It's a woman's world

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Top female heads smash through boys' public school `glass ceiling'

Original paper headline: It's a woman's world: Top female heads smash through boys' public school `glass ceiling'

The traditionally male-dominated world of the boys' public school is finally getting in touch with its feminine side after two women won headships at elite institutions.

New Zealander Felicity Lusk will take the helm of the 900-pupil Abingdon School near Oxford next September, shattering a 750-year tradition of male leaders.

The first woman to be appointed head of an elite boys' boarding school, she says she has "broken through the class ceiling" in a male-dominated sector.

Another head, Katherine Haynes, challenged the patriarchy this September when she became the first woman to lead a major boys' day school, John Lyon School in Harrow, Middlesex.

The pair are among around 22 women leading schools belonging to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference group of 250 top private schools, which admitted women in 1996. This amounts to just 9 per cent of appointments, compared with 40 per cent in state secondaries.

Miss Lusk will move just a few miles down the road from her current post at the prestigious Oxford High School for Girls, where she has been head for 12 years.

The strong supporter of single-sex education told The TES she was unfazed by taking on such a large boys-only school.

"There is not much I don't know about adolescent boys, and young people are great, whatever their gender," said the mother of one.

She said there were already strong links between the two schools, as the girls at Oxford High were frequently caught sending text messages to boys at Abingdon.

"Many of the parents of my girls at the moment send their sons to Abingdon," she said. "One father has already asked me to `sort out' his son once I get there."

The boys are already rumoured to be creating posters of their new headmistress, with the slogan "Miss Lusk, coming to a school near you".

The music graduate said she was blazing a trail by bagging a headship at a leading independent school, where only 20 per cent of the staff are female.

"I will get a big reaction," she said. "In the independent sector female heads are not all over the place, it is still very male dominated. There is a bit of a glass ceiling and I have definitely broken through it."

She said part of her desire to move on was based on her mantra to her own female pupils: that they must compete in a man's world, step out of their comfort zones and face new challenges.

Speaking about her appointment to her first headship, Ms Haynes said she thought gender was now "less of an issue".

But she confessed she preferred teaching in boys' schools because she felt there was more enthusiasm for extra-curricular activities.

A tale of two schools

Abingdon School, Oxfordshire

  • Founded: unclear, but the official anniversary is measured from 1256.
  • Notable alumni: all the members of the band Radiohead and the comedian, actor and writer David Mitchell.
  • Motto: Misericordias Domini In Aeternum Cantabo ("I will sing of the Lord's mercy forever").
  • Annual fees: pound;13,500 (day), pound;27,000 (full board).
    • John Lyon School, Middlesex

      • Founded: 1876.
      • Notable alumni: journalist Johann Hari and actor Timothy West.
      • Motto: Stet Fortuna Domus ("Let the fortune of the house stand").
      • Annual fees: pound;12,000 (day only).

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