Helen Wright: 'Women are more equal, but there's a long way to go'

The president of the Girls' School Association is a passionate champion of female education – and that includes the millions globally who receive no formal schooling.

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The Independent Online

Helen Wright has no quarrels with being an unashamed campaigner for girls' education. And, despite new research showing that girls in their twenties are earning more than boys for the first time, she insists there is still a long way to go.

"That was interesting," the 41-year-old headmistress of St Mary's Calne school in Wiltshire – who is president of the Girls' School Association – acknowledges, "but you need to look beyond that. Are they getting equal pay for doing equal jobs and how long will it be before that filters through to women in their thirties?"

They are valid points that Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service – who unearthed the figures for a lecture last month – had made before.

So, in the interim, there will be no let-up in her campaign to promote girls' education. In her school, this has meant changes to the curriculum to ensure her 330 charges learn Mandarin – the language successive ministers have argued that is essential for the future of the UK economy.

"People have an interest in it – it is one of the most major countries of the world, but a country that has been so distanced from our understanding," she says. "We now have a teacher from China, who comes over here to teach our years seven and eight (the first two years of secondary schooling) and you can carry on with it after that if you want." She has also insisted on teaching critical thinking skills in every subject, so pupils are better able to write analyses of what they have learnt. She is also now encouraging them to write more creatively as a preparation for the world of university essays. Her brightest students are also encouraged to skip GCSEs and move on earlier to AS-level studies to give them a better preparation for the world of university education. "We offer a personalised curriculum for all our young people, so some scrap GCSEs entirely in order to move on to AS-level and A2," she says.

Her views on GCSEs are unflattering. Suffice to say it is not an end-of-stage exam for her students, almost all of whom will go on to university. "We have to find ways of making it (the curriculum) work for individuals so as to release their passion and potential." With an eye to their future, one in three of her charges opts to study science or maths – so-called STEM subjects ministers are anxious to promote at university level. Sometimes, though, the GSA is characterised as a one-issue organisation, but Dr Wright has some forthright comments to make about the wider aspects of national education policy as well. Prior to our meeting, she has been in discussion with Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, prior to his visit to her annual conference in Bristol this month.

One of the themes to emerge was the Government's keenness for independent schools to sponsor one of their flagship academies. She issues a warning that it is essential for independent schools to retain their autonomy, arguing that existing links with the state sector (St Mary's Calne has a partnership with a nearby state special school, Springfield, where its girls can go to learn car maintenance – something not on their curriculum) are just as important. Her teachers, she adds, have also benefited from visiting challenging state schools; learning expertise from watching how staff deal with situations that may not occur in their own school.

To get back to her campaigning about girls' education, though, it does not stop at the UK borders. She has persuaded the GSA to link to a children's charity – Plan UK – which fosters a global perspective towards promoting education. The charity also has a campaign to promote education for girls, estimating that around 75 million females worldwide receive no formal education. As a result, Dr Wright ended up on a tour of Bangladesh with the charity's chief executive, learning on the front line about the hardship faced by young girls in their system.

"You've got to take yourself out of your comfort zone," she says. "There is a realisation of the importance of your global responsibilities. Some of the girls are getting married at 12 or 13 and sometimes this is perceived as a cultural issue," she said. "It is not. I said this to the girls here: 'If you can't feed your daughter, you might feel compelled to see them married, but it's not just a question of domestic drudgery for them or abuse. They're twice as likely to die in pregnancy at such a young age.'"

Another girl she spoke of, from Bangladesh, had been sold as a servant at the age of 10 and was working from 6am to 10pm every day, with just two hours off. "She was earning £5 a month, which was going back to her family – yet she was determined that she would become self-dependent and eventually own her own shop. I was impressed by her determination."

Dr Wright is proud of the fact she has given an edge to the GSA's charitable work during her year as president. "It doesn't normally endorse charities," she says. She hopes she will leave it that legacy for the future. The determination she has shown in her campaigning is matched by her determination to throw herself into her job as headmistress. When she arrived at St Mary's Calne eight years ago she was heavily pregnant with her first child, Harry.

Her husband Brian, now head of information technology at Oxford University's science park, gave up his job so she could concentrate on her career.

She has had three children during her eight years at the school, but her main claim to fame came with the birth of her third child, Jessica.

She was back from maternity leave after just seven hours, taking Jessica into the office on her first day in this world. "I'd been there the previous day, so it didn't feel odd," she says. "I just felt it was right. It may not appear conventional to some people, but the reactions I got were so positive. I had this sling I could carry her in. I recognise not all people would do that."

However, it did show the girls at the school that it was not impossible to combine looking after a young child while holding down a job. (Jessica will be well briefed on the education scene when she grows up. Dr Wright had just returned from a joint GSA/ Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference meeting in Edinburgh when I spoke to her. Jessica had accompanied her there, too, courtesy of a national organisation that could provide her with a temporary nanny upon her arrival in Scotland.) Her campaigning, though, is about to be lost to the UK soon, though, as she has just accepted a post as head of Ascham School in Sydney, Australia, from January 2013.

It is one of the oldest and most successful girls' schools in Australia – and is just celebrating its 125th anniversary.

It would probably be a fair bet that the girls there – if they aren't already – will be convinced of the value of global campaigning for a decent education for girls around the world before too long.