Sweet taste of learning

PUBLISHED: 11:09 05 July 2007 | UPDATED: 12:35 04 May 2010

BOWING OUT: James Tilly with young footballers at King’s School, Ely.

BOWING OUT: James Tilly with young footballers at King's School, Ely.

WHEN history lessons got tough, teacher James Tilly would pull out his famous bag of wine gums and put the smiles back on the faces of his young pupils. In his English class, where the struggling 11-year-olds were trying to get to grips with grammar, a de

WHEN history lessons got tough, teacher James Tilly would pull out his famous bag of wine gums and put the smiles back on the faces of his young pupils.

In his English class, where the struggling 11-year-olds were trying to get to grips with grammar, a descriptive piece of writing on eating chocolate was the task set for homework.

"It's not bribery or corruption," joked James. "I was given some chocolates for Christmas which I didn't like, so I told them to take one for homework, eat it and write about it. It worked very well and produced some of their best pieces of work.

"I didn't bring out the wine gums at all this term. But if they did something good they got a treat."

James even likens himself to a sweet - hard on the outside but with a soft centre.

"I'm seen as a bit of a softy," he said. "But the children know there are certain rules and regulations that have to be obeyed. I have no problem with the children. I like them and I think they like me.

"I shall miss their cheerfulness, their optimistic approach to life and their friendliness."

It was 38 years ago that James walked into the classrooms at the King's School, Ely.

He had spent his first four years teaching at the prestigious Cheam School for Boys in Surrey, joining just two years after Prince Charles left.

"I felt I had found my place at King's," he said. "People told me it would take 50 years to get accepted in the Fens.

"I became housemaster of Goodwin but was told the parents would not accept me because I wasn't local. Two years later the house won the athletics and cross country and I was accepted."

Although James began teaching at King's Senior School it was not long before he moved over to the junior school to teach his favourite subject, history.

Immediately he made his first controversial decision to dump the chart of history dates, a chronological list of events from 55 BC to 1960.

That single move made him an instant hit with the children but the parents were not so impressed.

"The children knew exactly which event took place on which date but couldn't tell me any of the details," said James. "We used to concentrate on British history starting with the Romans in Year 5 and working as far as we could get.

"Now they are learning about foreign history and we teach them about the ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs and through to the Second World War which is very popular."

During his own schooldays James' worst subject was English because he didn't like the teacher.

In the classroom, he admits he was the rogue, always coming out with a wise crack and skiving lessons and homework.

"I was the king of detention," he said. "I got up to everything resourceful schoolboys get up to. I was bone idle and the teachers were surprised when I got into university.

"But I can see the same in the boys now. If they do something naughty I have probably done it myself."

James' school reports talked about how he was "tiresomely argumentative" and a French teacher wrote: "James translates a difficult French piece interestingly and amusingly but never correctly."

At school James' ambition was to be an architect. But when the physics teacher hit him over the head with a metre ruler he developed a dislike for the science and changed his mind.

A spell running an Oxford university newspaper sparked a desire to be a journalist and he took a week's work experience on a national tabloid.

But he found the back-biting too much to bear and decided he might like to become a priest instead.

James went to see the principal of an Oxford theological college and was given the task of looking after a group of young children for the afternoon.

After a few short hours his adviser, Robert Runcie, who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury, told James his calling lay in teaching.

Now, after 42 years in the profession, having taught French, Latin, English and History, painstakingly organising the school's lavish Christmas carol concert year after year and coaching football and cricket, he is retiring.

His pupils, past and present, parents and friends gathered at a retirement barbecue recently to celebrate his time at the King's School and wish him luck.

But James is not quite ready to pull out the pipe and slippers just yet. He will still be on the football field on Saturday mornings with the younger junior school children, teaching Cathedral Studies to Year 6, helping out with summer athletics and stepping in to cover teachers' sick days and holiday leave.

If he can find any spare time he would like to become a Blue Badge Guide at Ely Cathedral.

"I feel I ought to like gardening as well," said James. "Isn't that what retired people do?

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