Headmistress, Girls’ Division: 2005-2011
Gill studied History and Politics at the University of Wales before completing her PGCE at the University of Reading. She spent 24 years working in the state-maintained sector before joining Belvedere School in Liverpool, as Deputy Head in 1996. A year later she became Headmistress. She remained in that post until 2005, at which point she moved to become Headmistress of Bolton School. In 2014, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate (EdD) by Bolton University, for her outstanding contribution to education.
When and what did you teach at Bolton School?
I had been Headmistress at Belvedere for several years when, after a 360º appraisal, it was recommended that I apply for a second Headship, but I had no experience of boarding schools and, as a northern girl, no desire to move south. Bolton School was the only School I could have considered moving to, so when Jane Panton’s retirement was announced, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss. I knew Jane well through the GSA and, after previous visits, thought the School was wonderful – to be appointed as its Headmistress felt like fate.
When I visited for interview, I felt immediately at home: I was escorted on a tour of the buildings by the Head Girl and Deputies who warned me to be prepared for how much it rained in Bolton – like the girls at Belvedere, Girls’ Division pupils tell it exactly as it is, which I love.
I felt an enormous sense of responsibility when I walked into my first Assembly behind the Head Girl and prefects. I talked then about leadership and teamwork, using one of my favourite images – geese flying in their ‘V’ formation, one leading, others picking up the lead when the first one tires, all contributing to their progress. I am a collegiate person and believe teamwork is essential: between the Divisions, amongst the staff, amongst the girls, and between the staff and girls. The staff give a huge amount of themselves, and the pupils acknowledge this and are protective of their teachers.
What did you enjoy most about your role here?
It was the best job in the world, and I looked forward to coming into School every day. I loved the challenge, the fact that no two days were ever the same, and the Common Room: the Girls’ Division staff were (and are!) just fantastic – they drive the School forward.
I’m probably proudest of the capital developments that were completed during my tenure: the new Beech House and Hesketh House, and the planning for what eventually became the Riley Centre. Working with Boys’ Division to develop the Centre, and to start thinking about the implications of bringing two cultures together, was an important part of the exercise. I worked closely with Mervyn Brooker and Philip Britton throughout my time – it can be lonely at the top, and it was good to have an ally.
I’m also proud of the improvements I was able to make to the staff facilities, and the evolution in technology that I oversaw: during my time as Headmistress, I boosted IT provision and teaching, purposely appointing a Deputy Head (Andy Green-Howard) with IT expertise. The fact that he was male raised a few eyebrows!
What would you say is your fondest memory of your time here?
There are far too many to mention, but helping the Beech House’ pupils ‘move’, when they walked across to their new School each holding a balloon, was very special. I always enjoyed meeting the Old Girls, both at School and around the country, and hearing their stories of life in the Girls’ Division during their eras. The Ceremony of Carols (especially the Paper Angels!), Prefects’ Panto and Christmas Post never failed to be marvellous – we do Christmas well in the Girls’ Division.
My last assembly as Headmistress was hard – I knew I needed to go out with a ‘bang’. If it had just been a normal assembly I would have dissolved into tears. When I announced my decision to retire to the School, I explained to them that I wanted to use my retirement to develop my skills in activities that I used to enjoy, such as roller-skating: when they laughed at the thought, I knew that I had to make my final exit on skates, if only to prove a point! My decision was confirmed after watching that year’s Prefects’ Panto, where the Head Girl depicted me as being unable to stand up on my roller skates and having to be held up by my Deputy Heads, Lynne Kyle and Andy Green-Howard, throughout!
I came into School late at night to practise regularly, and the only people who knew my plans were Lynne and Andy, and Phil Linfitt, who I was relying upon to ensure that the doors at the back of the Great Hall were open, and that I didn’t go over the balcony once I’d skated out! When the moment finally arrived, I talked to the girls about all the places I wanted to go and the things I’d like to do, then, as Year 8 sang, snuck down the stairs at the back of the stage, where I’d hidden my skates. Wearing elbow pads hidden under my gown, I then roller skated out of the Hall to a standing ovation and the inspiring lyrics of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good.
How would you describe the “typical” Bolton School girl in three words?
All Bolton School girls are caring, embracing the ethos of the School wholeheartedly from the moment they arrive, confident, both in pursuing their ambitions and expressing their opinions, and determined to succeed in whatever they have chosen as their focus.
What do you think is the most important thing that a Bolton School education gives to its pupils?
The possession of the above qualities. If we continue to produce generations of girls who go out into the world, make their mark and give something back to society, then we have done our job.
What do you think sets Bolton School apart from other Schools?
As inspectors always remark, Bolton School is a very special School with a clear ethos: that you have a moral duty to put back into society what you get out of it. This ethos must be buried within the sandstone walls of the buildings, transferring by osmosis to each new group of pupils.
What do you think about Bolton School’s 100 Campaign aim to re-establish genuine open access through its bursary fund?
I am absolutely in favour: education is the most important thing you can give a child, and you only have once chance to do so. I benefited from the Direct Grant system, which allowed me to attend an independent school (where I am now a Governor) after I passed the 11-Plus. It was an opportunity that changed my life.
Bolton School’s extensive bursary scheme was one of the main attractions when I applied for the Headship. At my previous school, I had piloted an Open Access scheme, funded by the Sutton Trust and the GDST. The scheme made education accessible to girls from a range of social backgrounds – literally off the streets in some cases – based on their academic potential, regardless of their ability to pay. I know from follow-up research the difference it made to their lives, and the question of access remained very important to me.
One of my favourite memories of Bolton School springs from a chat with a taxi driver two days before an entrance exam. He told me how bright his daughter was and how he wished he could afford to send her to the School. I told him about the Bursary Scheme, encouraged him to apply – and his daughter came second in the exam. Everyone can benefit from a school like this one.
Parts of this interview are extracted from Gill’s profile in The Best of Both Worlds, our anniversary commemorative publication, which can be purchased here.