A woman at the helm

For 135 years, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference has always had a man in the top job. But all that is about to change, writes Nicholas Pyke
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The Independent Online

Go to the annual get-together of HMC and you'll find yourself in a sea of dark worsted, much of it pinstriped. The HMC may be formally titled the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference but the headmistresses are so few and far between that you wonder why they bothered to include them a few years ago. The number of female heads and principals is so small it is yet to break into double figures and HMC remains, in the words of a serior adviser, "a terrifyingly male organisation". It is little surprise to learn that in the 135 years of its history, the HMC has never had a woman at its helm.

That is about to change. There was no press release or ballyhoo, only an announcement before Christmas in The Times's Court & Social column that the HMC's chair-elect is to be Dr Priscilla Chadwick, the principal of Berkhamsted Collegiate School, Hertfordshire, and a woman. Dr Chadwick, who takes charge of the organisation in January 2005, acquired enough votes from fellow-members to beat three other candidates, but in true gentlemanly style, the names of the vanquished have not been broadcast. "There is no manifesto or anything like that," comments a fellow-head and HMC stalwart. "You publish your CV, and the chaps vote you in."

The HMC's member schools, now numbering close to 250, are some of the oldest and most influential in the country, including Eton, Harrow and St Paul's. (Winchester remains suspended following the acrimonious departure of its previous head, Dr Nicholas Tate.) The organisation regularly talks to ministers and their advisers. It was a powerful voice in raising complaints about the A-levels marking fiasco of two years ago, and its concerns about university bias towards comprehensive schools have helped bring about the Schwartz Inquiry into fair admissions.

It was formed by the great Victorian public schools, and its members continue to educate the children of the country's most powerful families, including the sons of leading politicians and national newspaper editors. When, metaphorically, it clicks its fingers, the banner headlines appear.

In truth, then, it is little wonder that such a media-savvy body should appoint Dr Chadwick, who, at the age of 56, is both hugely experienced and impeccably well-connected. In particular, she has worked in several state comprehensives, as both head of department and head teacher, and in higher education at South Bank University. Most recently, she was head at Bishop Ramsey school in Ruislip, west London.

The links between the state and independent sectors have assumed increasing importance in recent years, and attempts to put them on a clearer, more sustainable footing will be an important theme for the HMC, both this year and next. University admissions, the area in which most independent schools feel that they are judged, remains a priority.

Those who know Dr Chadwick say that she is a tough, hugely capable operator. But while the current chairman, Dr Martin Stephen, High Master of Manchester Grammar School, is more than happy to fashion a few elegant phrases for the benefit of newspapers, as was his predecessor in the chair, Graham Able at Dulwich College. Priscilla Chadwick is a little more circumspect. It is said, though, that she is happy to speak her mind in more professional settings, forcefully if needed. While Martin Stephen's books include novels - described by some as historical bodice-rippers - Dr Chadwick's output has been rather more earnest. The best known is perhaps Schools of Reconciliation, based on her time researching Northern Ireland's attempts to create non-sectarian schools.

This was doubtless a useful experience when she arrived at Berkhamsted, where her brief was to unite the ancient boys' school and the more recent girls' school into a single institution. Despite dire predictions and simmering resentments, she did that job successfully. Berkhamsted, founded in the time of Henry VIII, quite possibly with cash looted from the monasteries, is best known for educating Graham Greene, whose father was the head. Although notionally co-educational, with mixed junior and sixth-form departments, the secondary-aged boys and girls continue to be taught separately. As a result, Berkhamsted allows Dr Chadwick membership of both the HMC and the rival Girls' Schools Association. This was not her only difficult assignment. She was the head of religious education at St Bede's in Redhill, Surrey, a joint Catholic/Anglican school, one of the first of its kind in England, and was called on to negotiate with both sets of bishops over what could and should be taught by way of religious education. She also worked at the struggling Twyford School in Acton, west London, during the 1980s when it was embroiled in furious controversy. The local education authority, Ealing, was heavily criticised when it sold Twyford to the Church of England, which gave it a "fresh start" in its own colours - a tactic that is now commonplace, of course.

Priscilla Chadwick is not only well-connected in educational terms. Although she has spent many years in state schools, she was educated at Oxford High School for Girls, Clarendon and Girton College, Cambridge, where she read theology. More to the point, she is the daughter of Professor Henry Chadwick and niece of Professor Owen Chadwick, two of the country's most eminent ecclesiastical historians. Henry Chadwick managed, at various times, to be master of Peterhouse, Cambridge and Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. His brother Owen has been Vice- Chancellor of Cambridge University and Master of Selwyn College.

The weight of tradition is an important part of the independent sector's appeal and inspiration. But it can also be a drawback, says Martin Stephen, the current chair: "Part of the problem faced by the independent sector is that its public image is, frankly, not 30 years out of date, but 300 years out of date." The HMC is considerably more professional than in the past. In the last five years, for example, it has developed a professional training department with some 80 courses a year on offer There is a full-time secretary, Geoff Lucas, formerly with the government's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and a full-time membership secretary.

The HMC is no longer just a club for clubbable men, says Dr Stephen, nor could it possibly be because the vast majority of the HMC's member schools are now co-educational - only a fifth remain boys-only. And Priscilla Chadwick's gender is not a problem but an advantage. "In the nicest possible sense, the appointment of Priscilla ought not to be news," Dr Stephen says. "The number of all-boys schools in the HMC is now a significant minority. I would have been far more concerned if HMC had thought that there was anything to make a fuss about. The great thing about the independent sector is that it is massively responsive to change. We do move surprisingly fast at times."

It is not only female pupils who are changing the profile of public schools, the workforce is also playing a part, according to Vivian Anthony, the former HMC secretary.