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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Smart phones, dumb reading: Rebecca and Harry from ‘Teens’
Amazon's drones were unveiled last year.
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Life and Style
Worth shelling out for: Atlantic lobsters are especially meaty
food + drink
Gareth Bale
footballPaul Scholes on how Real Madrid's Welsh winger would be a perfect fit at Old Trafford if he leaves Spain
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss