Head who beat racism;Profile;Interview;Yvonne Conolly;Briefing;News and opinion

10th December 1999 at 00:00
Inner London's first black headteacher tells Reva Klein about her early struggle to be accepted and the furore surrounding her appointment THE FIRST black headteacher in inner London came to this country from Jamaica on a banana boat in 1963. She wept all the way.

The tears of Yvonne Conolly, who retired last month after a distinguished career, didn't stop when she hit these shores. For months, she'd get up at 5.30am in the cold, dark mornings to make the bleak bus journey down to Battersea from Finchley. In those days, that was what you had to do if you wanted to get supply work. But day after day she was turned away and would go and sit on a bench by the river and weep her heart out before setting off on the long slog back to Finchley.

Eventually, a friend helped get her into supply teaching in the Camden area. George Eliot primary school was her first supply job which became her first temporary job which became her first permanent job. She recalls with a laugh the Victorian conditions of schools in the early 1960s, even in such a well-to-do part of town as St John's Wood. Heating came from a hearth in each classroom, lavatories were something you went to outside, and a class of 46 was normal.

But most tellingly, she remembers the petty prejudices of a school that had never seen a black teacher before. Her first experience of this was repeatedly being given the "muckiest mug" by colleagues in the staffroom. But by then, Yvonne's tearful days were over. She stopped the ritual of humiliation sharpish by bringing in her own mug. Then there was the South African father who told Yvonne's headteacher he didn't want a black person teaching his child. When the head told him that in that case he'd better find another school, he back-tracked, stayed put and not another negative word was heard from him.

If racial prejudice was a shock, so was the class system. "I came out of a culture where education was the tool for social salvation," says Yvonne in the comfortably cluttered living room of her terrace house in Hornsey, north London. "And so I took education very seriously and found, when I came here, that it was very different. All the emphasis was put on the children of the upper classes. It had never occurred to me to separate children on the basis of class."

Her first teaching job, at Knox College in Jamaica, helped to instil notions of social justice. It was a boarding school for children from all over the world, black and white, fee-paying and grant recipients. "I learned there that children, no matter what their ethnicity or income, could learn and learn well if they were encouraged and motivated."

She brought that understanding to her practice here and nowhere more so than at Ring Cross Infant School in Highbury, Islington, where she took on the headship in 1969. The appointment created a major stir. Television, radio and press, national and international, swarmed around the school for weeks until she organised an open day to get all the curiosity dealt with in one fell swoop. While that did the trick with the media hounds, racists were another matter. She received leaflets and letters featuring pictures of chimpanzees, among other things. From militant black organisations she got angry letters accusing her of selling out. And from nice white liberals, she received "patronising notes saying 'jolly good show!'" There was more. Anonymous letters to county hall threatened to burn down the school, prompting the Inner London Education Authority to appoint the assistant education officer to be her minder for her first day on the job.

Today, she is philosophical about the furore. "For some, it was too much to take," she says. "They'd never seen black people in the papers before or on the

television or in books other than as immigrants."

Some of those people were parents of children at her school. "I was the target for anything that went wrong. Either it was because parents were white or because black parents weren't white. I had black parents saying to me: 'Are you as good a teacher as a white teacher?'"

Evidently she was. She ran Ring Cross for nine years before moving on to become inspector for multi-ethnic education with the ILEA, then on to ascending grades of primary inspector for the ILEA and Islington.

A less happy period followed. Five years ago, she became Islington's head of monitoring and inspection and ended up, according to a close colleague, "utterly disabled and demoralised" by senior management, which had set up a highly bureaucratic and hierarchical system that stripped her of her autonomy.

Yvonne Conolly says the views of inspectors and advisers on how schools should be supported were not listened to. These difficulties were reflected in the inspectors' damning report in May, which said schools were not being adequately monitored or their weaknesses identified.

But, as she retires to "repackage her skills and experience", perhaps to work with parents on supporting their children's education, her reputation as an inspiring head and valued inspector endures. So does her work to support and raise the public profile of black teachers. In 1974, she set up the Caribbean Teachers' Association at a time when "a lot of black teachers experienced racism, felt undervalued and felt they weren't progressing". In the 1980s, she sat on the Home Secretary's advisory council on race relations and was appointed a member of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. She also wrote Mango Spice, an anthology of Caribbean songs for primary schools.

Beverley Crooks, an African-Caribbean schools inspector in Greenwich, found Yvonne Conolly a powerful and motivating role model when she first met her 20 years ago on a teacher-training course.

"She allowed me to focus on what a black woman could achieve. Over the years, I've adopted her as my mentor," she says. But she notes that things aren't so very different from when Yvonne was starting out 36 years ago. "At her farewell party, what was so telling about Yvonne's speech was how little things have changed. I looked around the packed room and there were so few black faces."

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