The Jag-driving Kiwi who's broken the mould

16th September 2011 at 01:00
The first woman to lead a top boys' independent loves to surprise

There is a story about the appointment of Felicity Lusk to the top job at Abingdon School that speaks volumes about her.

When the 755-year-old boys' public school concluded its hunt for a replacement for Mark Turner, who was off to become headmaster at Shrewsbury School, the announcement was meant to be kept under wraps while normal recruitment protocols were followed.

Not that the 100 staff at the school were fooled. "Have you seen the black Jag?" asks Graeme May, the deputy head. "We all saw it before it was announced. These things are shrouded in secrecy, but we all knew Felicity drove a black Jag so we knew it was her who'd got the job."

It is fair to say the black-Jag driving Miss Lusk is far from the typical headteacher who is often found at a top public school for boys. In fact, she is the first female head of an institution of this type - and, as a pioneer, she is in a unique position to discuss the challenges of running a school of its kind.

"I've always liked being the surprise," she says. So what does a typical head at a school such as Abingdon look like? "Invariably male," she replies. "Very good, nice, noble people go into headship. The stereotype about the sort of people who become heads of these schools are borne out to a certain extent."

When she was appointed back in autumn 2009, Miss Lusk, who spent the previous 12 years at Oxford High School for Girls, became something of a media star in her native New Zealand. "It received quite a lot of attention. TV New Zealand did a thing about me taking on the British establishment and I suppose I have. It appeals to people back home to have done that."

News of her appointment prompted wags at Abingdon - alumni include Tory frontbencher Francis Maude and indie-rock band Radiohead - to slap up posters with a picture of Miss Lusk over the slogan "Miss Lusk, coming to a private school near you".

She insists that she found the poster and others that followed - one sees her face morphed into Colonel Gaddafi's - very funny. "They're hilarious. I like them so much I had them framed."

But woe betide anyone who thinks she is a soft touch. Fiercely determined, she says she always knew she wanted to be a head when she began her career teaching music in New Zealand back in the early 1980s.

"It was always a case of head of department, head of year, deputy head, head," she says. She credits her determination to her parents, in particular her father, Stewart, who flew fighter planes for the RAF during the Second World War and took part in the Battle of Britain.

"He was a formative influence," she says. "There was an expectation that whatever I went into, to do my best and succeed."

Miss Lusk came to the UK in 1989 with her young son and eight years later, after a long stint in a senior position in the mixed Jewish comprehensive Hasmonean High School, she landed the headship she had promised herself - at Oxford High School. "It was a real coup getting Oxford Girls," she says. She adds that she agonised over whether to leave when the Abingdon job came up.

"It would have been very easy to stay there (at Oxford) for 20 years, but you've just got to keep challenging yourself. I think all heads should do two headships."

She says that her gender was never discussed during the interviews with the school's board of governors - but, like it or not, she is a pioneer. "Women don't apply for these jobs. I hope more women will. Headship is not about gender, it's about a capacity to lead. One of the key things in leadership is getting people, whether it's pupils or staff, to move from the point they are at."

The obvious conclusion to draw about Miss Lusk's appointment was that it was an inspired first step towards taking the historic old institution co-ed. But apparently this is far from the case. On this, she is very clear.

"We're a boys' school and we're proud of that. We're very content with where we are at this present time," she says. "A girls' school is not the same as a boys' school. In a girls' school there is a lot of talk about promoting girls as future leaders. In a boys' school, there isn't that emphasis. I've worked in co-ed schools before. Boys and girls work very well together. I won't nail myself to the mast of a particular philosophy. It's just how it's worked out. I didn't go out and seek a boys' school, but I like the all-male atmosphere. I find it very straightforward.

"Boys' and girls' schools now aren't the equivalent of a monastery. They are normal places that go through normal walks of life. Boys and girls have been distracted by each other since God was a boy. These boys aren't short of girlfriends.

"When I talk to parents, the fact that it's all boys features quite low down for them. It's much more about the academic status, rigour and the extra-curricular programmes we run."

So how has the first year in charge been? "Mind blowing." How? "It's getting to know a new community." She admits that she has been surprised by the behaviour of her pupils. "There have been no major disciplinary problems. I thought I would be dealing a lot more with that."

In her first three months in charge, Miss Lusk scrapped Saturday teaching. "It was pointless," she says. "I think the boys were quite pleased. They work so hard there is very little down time. They need to spend time with their families." One consequence of this decision has been an increase in numbers of applicants for teaching posts at the school. "A young teacher with a family doesn't want to work on a Saturday morning," she says. "Give the governors their due, they ran with the changes."

And they can expect more in her second full year in charge. She is planning a building programme to improve facilities and take on the kind of numbers that will see pupil numbers rise 7 per cent to 950 by September 2012. "At the moment, 950 is all we can take and we are over-subscribed."

For a school that charges its 120-odd boarders nearly #163;30,000 a year, the number wanting to go to schools such as Abingdon reinforce the view that well-run independents are pretty much recession proof. "A good independent school should be returning a surplus of about 10 per cent," she says. "If you're not operating a proper business model, you won't survive."

She recognises the sacrifices some parents make to send their children to her school. "They're re-mortgaging their property, they're working very hard, they're not necessarily having holidays. It's the last thing that goes. People are very selective about where they invest their money."

Indeed, it is parents' concerns that take up a lot of her time. She has had to calm worries that their children might be discriminated against in the university application process because they attended an independent. "I haven't seen any evidence of it," she says. "That's what I tell parents when asked. But if a child hasn't got the grades, it can't be used as an excuse by the parents."

A tough message from a tough head - boys' school or not.



1968-73: Samuel Marsden, Collegiate School, New Zealand

1974-76: Victoria University, NZ

1977-79: Massey University, NZ

1977-79: Christchurch Teachers' College, NZ


1980-86: Director of music, Wellington East Girls' College, NZ

1986-89: Director of music, Aotea College, NZ

1990-93: Senior teacher and director of music, Hasmonean High School, London

1993-96: Deputy head and head of girls' school, Hasmonean High School

1997-2010: Headmistress, Oxford High School for Girls.

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