13 February 1946 - 11 November 2006
John Sleigh was a star amongst teachers of Chemistry and all his colleagues recognised this. He was the RSC Chemical Education Award winner in 1994 and the citation praised him as "an outstanding teacher ... and a dedicated professional". It went on to record the inspiration he had given to countless students, helping them to achieve their maximum potential whether they were high achievers or less gifted. And it praised his "particular role in promoting project work at the sixth form level, to the highest national standards, and developing strong links with industry. He has achieved national prominence in this work, to the enormous benefit of chemistry and young people interested in chemistry."
John attended a secondary modern school in the Black Country with an emphasis on vocational education. He left, without qualifications, at 16 and trained as a carpenter, working for a local builder for six years. Then he made a radical career change and, after two years of study for GCE 'O' and 'A' levels, he landed at the University of Kent in 1970. He graduated with Honours and was awarded a prize for excellence in practical work. Returning to his roots in the Midlands he took a PhD in organofluorine chemistry at the University of Birmingham and then stayed on for four years as a research fellow, working on anti-cancer compounds and co-authoring many publications - quite a contrast to his educational beginnings!
It was with this unusual range of experience and achievement that, at the age of 34, John began his full-time teaching career at Solihull Sixth Form College (now The 6th Form College, Solihull) where he was to remain for 26 years until his retirement in August 2006. It rapidly became clear that here was an intellectual force to be reckoned with! But John wore his learning lightly and the lasting memory of him is of a man totally dedicated to his vocation: he was committed, very hard-working, highly creative, firm, kind, encouraging and sympathetic. He flourished in a large department which valued individual initiative in the development of curricular components, and the sharing of creative ideas. His huge enthusiasm for practical chemistry - especially project work - put the subject, in the minds of his students, firmly in the context of its applications in the wider world.
He spent a lot of time in individual tutorials, building the confidence of the less able, whilst stretching gifted students and encouraging them to aim high. Their examination results were superb with remarkable "value-added" achievements. They admired him and showed genuine affection for him both as inspirational teacher and friend: large numbers went on to read Chemistry at university and many students remained in contact with him for years after they had left the College. On the news of his death, so soon after retirement, tributes poured in: typically "I found him an amazing teacher, very approachable and always there if I needed help. I am considering teaching and I only hope I can inspire young people as Dr Sleigh did". His colleagues in the staff room also had the highest regard for a naturally quiet, gifted man of solid principles who showed so eloquently the value of total commitment to the highest professional standards.
From 1980 to 1985 John was Secretary of the West Midlands Chemistry Teachers Centre. He greatly valued the opportunity this gave him to meet regularly, and exchange ideas with, teachers from schools and colleges throughout the region.
John's involvement (1983 - 2005) with the Villiers Park Educational Trust, which brought him into contact with sixth form students from across the UK and with key people in industry, began when he and a former University colleague, Dr Ray Plevey, organised a residential chemistry week funded mainly by this charitable trust. He was skilful in persuading companies to sponsor and facilitate chemistry project weeks through cash donations, the loan of scientific equipment, and valuable input from company staff. (These industrial liaisons also resulted in some very useful acquisitions for the project room at Solihull Sixth Form College!) Over the years there was a wide range of project topics, e.g. 'Pollution Field Testing at land field sites' (provided by The Environment Agency) and 'Measurement and Stability of Vitamin C' (Birmingham Children's Hospital). John's organisation of these residential courses was brilliant: groups gelled quickly and there was a real sense of purpose and tangible enjoyment by the students both of the laboratory sessions and the social programme. From 2002 he became even more closely involved with Villiers Park when he became their West Midlands Science and Mathematics Coordinator: this gave him the opportunity to organise Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics day events for students and other events for teachers. In 1997 a group of his Solihull students became finalists in the CEFIC (European Chemical Industry Council) competition; the project, in collaboration with Rover, involved the recycling of chairs into car ice scrapers.
In 1999 he was asked by The Salters' Institute to join a team of teachers to arrange a Chemistry Camp for Year 10 students; again this involved the organisation and supervision of a project and a social programme. These camps are now in their tenth year.
John developed a speciality in lecture/demonstrations on chemi- and bioluminescence which he delivered at many universities and colleges. He was fascinated by the phenomenon, collecting glow-worms (later returned!) from the Wyre Forest and piddocks from the coast, and acquiring luminous bacteria. Audiences were enraptured; applause was spontaneous. His articles on chemiluminescence appear in Chemistry Review (March 1993 and March 1996).
A stamp collection on the theme of Chemistry was just one of his many spare time interests. Chemistry Review (September 1994) carries an article about the section of his collection depicting Nobel laureates (specifically Chemists). He never lost his interest in using the skills he gained during those early years in the building trade, whether putting down a new driveway or, most recently in 2005/6, designing and assembling a superb workshop in order to pursue his practical hobbies. With typical generosity John constructed and fitted the timber framework of a roof for a neighbour who commented, when he died, 'His wisdom and the powerful way in which he shard this could never fail to inspire". He was also devoted to his succession of tiny Suzuki sc100's; the car became almost his trademark and was widely recognised.
Throughout his career, but perhaps especially at the beginning when courageous decisions had to made, John was unfailingly supported by his wife Jane. His two children, Christopher and Alison, both responded to his enthusiasm and are pursuing careers in the sciences. He was delighted both by the marriage of Christopher and Sara in 1996 and by the births of his granddaughters Anna and Josie who, though still very young, remember, love and miss him.
In spite of the tragedy of his early death, his family recognises that this is far outweighed by the richness and fulfilment of his extraordinary life. He brought knowledge, pleasure, enthusiasm, humour, love and friendship to the lives of so many people and this is cause to celebrate. The John Sleigh Award has been established at Solihull Sixth Form College and will be given each year to a new student who has demonstrated excellent progress and achievement in AS Chemistry. John's exceptional contribution to the profession of Chemistry will not be forgotten.