Hilary French, Headteacher at Newcastle High School for Girls

Teaching is in Hilary French's blood. She talks to Aranda Rahbarkouhi about her upbringing, future as head of the new Newcastle High School for Girls, and why she never wants to be a student again

Hilary French
Hilary French

You could say teaching is in Hilary French’s blood, while her passion and enthusiasm for a good upbringing shines like a beacon of light ready to help guide parents and teachers alike.

And it’s no surprise the current headteacher of Central Newcastle High School, now 57, decided to enter the classroom when you consider her upbringing.

Born and brought up in Low Fell, Gateshead, Hilary is the daughter of Christine and Michael Savage, both teachers themselves.

She said: “I always wanted to be a teacher, both my parents were teachers. They lived in Low Fell all of their married life in the same house. Sadly my mum died when I was just 11 of cancer. She was a primary school teacher and taught at St Peter’s School in Low Fell.

“She taught me actually, but I just sat at the back of the class and kept quiet that year. I think she was so worried about any kind of favouritism that I think I suffered the reverse!”

French’s father, Michael died three years ago aged 88. He taught history for more than 25 years at St Cuthbert’s Grammar School in Newcastle.

“My dad’s greatest claim to fame was that he taught Sting. He was always very proud of that,” said Hilary.

“I have four younger brothers and sisters and we always used to play schools with having teachers as parents. People always tell me because I was the oldest that I was always bossy, and it’s funny that when we go on holiday, people always say ‘You’re a teacher aren’t you’.”

Her secondary education took Hilary to Sacred Heart Grammar School in Fenham, Newcastle before she got a place at Oxford University.

“I spent three years at St Anne’s College in Oxford where I studied history. I really love history, especially the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries which I am passionate about. The politics, the people, the interaction.

“The fascinating thing is the more you get into leadership, being able to influence people and make strategy decisions nowadays, you realise people have been the same over the centuries in what motivates them and how they act.”

But being a student taught Hilary a valuable lesson too about the importance of building lasting friendships besides her studies.

She said: “I wouldn’t want to be a student again. It wasn’t the best time of my life because I think I was probably too conscientious and too concerned that ‘Oh I’m at Oxford and I have to work hard and do well’.

“I think actually a lot of people do say that if you could go back to school or university knowing what you do as an adult, you would do things very differently and that’s certainly true for me at university. I think I would have got more involved in the social side of the university, sport and so on. I just thought I haven’t got time for this, I have got to work and actually university should be much more of a balance.

“Even if you are at Oxford or Cambridge which put a lot of pressure on you, you need to develop a network of friendships which are really important to you later on. I say this to the girls nowadays that a degree is simply a key to open doors and the subject is irrelevant, unless you are going into teaching of course!”

Going to Oxford and studying hard was obviously beneficial for Hilary.

She said: “When I got to the end of my degree, I had interviews for various careers. I was offered management training by Marks & Spencer and John Lewis and so on, but I also had a PGCE teacher training place. I always remember my uncle, who was also a teacher, saying ‘Well you can either go for job satisfaction or for money, which one are you going to choose?’ so I went for job satisfaction and I just love teaching, I absolutely love it.

“What makes it special is the interaction with the children, it’s seeing them grow up and being able to make a difference to their lives.”

Following Oxford, Hilary started her year-long PGCE at Durham University.

“Had I not got into Oxford, Durham was actually my second choice, so I thought why not come back home to study for my PGCE, said Hilary.

“My first teaching practice was at Greencroft Comprehensive in Stanley, County Durham. A local newspaper picked up on the fact that I was called Savage at the time and there was a geography teacher called Mr Wild and so these poor children had teachers who were Savage and Wild!”

And it was during her time studying that she met her now husband, Mel French. Mel, now retired from the teaching profession, was a history lecturer at Durham University.

Hilary said: “We got married in 1982 after meeting when I was doing the PGCE teacher-training course, but then I got the offer of work and had to move to Buckinghamshire for a year to work in a comprehensive school. It was tricky, but it was a brand new school and it was a fantastic learning experience. It was good to go to a different part of the country.”

So what qualities does a teacher need to have in Hilary’s eyes?

