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.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
people
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Sport
football
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

WORLDbytes: Two-Day Intensive Camera training and Shoot: Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March

expenses on shoots: WORLDbytes: Volunteering with a media based charity,for a ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A school in Tameside is currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are currently looking for ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?