Vikki Askew - Obituary

"I first met Vikki not long after I had become Headmistress of JAGS in 1994, when I attended a meeting of the Independent Schools’ Community Action Working party which was being held at Dulwich College. She was there as a leading member of the group.  Her fierce intelligence, passion and commitment to helping others shone out.  Later, in 1999, she successfully applied for the post of Deputy Head at JAGS and those same qualities were evident here from the start. 
As my Deputy, she had oversight of academic matters, managing the curriculum, option choices and Heads of Department and taking responsibility for trainee and new teachers, staff training and development, and for community action & community partnerships. For example, she worked with me on a ground-breaking initiative, an independent-state school initial teacher training consortium, involving some 10 schools across South London in the training of MFL, English and Science teachers. Her breadth of educational knowledge and expertise made her an excellent School Professional Tutor for the trainees who came here, some of whom are still teaching at JAGS today.
Vikki was herself a very gifted teacher, as we have heard from Corrine – but her knowledge was immense and she had a deep love of the Classics, Latin and Greek, as well as of History. She regularly helped out in the Classics department, teaching Latin in Years 7, 8 or 9.  She combined an insistence on rigour with a sense of fun and used to time her classes conjugating verbs or declining nouns to see whether they could break the previous year’s speed record.  She also relished the cut and thrust of intellectual debate and was always eager to engage in such discussions with other members of staff, especially philosophers.
Within a few years of becoming my Deputy, Vikki contemplated headship. However, love of her family, love for her subject and her deep commitment to community action made her pull back after a final interview – she knew how all-consuming headship was and did not want to let go of any of her other passions. In 2004, she decided that she needed a new challenge and she took up the post of Head of History at Leeds Grammar School, returning to her home city, to be closer to her now ailing father, and immersing herself once more in History teaching and the education of boys.  Of course, she managed to take over the running of Community Action while she was there, too!  But Vikki missed London, she missed JAGS and she wanted to give her younger son Daniel the chance of an education at St Paul’s. In 2006, I advertised for a new Head of Sixth Form, and Vikki applied. We interviewed an impressive shortlist, but she won through, and returned to JAGS that Autumn.
As Head of Sixth Form, she was determined that the girls would become independent learners, readers and thinkers and would leave JAGS equipped for the challenges of leading their own lives.  She was firm, but always offered support and love. She worked long hours, endeavouring to make time for all those who needed her.  She was a mainstay for many of those who had particularly challenging personal problems and remained in touch with them long after they had left school.  She was very proud of the huge number of opportunities for volunteering she made available, both at JAGS, in other local schools and in the wider community which she made available to the girls.  Each September, the email link between Vikki and me grew red-hot late at night and all weekend, as we “pinged” over 100 UCAS references back and forwards, editing them to ensure that they were the best they could be. She took huge care with her advice and support on university entrance and had an enormous network of university academics at hand.
Flo has spoken about Vikki’s extraordinary commitment to Community Action. I should like to add a few words about this. Vikki was an exceptional national leader in this field. She chaired the Independent Schools Community Action Working Party for 13 years and during this time she was a key figure in the establishment of several Government initiatives, for example, the National Citizen Service, where JAGS pupils took part in the original pilot (somewhere there is a picture of David Cameron attempting canoeing with JAGS girls, among them Bridget Whelan, I think!) and the national volunteering programme, Step Up to Serve.  All these schemes were joint state-independent partnerships, committed to breaking down barriers and providing opportunities to develop the habit of active citizenship for as many young people as possible. On the international stage, Vikki also made a great impact. (To digress a moment, Corrine did not mention that Vikki was a prime mover in the European History Teachers’ movement, working tirelessly to ensure that proper text books were available to students throughout Europe, ones which told the truth about the past rather than Government dictated versions of it. – this was off-the-cuff) Inspired by Muir John Potter at Christ’s Hospital, where she worked before JAGS, she took part in a project in Romania every year for 20 years. Vikki spoke Romanian and had a deep affinity with the country, although her father had been driven out of Romania by Nazi persecution. She went there to work with orphans and disabled children and young people, taking groups of students annually, who competed hard to earn their place and had a life-changing experience. However, Vikki wanted to ensure that it became a joint project with Romanian young people volunteering alongside the British, nurturing a volunteering culture in a post-communist society. The Romanian Government were inspired to be the first country to have a National Strategy for Community Action and 105,000 Romanian students now participate in volunteering – previously there were none. A tribute to Vikki’s commitment, energy and passion -   that is definitely making a difference!
Closer to home, Vikki and I worked together for many years on the Saturday Literacy Scheme, where Year 3 pupils from 11 local primary schools came to JAGS each Saturday morning to work alongside a JAGS pupil mentor, under the leadership of an experienced adult teacher, to improve their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. Vikki loved being with these young children, especially the slightly naughtier boys, and would readily cover for absent teachers. She relished the scheme’s annual World Book Day celebration and loved to dress up – often as a Harry Potter character. Vikki regularly planned new and innovative community action initiatives and always went along herself to ensure that they worked well. This ranged from being trained to work with adults with specific disabilities to accompanying a large group of Year 9s to Wembley Stadium for WE day – an event which apparently involved a lot of celebrities and screaming! Vikki gave of herself tirelessly and willingly.  She was a superb example of a “radiator” and showed endless Care, Courtesy and Consideration.
Many people have noted that Vikki was “driven” – I remember vividly her sitting down with me one day and explaining to me what drove her. She felt that she had to justify or earn the very fact of her being alive – at the end of every day she would reflect on what she had done and ask herself whether it was enough.  This stemmed from the death of her 12 year old brother in a road accident when Vikki was 8 – he was never discussed again by her parents – and Vikki struggled with what might be called “survivor’s guilt”. As has been said elsewhere, she always wore the Jewish Chai symbol on a necklace with the Star of David – this stands for life. Her life was a mitzvah – a sacred duty to make up for her brother’s loss and to serve the world.
On a lighter note, teddy bears were very important to her, and she used to begin every sixth form year with her famous “bears’ assembly” – producing an array of bears to whom she ascribed different characters, which might be found amongst the girls. We shared this passion and I have several bears at home, each with their own characteristics, carefully chosen for me by Vikki over the years, they are developing their personalities well!  We also shared a passion for chocolate and books (as Corrine has noted, too). Vikki was notorious for not indulging in food, but, yes, she subscribed to Hotel Chocolat and would occasionally share some with me. Each Christmas, we would try to find unusual books for one another which we thought that the other would not have read but would take delight in –hers to me was a Christmas present – mine to her was for her birthday which was at the start of January. I loved tracking down obscure books for her, often to do with obstruse facets of medieval Europe.
Bright colours were another Vikki trademark – brilliantly coloured socks peeping out from beneath black trousers, vivid jackets, scarves, and amazingly brightly coloured bags, in particular a shocking pinkish purple briefcase recently – she was certainly not a dull woman!
When I announced my retirement, Vikki told me that she could never imagine retiring – she was sure she would carry on working in one way or another long into old age. Tragically, that is not to be. She is a huge loss, but leaves an enormous legacy. I want to end by quoting Tim, her husband:
“Everything Vikki did was to educate the whole person. She wanted all her charges, in the words of Montaigne, to “become better and wiser”, to be citizens of the world, to make the most of themselves for their own fulfilment and for the contribution they could make to others. She wanted them to have a hunger for lifelong education. She wanted to nurture a spark in them so that they could participate in the wonders of life and have the resilience to live through its challenges and tragedies.”
Vikki, you succeeded – you lived every day to the full, gave unstintingly to others and you did change things for the better.  I feel privileged to have known you. Thank you."
Marion Gibbs, former Headmistress, 1994-2015.