She said: “When you are a teacher you are partly acting all the time because you need to get the class’s attention, you need to interest them. You learn to live with nerves! I think I must have been nervous when I was training because I am a bit of a perfectionist, but you get a lot of support and practice in the form of role-play and watching other people. In secondary school in particular the older children will want to challenge you and if they know you are a new student or teacher, you need to know how to react.

“At Central, the selection process for all staff includes an interview by some of our girls who have been briefed beforehand. Their comments are extremely perceptive. Their views will be treated on a par with mine or anybody else’s. The girls’ views are as important as anybody elses.”

Hilary is a staunch supporter of teacher training. She said: “Given all the discussion at the moment about whether or not teachers need training and whether you need qualifications to be a teacher, in my eyes you absolutely do, you must. You wouldn’t go and see a doctor who wasn’t qualified, and teachers are dealing with the future generations of our country, so they have to be qualified. It’s a very demanding career, but if you love it you don’t mind.”

Hilary came back to her roots after securing a history teacher post at Thornhill Comprehensive in Sunderland.

She said: “I stayed there for quite a long time from about 1978 until 1988. I loved it, the staff were great. There were some really supportive people there. It was a huge school which had about 1,800 children, so it was quite tough.”

The most difficult thing for Hilary and something she wishes she could find an answer to is coming to terms with the fact that some children will never have the life chances others do.

She said: “That’s a real tough social issue for us to deal with, particularly in the North East. I wish we could find an answer to it. It’s partly the North/South divide, but it’s a national problem in that schools are expected to solve problems which go way beyond the school remit.

“We probably have a generation or more than a generation of people who may be unskilled parents, people who do not know how to set boundaries for children.

“Research in the news at the moment suggests that those who come from middle-class homes where children are talked to and read to, can be as much as two years ahead of those who have been plonked in front of a video.”

Although she embraces change, Hilary is a firm believer in setting boundaries where new technology is concerned.

She said: “Every generation has had to adapt to change, but I think we need to equip children with the skills to be able to use these things appropriately, but to know when not to use them. We, as adults, have a resposibility to model that kind of behaviour and we have to make the time for our children, to talk to them, read to them, teach them the old-fashioned skills, as well as helping them deal with everything that is developing in society.

“My parents did say we couldn’t watch TV after 6pm at night, and we didn’t. TV was a newish thing then and it was them imposing these kind of boundaries which are important. Children knowing what their parents stand for and what their parents value is important. It is very easy today to just spend money on them and not give them time.”

And her views on bullying in today’s society?

She said: “If you are being cyber-bullied, you can never get away from it. It is always there on your phone or on the computer. The centre for exploitation and online protection does a lot of training courses which we have got involved in. Several of our staff have been trained by them and we do specific work with the girls and their parents to make them aware of issues.

“Our pastoral policy is based on helping the girls be the best they can be, but be aware of the impact that they and their actions can have on other people, so really just to be good citizens and I think that is important to bear in mind.

“Sometimes teachers can be the solid element in your life, the predictable one you know will always be approachable, reasonable, that you will be able to talk to, that they will give you time, and that they care.”

And her passion for teaching is rubbing off on other family members too. Only daugher Rebecca, 22, is now studying a primary teacher training course at Durham University.

Hilary said: “She’s loving it. When she went to university she worked in Fenwick and considered doing retail, but when she was in her last year at university she rang me up about this time last year and said ‘You know what mum, I really want to be a teacher, so I just said to go for it and she got on to the course at Durham.”

She added: “I always say to people that I wish every child in the North East and in the country could have the kind of education that we can offer the girls here. What is much more important is how we as a society really can try to change the lives of Newcastle’s children who are living below the poverty line. It’s terrible.

“We participate in the work of a charity called Shine. We are part of their Serious Fun on Saturdays programme so 11 Saturdays of the term, children from Years 5 and 6 in more disadvantaged areas come into school and are taught by our teachers using our facilities to help raise their aspirations and achievements. Certainly the programme last year had a big effect.

“However, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the problems we’ve got.”

But teaching is far more than being a dispenser of knowledge as Hilary knows only too well. Sometimes situations arise which impact upon life in the classroom.

Hilary said: “Here at Central, the biggest trauma that we have faced was a couple of years ago, and it was horrendous, but it did bring us together as a community.

