Dame Helen Metcalf

Hands-on headteacher of Chiswick Community School
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The Independent Online

Helen Pitt, educationist: born Enfield, Middlesex 7 October 1946; history teacher and Head of Sixth Form, Islington Green Comprehensive 1974-82; Deputy Head, Acland Burghley Comprehensive 1982-88; Headteacher, Chiswick Community School 1988-2001; FRSA 1996; DBE 1998; married 1968 David Metcalf (one son); died London 3 December 2003.

Helen Metcalf was a member of the post-war baby boom and her life in many ways followed a pattern of striving, opportunity and achievement, which has become strongly associated with this group.

With a disrupted childhood and success at grammar school leading to university, Metcalf had an overwhelming commitment to ensure that as many other people as possible obtain at least the same opportunities through her involvement in local politics and, most importantly, through her successful career in education. For 13 years she was headteacher of Chiswick Community School, in west London.

She was born Helen Pitt in Enfield, north London, in 1946. Like many families in post-war Britain, the Pitts emigrated to southern Africa - only to return when Helen's father died soon after. She did extremely well at Enfield Girls' Grammar School and went to Manchester University to do a degree in history. There she met her husband David - who had just been bitten by a dog while canvassing in the general election. They married in 1968 and, when they came back to London, Helen first took a teaching diploma at Roehampton College and then, unusually at that time, a Masters degree in Economic History at the London School of Economics.

Her teaching career started the hard way - trying to interest youngsters on day release in culture and citizenship as a liberal arts teacher in Southgate Technical College. She soon moved into school education at the Dame Alice Owens School, where she stayed for four years.

After a sabbatical year in the United States in 1974-75 with David (now Professor of Industrial Relations at LSE), Metcalf came back to London and worked successively, and highly successfully, in three difficult inner urban schools. She was first at Islington Green as head of history (during which time her son, Tom, was born in 1980); then deputy head from 1982 to 1988 at Ackland Burghley in Tufnell Park; and thereafter she was head of Chiswick Community School, until 2001 when she was forced to resign because of ill-health. Each school was facing major problems and would in today's jargon have been termed failing schools. All are now highly successful - measured by examination results, Ofsted reports and oversubscription.

Metcalf's experience in education was one of the reasons for her involvement in local politics, although her interest went right back to her childhood and was nurtured in university. She was elected as a Labour councillor in Islington in 1971 where she worked with Jack Straw and Margaret Hodge among many others to improve both education and housing delivery.

She was one of the first to recognise the strong links between successful educational outcomes and housing and neighbourhood quality. As vice-chair of both the housing and planning committees she used her particular skills to guide through some of the better estates built in Islington.

She focused on the day-to-day practicalities far more than on the combative local political environment in which the Labour council, then known as the People's Republic of Islington, was steering through a massive programme of municipalisation - soon to be followed by a period of large-scale cutbacks in funding and in council power. She resigned in 1978 and it was in part her experience in Islington in the 1970s that made her such a strong supporter of New Labour.

As headteacher at Chiswick Community School, Metcalf had very clear ideas of where she wanted her school to go. These involved ensuring primary schools were happy to send their pupils to the school; improving working conditions for both students and teachers; developing links with the wider community; as well as attending to the core issues of providing a challenging educational environment which developed potential and encouraged self discipline. She was very hands-on and, as one teacher said, had "emotional intelligence": she was quick to read the nuances of situations and to understand the inter-relationship between personal and professional experience. Students knew that she was on their side.

Metcalf was equally strong in her support of staff. She was concerned about how to improve teachers' pay and conditions, concentrating on career development and capacity building. Her approach made many of her teaching colleagues friends for life. It was no surprise when, in December 1998, the Government chose to launch its performance- related pay scheme at the Chiswick Community School, led by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett and the School Standards Minister Estelle Morris. In recognition of her achievements, Metcalf was appointed DBE for services to education in 1998.

Outside her work, Metcalf's main commitment was to her family, spending long hours, for instance, ferrying her son (a brilliant swimmer) between many different venues. She had moderate tastes: travelling, detective novels, gardening and Georg Jensen jewellery.

For most of her time as Head of Chiswick Community School she was fighting breast cancer, first diagnosed in 1991. It was an enormous sorrow to Helen and everyone who knew her when she was forced to give up her career. In the final two years of her life she faced increasing health problems as the cancer spread - but she remained totally involved in life, interested in other people and their success and immensely proud of the Health Service that looked after her so unceasingly.

It was particularly pleasing that she was able to be at the degree ceremony at Bristol University this summer, when Tom received his first class degree - and that she was well enough to take part and enjoy the celebrations.

Christine Whitehead