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We got dames

Schools often complain that their work goes unnoticed, but recognition doesn't come more public than a gong for the head in the Queen's honours list. And since 1997 school leaders, especially female ones, have been heading for the Palace like never before. Wendy Wallace met some of them.

A system that names and shames must also exalt. Since coming to power in 1997, Tony Blair's government has handed out a clutch of DBEs to recognise the achievements of women in education. According to The TES's own tally (neither the Prime Minister's office nor Buckingham Palace could provide a comprehensive list), 14 serving or retired women heads have been made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire - the equivalent of a knighthood for women - starting with Tamsyn Imison and Patricia Collarbone in 1998. Others include three primary heads (Sharon Hollows, Mavis Grant and, most recently, Rita Weller) and one head from special education (Dela Smith).

But does it make any difference to the recipients? The honour, created after the First World War, has always struggled with an image problem. In the 1930s, an official was calling for it to be abandoned because it conjured up "a woman of a very great age, a widow, or a mistress of a small school for young children". Comical associations - pantomime cross-dressers and Edna Everage - linger.

Given by the Queen on advice from the prime minister, the award is not, says honours expert Dr Peter Galloway, merely for a "diligent" contribution - the customary citation in the public sector. It is a recognition of exceptional service.

Sharon Hollows is neither a widow nor a woman of a very great age, although she is a single parent and does run a school for young children. Plumcroft - a primary in the London borough of Greenwich with a bleak, sloping playground from which you can see Canary Wharf - is a long way from the pomp and ceremony in which the honours system is steeped. "Some people are surprised when they meet me," says Dame Sharon, 44, who comes from Lancashire. "I think they expect me to be older and to have a plummy voice.

But I'm proud of my northern accent."

None of the Dames The TES spoke to knew who had nominated them for the honour, but all were already prominent on the local or national education scene when the letter from the Palace arrived. Sharon Hollows's route to Damedom began in 1994, when she took over a troubled school in the east London borough of Newham. By 1996, Calverton primary was featuring in the tabloids as one of the "worst 100 schools in Britain". Three years later, on the basis of key stage 2 SATs results, it was being hailed as the most improved in England.

"The problem at Calverton was low expectations from parents and staff," says Dame Sharon. "There was an attitude that socially deprived children had limited potential. The staff were potentially very good; it was to do with giving them the right tools in terms of resources and expectations."

The numeracy strategy - for which Calverton was a pilot school - helped too.

These were theses the new Labour government desperately wanted proved.

Beacon status followed Calverton's success, and with it invites to Downing Street for Sharon Hollows. After making several presentations, she was asked to join the standards task force. Her personal experience - her young daughter had been critically ill with a brain tumour and had lost her sight - put the accolade in perspective. "It was inspiring to see David Blunkett working so well with Braille," she says. "It gave me a lot of hope for my daughter. Work has helped me get through my difficult personal times. It's helped to distract me."

She was ennobled in the New Year honours list of December 2000. In Greenwich (which she joined in September last year) Dame Sharon is charged with improving Plumcroft school before developing outreach work with other primaries in the borough. She finds the title professionally useful. "It's helped cut a few corners," she says. "People take me seriously from the start - people in education, other heads, heads in different phases. I don't have to keep proving my worth."

But her solid professional confidence is more a function of her experience than her title. "Coming into your second headship, you do things much more quickly. You don't beat about the bush with staff, you make your expectations known. You find out quickly who your allies are." She took the Greenwich job with the proviso that she could carry on with her outside interests: speaking on special needs (she spent eight years working at a school for children with moderate learning difficulties in the north London borough of Brent, before becoming a special needs co-ordinator in Newham in 1992). as well as leadership, in Japan (the Japanese have made two fly-on-the-wall documentaries about her), New Zealand and Canada. Already used to making keynote speeches, she concedes that the title and surrounding publicity have made her more in demand on conference platforms.

The honour comes with some obscure privileges, such as wearing the insignia where invitations specify "decorations", for instance, and using the British Empire chapel in St Paul's for family weddings and baptisms. More usefully, it can enable recipients to be heard domestically as well as internationally. Made aware every day of issues affecting inner-city schools - such as pupil mobility - Sharon Hollows argues that children being rehoused should be kept in the same area to avoid disrupting their education. "I've said it to David Blunkett and the people from the Prime Minister's office. I said it to Estelle (Morris). I saw Stephen Twigg this week and I think I said it to him."

She uses her title in daily life, but finds that the world does not quite know what it is. It's useful when making complaints, she says. It brings aeroplane upgrades. But it's not easy filling in forms. "They say, 'is that Miss or Mrs?' and I say 'it's Dame'. They say 'yes, but is it Miss or Mrs?'"