“Within the space of a week two much-loved teachers died. One was the head of science who was in his 50s and he had cancer and had been ill for a long time. The second who died on the day of his funeral was a young dance teacher who had just had a baby and she had a pulmonary embolism and died.

“I think the only way you can deal with things, is that you have to tell everyone. You have to tell parents so they can comfort their daughters and then in school we follow what the girls want. People need time to take it in.

“We are a school that says prayers and sings hymns so praying and talking is really important. As the girls come forward with suggestions, we work our way through it, but it does take time. It is part of life though and whilst we want to protect our children, we shouldn’t cut them off from certain emotions because they are going to have to deal with them at some stage, and if we can deal with them together, and support each other then that gives them a really good foundation for the future.”

On a happier note, Hilary said her proudest moments are seeing her students succeed.

She said: “When you get the whole school together with their parents at the prize-giving ceremony at the Sage Gateshead, seeing them celebrate their achievements is fantastic. Equally, once you get to know girls well, you can be as proud of girls who’ve worked really hard and get Bs and Cs as those who’ve got strings of A*s,

“It’s knowing them as individuals and celebrating their personal achievements with them. We can’t all be rocket scientists, but if you really push yourself to be the best you can be, you can’t do any more than that.”

As president of the Girls’ School Association, Hilary represents the views of around 180 heads of independent girls schools across the country to promote single-sex education.

She said: “For girls, single-sex schools have huge benefits, it gives them the opportunity to grow and develop and it helps them to challenge the gender stereotypes which are still really evident in our society. I think the question which we need to explore for everybody is ‘What is success?’ We constantly say there are very few women on the board of FTSE 100 companies, but maybe they are not there because it’s not right for them and for them, perhaps success is something else and they don’t want to go through the ‘old-boy’ network. We should as a woman or a man be able to follow our dreams.”

In September Central Newcastle High School and Church High School will join together educating around 1,100 children between three and 18 years of age.

“The merger was a huge shock to people because we had spent so much time building up our own separate brands,” said Hilary.

“But actually we are two girls schools, five minutes apart, with exactly the same ethos and values. We have girls who are leaving this year who are saying to visitors I wish I was a bit younger as I’d like to be here when the new school starts. It is a fantastic vision and it will be an amazing school.”

So what’s changed over the years?

Hilary said: “Things have changed hugely since I began teaching. There is much more world history today and we are much less England and Euro-centric. There is much more dialogue in the classroom, much more discussion and more emphasis on skills. For me, the way things have changed the most – and I completely support it – is that we involve the girls more in the running of the school. We have a strong school council involved in everything that affects them and it underpins our process of making our community a really strong one.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

Ford Mondeo TDCi

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Cafe 21 in Newcastle, Bistro 21 in Durham

Who or what makes you laugh?

Being around girls in school and sharing their enthusiasm and zest for life

What’s your favourite book?

Professionally, Jim Collins’ Good to Great; Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as a comfort read

What was the last album you bought?

Shostakovitch Symphony No 4 The Liverpool Philarmonic conducted by Vasily Petrenko

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?

Difficult to imagine doing anything else but I would love to be an architect

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?

I wouldn’t teach it to say anything because I can’t stand mindlessly repetitive noise!

What’s your greatest fear?

I’m not really afraid of anything. I believe that we all have the capacity to cope with whatever life throws at us

What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?

Hold onto your vision and believe in yourself

What’s your poison?

Beautifully chilled Pinot Grigio; raspberries

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?

The Times, The Sunday Times, Times Educational Supplement

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

I can’t remember how much it was but it will have been for a casual job that I had at a local newsagents while at school. My first salary as a teacher was £252 net per month

How do you keep fit?

I have a personal trainer who I try to see four times a week - he has changed my life

What’s your most irritating habit?

Not waiting for people to finish their sentences!

What’s your biggest extravangance?

My daughter and clothes

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire and why?

I admire the many people throughout history who have been prepared to stand up for justice and the rights of others because I’m not sure that I would have the courage to do so yet it is absolutely the right thing to do and we would all be better off if everyone took these same attitudes - Wilberforce, Fry, the Pankhursts, Malala Yousafzai etc

Which four famous people would you like to dine with?

Ellen Wilkinson, Barack Obama, Rebecca Brookes and St Thomas More

How would you like to be remembered?

As someone who listened, cared and made a difference


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