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Dame made her mark on history

OBITUARY. Dame Helen Metcalf (1946-2003)

Helen Metcalf died on December 3, some 12 years after her breast cancer was first diagnosed. She had managed to maintain successful headship for a further 10 years, demonstrating her own mental toughness and the quality of the management team around her at Chiswick community college, Hounslow.

Helen was a true Londoner. She attended Enfield girls' grammar and married another north Londoner, David Metcalf, whom she met when both were canvassing for the Labour party. They lived near Acland Burghley comprehensive where Helen was deputy head, between 1982 and 1988, and where later their son, Tom, was a pupil.

It was in 1975 that I first met Helen. She literally walked in off the street and asked for a job in Islington Green school where I had just started my first headship. Her teaching experience in a further education college and a local grammar school made me think she probably possessed the skills we needed. As a local councillor and chair of the housing committee, she also knew a lot about Islington and the wide range of families we worked with.

In her teaching, she combined a deep knowledge of north London youth with enthusiasm and erudition in her specialist subject, history. An Inner London Education Authority inspector said she was the best history teacher she had ever observed, but was mystified by Helen's form of address to challenging lads: "Now then petal, just calm down."

She was head of history, then head of sixth form, and was instrumental in supporting the early years of an Islington sixth-form centre and making sure ambitious and able students could get to university.

Helen's headship at Chiswick lasted for more than 12 years (1988-2001), during which time the school came to be recognised as highly effective by inspectors. Its over-subscription caused Helen as much concern as pleasure - many children had to be turned away.

When Helen was awarded a DBE, she knew that this acknowledged the efforts of her colleagues as well as her own - she was thrilled that the values and practices of a genuinely comprehensive, community-centred college could be so celebrated. Her influence extends beyond her life.

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