gratitude.

She died peacefully at Ashley Court Nursing Home on 30 June. Her brother, Charles William Shearer, predeceased her.

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