Head for the hills

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Gill Eatough doesn't like lingering in the foothills - she's been in the professionfor less than a decade but is already a headteacher. Andy Farquarson findsout how she combines school leadership and a passion for climbing.

Gill Eatough exudes energy. In fact, she positively crackles with it as she strides into her office at Lacon Childe secondary school in the Shropshire market town of Cleobury Mortimer. This goes some way to explaining what she does in her spare time and how, after only a decade in the profession, she is head of her own school.

Mrs Eatough became a teacher by chance: her first job, barely 10 years ago, was a temporary junior classroom post. Since then she has been a head of year, a deputy head, and at 39 was recently appointed headteacher of Lacon Childe.

That's a quick climb up the ladder by any standards, so it's hardly surprising that she's also climbed to the top in her leisure time. In fact, to many "tops": Mrs Eatough is an accomplished mountaineer and rock climber.

Appropriately, her new post is in hilly country. Brown Clee is within walking distance, the Long Mynd and the gaunt Stiperstones are half-an-hour's drive away, while the nearby scarp of Wenlock Edge, immortalised by A E Housman, offers some very challenging - and potentially dangerous - climbing. But Mrs Eatough does not restrict herself to the Marcher country; her sport has taken her to some of the remotest places in the world.

"I've always been hooked on nature and science," she says. "As a small child I was constantly collecting plants and dissecting things, and I plagued my parents for a microscope. Later, I studied geology to A-level. Luckily, I had a really inspired teacher who made the subject incredibly stimulating and alive."

Perhaps this interest in geology also sprung in part from her passion for mountains. "My grandfather was a mountaineer, a member of the Alpine Club. He was even asked to join an Everest expedition but had to turn it down because of professional commitments," she recalls. "Our family often holidayed in the Cumbrian mountains and I was about eight years old when I reached my first summit in the Langdales."

Mrs Eatough's twin passions have remained intertwined. She graduated in geology from the university of London where she joined her college's mountaineering club. "I was either on field trips studying the hills or climbing up them."

Much as she enjoyed mountaineering at university, it was not until she started work that she could afford to travel widely. "I've been climbing in many parts of the world," she says. "I've climbed in the Andes, including the highest mountain in the Tropics, Huascaran in Peru (6,780 metres). I've also visited Africa; watching the dawn from the top of Africa's highest peak, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (5,895 metres), was a very emotional experience. I've climbed the Rockies in Canada and the USA. In Canada, we climbed Henry McCloud and found we were the first people on the summit for five years. I've also done a lot of climbing in the Alps although so far I've given Mont Blanc a miss because it's too crowded." Her next port of call, later this year, will be the Himalayas.

Nearer to home, Mrs Eatough also collects Munros (the term for Scottish peaks over 3,000 feet); she has scaled 204 out of 283. She also enjoys rock climbing in north Wales. "There are many differences between mountaineering and rock climbing, of course, but many of the techniques used are common to both. And for both you need to be strong, supple and fit. But at the end of the day, good judgment is absolutely paramount - people die on mountains."

After graduation, she stayed on at London to do a doctorate in palaeobotany. "I really enjoyed my three years of research. There's been a lot of work on fossilisation of animals, but the way plants have been preserved has been comparatively neglected."

After her PhD, she was offered a three-year Royal Society fellowship at the University of Montpellier, a centre of excellence for palaeo-botany. While in France, she also took up caving, another combination of sport and geology. Exploring underground rock formations was an amazing experience, she says, and going down caves made a complete contrast to going up mountains. At the end of her fellowship, Mrs Eatough and her husband (a geologist in the oil industry) returned to England. "As a foreigner, it was difficult for me to secure a full-time post at Montpellier," she says.

Being a school teacher was not part of the plan. "I wanted to lecture at university," says Mrs Eatough. "But it was the time of the Thatcher government's review of higher education and the uncertainty meant appointments were frozen. Needing work, I visited the local comprehensive, told the head about my qualifications and asked for a job."

Although it was meant to be a stopgap, the classroom bug bit - "I found teaching immensely rewarding and decided not to pursue a university career" - and Mrs Eatough moved to Ercall Wood school in Telford where she gained her teaching qualification. "I also qualified with the British Mountaineering Council as a mountain leader so that I could take pupils into the hills."

Promotion followed rapidly, and by the end of her time at Ercall Wood she was deputy head and had been closely involved in the school gaining grant-maintained status and becoming a technology college.

An even greater challenge was in store. Mrs Eatough was seconded by her local authority to a special measures team and spent two terms turning round an urban comprehensive. "Failing schools get a lot of negative publicity but I could see there were some very good things happening there. Creating new structures and management systems, motivating the pupils and rebuilding staff morale was hard work and the clock was ticking all the time, but I found it enormously rewarding and the experience has made me a more effective head."

And so to Lacon Childe, where Mrs Eatough is the first female headteacher in the school's 265-year history. "I've joined a superb school. It is a privilege to be head there," she enthuses. It's also a change from her previous job - with fewer than 500 pupils aged from 11 to 16, the school is fairly small with a rural catchment covering more than 200 square kilometres: 80 per cent of the pupils are bussed in from villages and outlying farms. The lack of public transport means many pupils cannot participate in after-school activities, a problem Mrs Eatough intends to address.

She also intends to apply for specialist sports college status; the school has a strong sporting tradition and its facilities are also an important resource for the community. "I think physical fitness is very important," she says. "As a kid, I was always outside doing something, I played a lot of sports at school and, as well as mountaineering and climbing, I enjoy skiing, snowboarding and mountain biking."

Do Mrs Eatough's sporting activities complement her career? "Science, and teaching it, is all about thinking and analysis - here's a problem, let's investigate it, let's look for solutions, let's test the answers. Similarly with mountaineering - you have to think and plan, be methodical and disciplined, and you're reliant on good judgment, sound knowledge and being able to use the equipment correctly.

"Being a head is physically demanding and my fitness really helps - I may be tired at the end of a long day but I'm never exhausted. Mountaineering is also a complete break from running the school, a great reliever of stress.

"After a few days away, I come back to work refreshed and recharged. It also gives me a sense of perspective: on a mountain, your life is on the line." Mrs Eatough brings that energy and judgment to bear on a headteacher's daily round of management and administration. But her passion for teaching remains strong.

"After all these years, I still get a tremendous buzz kindling young people's sense of wonderment in the science lab," she says.

The British Mountaineering Council is the representative body for climbers, mountaineers and hill walkers. Further details from BMC, 177 Burton Road, Manchester M20 2BB. Tel: 0161 445 4747. Fax: 0161 445 4500

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