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How Yvonne wrote history as UK’s first black headteacher

Tributes to inspirational education pioneer who needed a minder as she braved racial abuse

05 February, 2021 — By Calum Fraser and Tom Foot

Yvonne Conolly: ‘All hell broke loose’ when she took over the headship

TRIBUTES were paid this week to a Windrush generation grandmother who became the UK’s first black female headteacher when she took over a primary school in Holloway.

Yvonne Conolly, who has died aged 81 following a long battle with myeloma, had to be accompanied by a “minder” on the day she took over Ring Cross infant school in Eden Grove, just off the Holloway Road, in 1968 due to racial tensions.

“All hell broke loose” with “all sorts of nasty” racist abuse, she recalled in a wide-ranging interview with the Tribune last year.

Sue Seifert, who was deputy head at the nearby Laycock Primary School when she met Ms Conolly in 1972, said: “Yvonne was a force to be reckoned with. She never lost her passion and total belief in the rights of children to an education.

“Right to the end of her life, education was her passion.”

Ms Conolly first came to London aged 23 with an ex-pat teacher friend called Elizabeth Heybeard on what at the time was described as a “banana boat” – one of the many ships that brought over thousands from the Caribbean.

She moved to Camden and worked as a teacher at George Eliot School in Swiss Cottage. She excelled, and after five years she was offered a promo­tion to become head­teacher at Ring Cross.

“They threatened to burn the school down and I was in all the papers,” she recalled when the Tribune spoke to her last year.

“I had to have a minder going into the school on my first day. There were all sorts of nasty things that happened.”

She was subjected to repeated attacks in some national newspapers and would receive hate mail at home.

She added: “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.”

Yvonne Conolly at Ring Cross in 1969; this is a still from a short film made about her in the BBC World Service Witness History series which can be seen at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06zbjfb

After leaving Ring Cross she got a job with the Inner London Education Authority as an inspector, looking at schools in Camden and Islington until she retired.

She was always a hugely respected voice in Islington’s education circles and a community garden in Wray Cresent Park, Crouch End, was named after her in 2019.

But the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in summer last year brought racial issues to the fore of the public consciousness and after this, her achievements were recognised on a national scale.

In October, Prince Charles awarded Ms Conolly, who lived in Finsbury Park, with the 2020 Honorary Fellow of Education award at The Naz Legacy Foundation.

He described her as “a pioneer of the Windrush generation who must be cherished by us all”, adding: “I cannot begin to imagine the character and determination she must have shown to lead the way for black educators 50 years ago.”

She was also made a CBE in the New Year honours list.

Speaking in the wake of last year’s racial injustice protests, the death of George Floyd in the United States and the subsequent felling of statues around the UK, Ms Conolly had 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 people looking at me washing my hands, thinking the water would run brown. Were they being racist, or just ignorant?”

She said racism “used to be crass – ‘no dogs, no Irish, no blacks’”, adding: “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.”

In her retirement, Ms Connolly enjoyed visiting friends around Upper Holloway, “pottering about” her garden and going for meals with Ms Seifert in Caribbean restaurants. She also returned to Jamaica several times to visit the school where she was trained to be a teacher.

Ms Seifert’s daughter Alex, who is a teacher at Duncombe Primary School, said: “She was a very proud, honest and strong woman.

“There are children she taught in Jamaica who still remember her. The effect she has had on children’s lives across the world is astounding, it’s what every teacher aspires to achieve.”

Islington Council leader Councillor Richard Watts said: “She was a constituent of mine and always a great inspiration to meet. The greater national prominence she gained in later life is welcome belated recognition of the incredibly ground-breaking role she played. We will be working with her family to actively look at ways to mark the contribution she made to the borough and the country.”

Ms Conolly died on Wednesday last week at the Whittington Hospital. She is survived by her daughter and grandson.

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