Obituary - Margaret Gray, 1913-2010

24th September 2010 at 01:00

She taught in the era of drugs, sex and rock and roll, but Margaret Gray didn't wear trousers until she retired and literally cycled away from her prestigious girls' grammar school.

The glamorous head asked for a bike as a leaving present, and changed from her usual outfits so she could use it to speed away from Godolphin and Latymer school in Hammersmith, west London in 1973. At that time it was part of the maintained sector before going independent in the late Seventies.

Miss Gray never needed to shout, and always remained unruffled. Down to earth, she had a gift for being direct and able to listen carefully to staff and pupils.

Students first encountered Miss Gray at their school entrance interview. They immediately noticed her "presence", an air of kind authority, and her constant uniform of smart suits, pearls, make-up and perfectly styled hair.

She always asked what job they wanted to do in the future, and didn't bat an eyelid at answers such as "dairy farmer" or "ballerina". Her response was always just to ask what subject they thought they needed to pursue that career path.

She was undaunted by teaching through a period of huge social change, the Fifties and Sixties. A liberal upbringing and time at university had left her open-minded, but Miss Gray believed the new fashions didn't belong in school.

During her first headship she introduced a regulation shoe which all pupils had to wear. She knew girls would change into their winklepickers as soon as lessons finished, but felt she needed to "give their feet a chance" while they were under her care.

Born in 1913, Miss Gray grew up in Glasgow, but had no trace of an accent as an adult. She moved to London aged 11. However, friends believe her direct manner came from her Scottish roots.

Her father Herbert was a minister who founded the National Marriage Guidance Council in 1938 and had been a Padre in the First World War.

The young Margaret excelled in school in Brighton, learning the drums and playing billiards. She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge, and at Smith College in Massachusetts. Concerned at sailing across to the US on her own, she often told students to take a gap year as she believed she was too shy when she went to Cambridge and would have benefited from having travelled before starting her degree.

After returning to England she decided not to spend any more time at university, and instead of doing teacher training went straight into a job at Westcliff High School for Girls in Essex. She also worked as head of history at Mary Datchelor girls' school in south London. During the Second World War she was evacuated to South Wales with her class. Afterwards she became head of the Skinners' Company's School in north London.

Miss Gray didn't think exams were the most important thing in her girls' lives and tried not to turn the school into a "hot house". She thought it was perfectly possible to excel without becoming stressed. She wanted her "Dolphins" - the name given to pupils - to be hard working, dedicated and cheerful. She was just as encouraging if they decided not to go to university.

Miss Gray's staff were devoted to her. She had a habit of finding gifted teachers, but also keeping those she had inherited happy. She was religious but never pious, but had been brought up to believe a life of service was a good thing and expected the same belief from those around her.

Although her qualifications were in medieval history, she was also passionate about the English language. She could recite "reams" of Shakespeare and make a limerick out of any subject. She was also a huge fan of Winnie the Pooh.

Miss Gray retired in 1973, aged 60, and moved to Kew to live with two teacher friends. When they died, practical as ever, she arranged to move into a retirement home but remained active. She drove other residents to church, entertained lots of visitors with glasses of white wine and Mini Cheddars and was enthralled by the election of Barack Obama.

Godolphin and Latymer became independent in 1977 when the Inner London Education Authority abolished many grammar schools. Miss Gray was concerned this would affect the diversity of pupils - and the ethos - and became active in the school again to spearhead its bursary scheme. She followed changes in education closely, worried about the increasing amount of paperwork teachers had to deal with and that children had less time to "think about things".

Her passion for motoring and walking remained undimmed. She continued to drive to the Scottish Highlands, her favourite rambling spot, until the age of 91, and, indomitable to the end, once drove back from Italy with a broken arm.

Miss Gray never married, telling friends she hadn't found the right person.

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