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UK’s first black female headteacher: ‘I got the job – then all hell broke loose…’

Yvonne Conolly is supporting the campaign to see Beckford School renamed after Beryl Gilroy

02 July, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Yvonne Conolly is supporting the campaign to see Beckford School renamed after Beryl Gilroy

BRITAIN’S first black female headteacher has backed the campaign to rename a primary school after one of her pioneer peers in a wide-ranging interview about racism and her experiences of the education system.

Yvonne Conolly, who taught in Camden schools and lived in Swiss Cottage, took the top job at Ring Cross School, Holloway, in January 1969. She was followed a few months later by Beryl Gilroy, headteacher at Beckford primary school in West Hampstead between 1969 and 1982.

Ms Conolly, 81, said: “It gives me great pleasure to support the proposal to rename Beckford school to Beryl Gilroy school.”

Beckford governors decided last month to bring an end to the school’s 91-year association with the slave-using former MP William Beckford, who made a huge personal fortune from sugar plantations in Jamaica. The decision was hastened by the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol. The council has also set up a cross-party panel looking to purge Camden of the memory of all figures “inextricably linked to racist brutal oppression”.

Ms Conolly said: “I have a theory that you are never ever going to get rid of racism completely. We are not going to get rid of burglary, or fraud. Let’s not kid ourselves. Wherever human beings go, there will be some discrimination, prejudices and lack of empathy. I remember when one school inspector asked me whether they could touch my hair. I remember people looking at me washing my hands, thinking the water would run brown. Were they being racist, or just ignorant?”

Ms Conolly faced threats to burn down her school and had to be escorted into the building with a security guard. She regularly received newspaper cuttings in the post with her photo crossed out and scrawled with racist comments. She recalled how when she was taken into hospital in labour a call went out on the Tannoy for a black doctor to come to help her.

But Ms Conolly said: “I think what has changed here is the nature of racism over the years. It used to be crass – ‘no dogs, no Irish, no blacks’. Now it is very different, more subtle. That’s why institutions have to question themselves at every point. They need to think about how fair they are really being.”

Now living in Finsbury Park, she moved from Jamaica to Canfield Gardens in 1963, taking a first teaching job at nearby George Eliot school in Swiss Cottage.

She said: “I had spent three years training to be a teacher in Jamaica but I had kept writing to the old London County Council trying to find out if I could get a job. “I was very surprised when they said yes, as long as I passed an interview. I remember coming over here with £36 in my pocket on what everyone called a ‘banana boat’ – I thought it was really quite luxurious.

“I remember going off to the interview at County Hall and the inspector said to me, ‘We need to get on with this because I’m going to the cricket at Lord’s’. I said ‘Oh, so am I’. He gave me a lift over there – he went in the members’ queue, and I went in the ‘scrag end’.”

Beryl Gilroy at Beckford School

Ms Conolly taught at George Eliot for six years before, against her colleagues’ expectations, passing an interview to become a headteacher.

“Then all hell broke loose,” she said.  “They threatened to burn the school down and I was in all the papers. I had to have a minder going into the school on my first day. There were all sorts of nasty things that happened. It was on that basis that I decided to create the Caribbean Teachers Association. I realised at the time there were not many black teachers in the system, and if there were, they weren’t being promoted. We sat down and looked at strategies, how you write an application, and do interviews.”

Ms Conolly worked closely with Netley School in Regent’s Park on the pioneering multi-ethnic inspectorate, later becoming a senior inspector in Islington. She retired in 2001 and has since been treated for the incurable blood cancer myeloma over the past 10 years.

Speaking about the Black Lives Matter movement, she said: “My concern is that some black cause gets carried away and becomes unreasonable, and then all that will happen is that we are repeating the ills of the past. We have a phrase in Jamaica – don’t swap a black dog for the monkey. If we are not careful we are in danger of swapping the very things we disliked with something equally undesirable.”


And on the historic statues debate, she added: “After independence in Jamaica, there were statues put up to runaway slaves. But you also have statues there of white colonialists. Perhaps, the criteria should be about people with good hearts, who have done things not based on money? We are at an historical point and I think there is every reason to feel that there are some structures in society, which we don’t need in the 21st century.

“If somebody decides there is a valid reason to change the name of school, so it can help serve a different purpose, I see no reason why that shouldn’t happen. But it shouldn’t be just done in the willy-nilly way that the statues were put up in the first place.”

Hundreds have signed a petition to name Beckford after Ms Gilroy, who wrote several celebrated books on the education system.

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