"Mrs Askew was an incredibly committed, determined and driven woman. She was brilliant, passionate and above all a devoted teacher. 
Today we gather for a celebration of her life, and the difference she made to so many others, here at JAGS and in the wider community.
 She always taught us the importance of community action.
 She reminded us, the greatest gift you can give someone is your time, and to make improvements for the greater good.
 She encouraged us to contribute, motivate and help other individuals, and in doing so we could help ourselves.
 
So many of us owe our skills acquired, relationships built and experiences to Mrs Askew. Whether this may be mentoring a child at Saturday literacy Scheme, staying with host families in Romania, supporting a student at Bessemer Grange, or going to university- the list is endless, and so was Mrs Askew’s uplifting enthusiasm.
 She embraced us all, dedicating her time to inspire others, and for so many, enabled our outcomes in whatever we chose to pursue.
 
We are lucky to have known such an amazing woman, a true visionary and a figure that we will look back on as an exceptional person who stood out in our formative years.
She united us together for countless community action projects and charity events, which has allowed us to raise money for a huge range of causes and truly make a difference.
I feel so grateful to have worked so closely with her on the Romania project, the long-standing partnership with Sparrow Schools Foundation from South Africa, as Head Girl and having her support during and beyond JAGS.
 
With a quirky sense of humor, I’ll never forget her diverting onto major tangents about the philosophies of life in our weekly head girls’ meeting, likening the corners of the common room to her teddy bear collection, kicking out the ‘common room Charlies’, or opening a sixth form assembly by bouncing on a space hopper!
 
But she opened our eyes, wanted every moment to count, and for us to be the best we possibly could.
 She was a force of JAGS. A force of community action.  Mrs Askew inspired us to be real, be humble and be able to share ourselves and touch the lives of others. As a relentless advocate for engaging and empowering others, she gave us belief and confidence to be part of something bigger. 
From Nightingale House, visiting the elderly suffering from dementia, to Tea Parties with Dulwich Helpline, and befriending local people isolated as part of Link Age Southwark. She demonstrated that doing little bits of good, no matter how small, is never a waste and can collectively have a positive impact in someone’s world.
 
Her legacy will be our continued commitment to community action, to influencing change and making a meaningful contribution to our shared society. So, when I heard that Mrs Askew had passed, while I felt a deep sense of loss, I also felt a profound sense of gratitude.
 At the time I was living in rural India for three months volunteering in the International Citizen Service, and found comfort in doing something Mrs Askew had been extremely supportive of.
 
She touched me, she touched all of you, she touched so many.
 May we carry her values and her drive, and helping those in need, with us for the rest of our lives.
 She will always be with us."
Flo Savage, Former Head Girl, 2014-2015


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