2024 Spring Term


  • The Greatest Job in Education
    As Geoff Barton bids farewell, he reflects on his seven years as General Secretary, thanking members for their support for what he says has been the greatest job in education - serving you. More
  • The Next Chapter
    ASCL General Secretary Designate Pepe Di'Iasio is immensely proud to represent members across the UK and in all sectors of education. Here he sets out his plans for the future of the association. More
  • A lasting legacy
    As ASCL's oldest and one of its longest-standing members, 94 year-old past president Geoff Goodall's encounter with an interviewer set him on a path that would see him at the forefront of education reform, and a career that spanned over five decades. Here, he talks to Dorothy Lepkowska. More
  • ASCL Women Trailblazers
    Chair of ASCL's Women Leaders' Network Becky Arnold reflects on the inspirational and vital role women have played throughout ASCL's 150-year history. More
  • Perfect Match
    Proud ASCL member and Senior Deputy Headteacher Helen Wakefield takes readers through her own changing relationship with trade unions. More
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ASCL Women Trailblazers

Chair of ASCL’s Women Leaders’ Network Becky Arnold reflects on the inspirational and vital role women have played throughout ASCL’s 150-year history.

The ASCL Women Leaders’ Network spends its time looking forward and questioning the status quo; we explore policies and current ways of thinking, ensuring that equality is at the heart of them. However, for this important ASCL milestone, we have paused to reflect and learn about the roots of our association. We’ve taken time to appreciate ASCL’s progressive history as an association that champions women in education and ensures that girls can flourish in schools and colleges. 

On 22 December 1874, the Association of Headmistresses first met at Myra Lodge in Camden. Dorothea Beale took the Chair and Frances Buss became the inaugural President and remained in the position until 1894. The association brought women together “to know what we ought to assert and what surrender” (journal entry from Miss Buss describing her meeting with Miss Beale and why an association was necessary). They united on discussions regarding pensions, teacher training and equality in public examinations. 

There were some differences of opinion – Frances Buss wanted girls to have equal access to universities, a strong maths and Latin education, whereas Dorothea Beale was more focused on a traditional lady’s education. However, the debate was healthy and gave members the opportunity to discuss and reflect. 

The association strongly supported the suffragist cause and allowed headmistresses to forge their own space and venture together to enhance girls’ education and their role in society. 

A force for change 

Our association has always been a force for change politically. The first commission to include women as paid commissioners was the 1894–96 Bryce Commission that reviewed secondary education in England. The commission focused on ensuring a greater coherence for schools and systemising education. Women from the Association of Headmistresses were involved and ensured girls’ education was championed throughout the report. 

Progressive thinking and pioneering actions mark out the presidents of the association. Sophie Bryant became president in 1903. The first woman to (allegedly) own a bicycle, to gain a BA and BSc and become a Doctor of Science. She was a tour de force, a suffragist and, like our most recent female past president Evelyn Forde MBE, a leader who challenged societal views and politicians. 

It wasn’t until Dorothy Brock became president in 1933 that the association had its first leader who had been honoured with an OBE for services to education and, later in 1947, she was recognised as a dame. 

Ethel Robertson, Annie Escott and Rita Oldham were our First World War presidents. Followed by Dorothy de Zouche, Agnes Catnach and Mary Smith in the Second World War. These were the headmistresses who navigated wartime education and evacuations; with Dorothy de Zouche also supporting the Kindertransport. These were the leaders who made sure women were able to step into men’s shoes to sustain active education so our future generations would not be deprived of core skills. 

Of course, some things have changed. In 1976, the Industrial Relations Act ended single gender unions, so the headmistresses and headmasters joined together. They had always shared offices and discussions, so it was an easy and natural move to work in partnership. 

The first president of the joint association in 1977 was Molly Blake. Up to Molly Hattersley in 1980, all our female presidents bar two (who were widows) were unmarried despite the married bar being lifted at the end of World War Two. Molly was married to Roy who in 1983 would become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. 

There are so many inspirational women in ASCL’s history and not enough space to mention them all. The achievements of these women are remarkable. The dedication that they showed to their own schools and the association is inspiring. The legacy they have created is born from their tenacity, persistently challenging the status quo and driving political change. 

The call for action continues 

Spending time pouring over the ASCL archives affirms to me that the causes we champion now are those our predecessors would be proud to see us support. 

We know that things are changing. We know that equality and diversity are being spoken about more than ever. We know that so many of us feel the call to action, the need to do something, the need to make it better for those still to come. What would those who came before us be doing right now? I think Frances Buss would challenge the gender pay gap and question the baked-in inequality in the system. Sophie Bryant would champion WomenEd (womened.com) and tell us we need to be 10% braver. (Note: she climbed the Matterhorn twice.) Dorothy de Zouche would ensure we were supporting girls from minority groups to enable their voices to be heard. 

For the women in our ASCL Women Leaders’ Network, education remains a calling. Our desire is to make the landscape better than it is now for future women and girls. We want our schools to be places where doors open for young people and colleagues because of effort, kindness and mutual respect. We create a space within our network where we acknowledge that we are not where we want to be yet. We listen to our members, allow them to hear the voices of women who have been through oppressive, and at times damaging situations, and support one another to find solutions and strength. We also laugh, clap and cheer – we come together and enjoy each other’s company in a space that is ours. 

Our members, all women leaders, continue to champion women’s rights and girls’ education. We have a range of exceptional speakers who join us to discuss the gender pay gap, flexible working, the rights of women during the menopause, maternity leave, the importance of coaching, sexual harassment, curriculum choices to support shifting cultural expectations of boys and girls and so much more. We work to make differences in our own schools but also alongside ASCL Council (www.ascl.org.uk/council) and policy leads. 

ASCL remains committed to hearing women leaders’ voices and giving visible representation. The legacy of the Association of Headmistresses remains deep routed in our network and the work of the union as a whole. This year, we meet for ASCL’s Annual Conference on International Women’s Day (8 March 2024) – a perfect acknowledgement of the pillar of women in ASCL. 

Becky Arnold
Headteacher at Framingham Earl High School and Chair of the ASCL Women Leaders’ Network