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Headteacher, The Camden School for Girls
What is your present role & school?
I’m the Headteacher of The Camden School for Girls, founded in 1871 by Frances Buss, a pioneer of rigorous education for lower middle class girls in North London. The main school has a comprehensive intake of 584 girls and our mixed sixth form has 450 students, offering A levels only. The school has non-denominational VA status. Academic expectations are high, and the school’s unique ethos is about celebrating individuality (no school uniform!) and nurturing self-confidence and a sense that girls can achieve absolutely anything. A running joke in the school is that boys in the sixth form leave us as proud Camden Girls – I think that says it all, really!
I completed my probationary year at Walworth School, Southwark, in the mid-1980s, and things were tough. Boys wanted to become professional boxers, girls were going to run a stall on East Street market; many were successful in these careers long before the end of compulsory education. I learnt how to teach English without ever turning my back to the class, and becoming a contortionist in this way has proved useful in the multi-tasking, smoke and mirrors worlds of teaching and school leadership. Promotion to third in charge of English at Archbishop Michael Ramsay School, Southwark, gave me my first taste of leadership, and I loved the responsibility for developing the curriculum. My Head of Department, Sharon Whyatt, was inspirational, and I learnt how to build a team, manage change and communicate the highest possible expectations to students who were among the most disadvantaged in London.
I finally ventured north of the river as Head of English to Parliament Hill School, my first girls’ school, and immediately loved the pervading optimism about girls’ potential and the sense that it was OK to be a feminist – in fact, this was encouraged by the Headteacher, Judy Bax, whose clear-sighted leadership taught me how to steer a school through choppy political waters, as they were then and are now.
Next came a Deputy Headship, and then Headship at Camden School for Girls, and the chance, as a leader, to put what I’ve learnt from many exceptional colleagues into practice in this dynamic and unique school. It’s a tough but fascinating job, and our motto captures the school’s spirit – onwards and upwards!
What two professional achievements are you most proud of?
1. Progress 8 for disadvantaged girls in the top 10% nationally 2017.
2. Finding a way through savage funding cuts while preserving the school’s success.
What four words best describe your approach to leadership?
Be strategic; Facilitate others; Value autonomy..; …but also collaboration
What have you learned about effective leadership most recently?
The referendum on membership of the E.U. – whatever one thinks of the outcome - has taught me as a leader not to reduce complex issues to absurdly simple questions. And, on that note, Gina Miller has taught me that determined, vocal women will not be silenced!
The pace of change in our schools imposed by political decisions, and the pain this has caused, should tell us all to take our time when altering what we do, and do our best to keep stakeholders with us.
#metoo gave momentum to a protest that could have fizzled out quite quickly, as we’ve seen happen so often before. Social media used effectively alongside other forms of communication can be an important tool for less powerful women and men.
Back to education, the quiet professionalism of all the headteachers and teachers in schools near Grenfell Tower demonstrated the vital role of schools in providing safe, compassionate environments for children when they are at their most vulnerable.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a new headteacher colleague?
1. Listen to people you respect, but always trust your own judgement about what your school needs
2. Be absolutely clear about all aspects of your vision, dip into the detail, the rest will take care of itself.
3. Filter out all unnecessary tasks – this applies to you, your senior team and all your staff and students.
Who have been your influential mentors/ role models?
Dame Barbara Stocking – President of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, for her work on gender bias – both conscious and unconscious – in educational assessment and in the workplace.
Professor Jane Miller – one of my tutors at the Institute of Education when I did my PGCE. She developed my embryonic ability to read as a feminist, and to see ways of taking this into the classroom – and this was well before the days of critical reading as an A level and GCSE requirement.
Jane Miller is Professor Emeritus, London University Institute of Education. She is the author of Many Voices, Women Writing About Men, Seductions, More Has Meant Women: The Feminisation of Schooling and School for Women.
What do you view as the most pressing issues / challenges for girls and young women in our schools currently?
Lower expectations of girls in some families and significant domestic responsibilities which hold them back.
Girls who succeed academically in school don’t always achieve as well at university – is this due to unconscious bias in marking at degree level?
‘Good girl syndrome’ – the quest for perfection in aspects of themselves they can control at the expense of developing the more messy and challenging leadership and interactive qualities, where some degree of failure is inevitable.
Persistent paucity of female role models in powerful positions across almost all walks of life.
Continuing sexualisation of women in the media and invisibility of older women and girls unless they are deemed physically attractive.
Do you have any books that have been important to you professionally that you would recommend for our leadership library?
Tina Kothari: Women in Leadership – an extraordinary analysis of how women’s life experiences shape their professional identity.
Lois P. Frankel: Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office – the title tells you all you need to know, and I think every reader will find at least one way in which they’ve undermined their own sense of themselves as a potential leader!