Honours are not politically neutral, and New Labour's Dames come without exception from schools where excellence has been snatched from the teeth of social deprivation. Dame Geraldine Keegan has been head since 1987 of St Mary's college in the Creggan, Londonderry. The bright, airy Catholic secondary modern towers over a spreading grey housing estate and caters for 1,000 girls aged 11-18. Two out of three pupils are entitled to free school meals, the area has suffered from what Dame Geraldine terms "civil disturbances" for 30 years and girls arrive at secondary school as 11-plus failures. But the results far exceed those of statistically comparable schools, and some families with the option of a grammar school choose St Mary's instead.

Given the title of Dame in the Queen's birthday honours list of June 2000, Geraldine Keegan, 62, was already an OBE. "I was thrilled to get the OBE, and I never thought I'd get anything more than that. I didn't fully believe it until I heard it on the radio and saw it in the papers." Innovations at the school include pupils teaching pupils, Saturday schools for parents and daughters and "back to school" days for local employers. "We love taking risks," says Dame Geraldine. "If something doesn't work out, it doesn't really matter."

Despite the area's nationalist associations - St Mary's serves the Creggan and Bogside, both staunchly Catholic - an honour from the British monarch did not diminish her reputation locally, says Dame Geraldine. "The community was already well accustomed to St Mary's receiving major awards," she says. "Some of the nicest messages I received were from parents; only one was negative." But it has made her job more difficult. "Expectations of my work were raised. I've always been keen on continual improvement but the speed of it had to be kept up. Every human being needs recognition; it gave me new energy to continue to develop."

The many laurels heaped on St Mary's in recent years include the European Quality award, four charter marks and three curriculum awards. In that context, Dame Geraldine was already used to meeting the great, the good and the influential. She's had lunch with the Queen, as an OBE. Martin McGuinness, education minister for Northern Ireland until the assembly was suspended last October, has been an energetic supporter of the school. The former prime minister, John Major, told her she "didn't look like a headteacher".

"If somebody can help us with educating pupils, whatever party they're from is irrelevant," says Geraldine Keegan.

Dame Geraldine does no teaching, and routinely spends time outside school.

She has made presentations to Norwegian tax inspectors, to the Maltese and Kuwaiti governments, to Somerset and Avon police. Increasingly, the private sector wants to learn from schools, she says. "The principles of running organisations are the same; it's how you get the motivation and commitment of people."

But having what she calls "competing demands on my time" inevitably sets her apart from colleagues. Fellow heads locally are "possibly bemused" by the honour, she admits, although she says relations in the close-knit Northern Ireland scene are good. "I would find it easy to phone and ask for help, particularly in Derry." She uses her title in pursuing community links, but not in school. "It's better they know me as I've always been," she says. "I just prefer to be me here."

Unless they meet at the investiture or some official function, Dames don't necessarily get to flock together. Mavis Grant, head of Canning Street primary school in Newcastle upon Tyne, has met just one other DBE - Dame Norma Major, with whom she shared her November 1999 investiture. Mavis Grant ran a successful school - Mary Trevelyan primary in Newcastle - for 15 years before being asked by one David Bell, then director of education there, to step into a school in serious weaknesses. Canning Street came out of serious weaknesses within the year, and the following year Ofsted reported that it was "very good, with several outstanding features".

Mavis Grant had worked with the pilot of the national literacy strategy and been on the Crick committee on citizenship education as well as "working parties for this, that and the other" at local level. "Most of my life has been spent on education initiatives. This is my 34th year in teaching - sometimes it feels longer; sometimes I can't believe it's that long."

Dame Mavis was the first primary head to be so honoured. "It was a recognition of the importance of primary education, rather than me as a person. On that basis, I was thrilled about it. It gave everybody connected with the schools a huge boost, as much as, if not more than, me. Staff and children got a great deal of pleasure and fun out of it." The title, she says, doesn't roll off the tongue very easily and on Tyneside parents have found their own adaptation. They call her "Dame pet".

Full honours

Heads made Dames since '97

* Patricia Collarbone (ex-Haggerston school, Hackney)

* Wendy Davies (ex-Selly Oak technology college, Birmingham)

* Jean Else (ex-Whalley Range, Manchester)

* Mavis Grant (Canning Street primary, Newcastle)

* Sharon Hollows (Plumcroft primary, Greenwich)

* Tamsyn Imison (ex-Hampstead school, Camden)

* Geraldine Keegan (St Mary's college, Londonderry)

* Judith Kilpatrick (deceased, City of Portsmouth girls' school)

* Helen Metcalf (ex-Chiswick community school, Hounslow)

* Mary Richardson (Convent of Jesus and Mary, Brent)

* Marlene Robottom (Mulberry school, Tower Hamlets)

* Dela Smith (Beaumont special school, Darlington)

* Rita Weller (Avonmore primary, Hammersmith and Fulham)

* Sheila Wallis (Davison CE girls' school, West Sussex)

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