Education: How on earth did I get here?

Rosemary Salisbury tells Jack O'Sullivan how she managed to rise to the top of her profession as well as raise her own family
Rosemary Salisbury often feels bemused as she looks at the roll call of headteachers celebrated in the oak-panelled hall of King Edward VI school, Retford. For more than four centuries a succession of men - a long line of reverends followed by lay masters - presided over this Nottinghamshire grammar school, which turned comprehensive in 1979. Then, in January, Mrs Salisbury took over as the school's first female headteacher. "How," she wonders, "did a little Irish Catholic woman end up as head?"

It is the type of question other successful female heads probably ask themselves occasionally. But the answer is particularly interesting in Rosemary Salisbury's case. Because, unlike many of her ambitious peers, she has really had it all. Typically, they were back at the blackboard once maternity leave was over. Their triumphs came at the price of juggling work and babies, constantly worrying whether "quality time" sufficed. Mrs Salisbury is exceptional: she has reached the top after taking 10 years out of full-time teaching to raise three sons.

She has succeeded, despite having watched her husband climb the ladder in her chosen profession while she remained at home. There is a joke in the family that he was promoted each time she had a baby, successes that she no doubt relished, but might easily have sapped her own professional confidence. She recalls meeting his female colleagues.

"They would talk to me about clothes, cooking and children, but when it came to education, when I spoke they ignored me."

Indeed, her husband has been spectacularly successful - Robert Salisbury, headmaster of Garibaldi School in Mansfield, was knighted this year for turning a run-down institution into a nationally celebrated success. So King Edward's new head is also a Lady.

What, then, is the secret of Rosemary Salisbury's own career success? We're sitting in her home in the Nottinghamshire countryside, a few days after the end of term. She is not a relaxed woman. Energy, emotion and ideas pour out in equal measure. But around her is perfect order. Step into her kitchen and you are into low-key Country Living style - well polished old pine furniture and ceramic tiles, a room that blinks through ivy-covered walls onto a large enclosed garden. Not a dog-eared exercise book in sight, and certainly not an unwashed cup.

She's proud of the place, and talks me through how they came to buy it for a song back in 1976, and the improvements they have made. I meet her 17-year-old son Howard, the youngest, a handsome man wondering about a gap year, trying for Oxbridge, doing work experience. She's proud of him too, constantly manoeuvring him to ask the right questions about journalism, university life, entrance exams. She's at once the teacher, the homemaker and the parent.

Rosemary Salisbury's career started like many of her contemporaries', at teacher training college, with a first job at age 21. In 1976, when opportunities were opening up for women, she was 26, on scale three, a head of year, a teacher going places. Indeed, her new husband, though six years older, was lagging behind; he was still on scale two. But she was pregnant, and resigned rather than go on maternity leave. "There was no point - I knew I wasn't coming back."

Why? "Since I was eight, I have only ever wanted to teach. It was like a vocation. Teaching was a passion. But I have equally strong views about parenting. It never occurred to me that I should try to carry on both jobs. I know it is politically incorrect. I tend to be careful in what I say. But I think women have been conned into thinking that we can have everything. I see young women trying to do a good job and to look after small children. I think they are missing out.

"These days the children are older, so I don't have to worry if I have a meeting that goes on until seven or eight, although I'm still concerned if Howard is at home on his own. Being there when they were younger meant we could enjoy doing things like going to park in the middle of the day when they felt like it. I wasn't rushing to get them off in the morning.

"I'm terribly cynical about quality time. At six or seven o'clock in the evening, all my kids wanted to do was sleep. They didn't want to play just because Mum and Dad felt able to give them that time.

"Nearly all my female contemporaries went back because they said they had to keep their jobs. They were afraid that they would not be able to get back again. I always thought that was an excuse, although I think there was a genuine fear that they would lose ground. And some people couldn't afford to give up a job - not that we could either. Many is the time that more money went out each month than came in."

So what gave her the confidence to make a different choice? Perhaps the fact that she is Irish may have helped. Rosemary Salisbury was raised in Northern Ireland by her mother, following the death of her father when she was 18 months old. "One of my few positive memories is that my mother was always there," she recalls. "I wanted to give that to my children."

But schooling was also her route out of a poor rural background. So education is equally prized. In short, she seems driven by two clear ideologies which could not be sacrificed for each other.

Ironically, she ascribes her subsequent success in getting a headship to experience gained while raising children. For she never gave up teaching entirely, doing two hours a week at a boys' borstal just weeks after her first son was born. But most valuable of all was supply teaching - in all she worked in 14 different schools.

"Very few heads have done supply teaching," she says, "but it is an ideal opportunity to observe different management systems in a school. I saw the best and the worst. I learnt more about teaching than when I was in a full-time job.

"You would go into staff rooms and no one would speak to you. You were three rungs below the cleaners. The idea was that you had no brain, were doing it just for money and no ideas about education.

"But you often arrived in the middle of some sort of crisis, in a class that had low standards. It made me rethink teaching, and appreciate the use of humour and psychology."

Going back into full-time teaching was not easy. Her youngest was five when she returned in 1986. She was back at the lowest grade, below the level at which she left.

"I told the head that he would not see much of me before 9am and less after 3.30pm. But I worked at home after they went to bed. I must have been permanently worn out. I said if the children were suffering I would leave. But if all went well I would seek promotion."

By 1990, Rosemary Salisbury was a deputy head. Then this year she gained the prize of a headship. She succeeded even though the job interview took place three days after she had been injured in a serious car accident. "I'm telling you this not because I am special," she says, "but because I feel there are lots of women with the talent to do what I have done."

Had she not stopped to have children, Rosemary Salisbury might well have been a head by 30, certainly by 35. In the event, she was 47.

"The same age as Bob was when he became head of Garibaldi," she declares proudly.