Marion Gibbs retired last month as headmistress of James Allen’s Girls’ School. She also resigned as a vice -president of the Dulwich Society in April. She takes with her the thanks and respect of staff, alumni and pupils alike. Marion has been at JAGS for twenty-one years, and has been in the teaching profession forty years. She is always pleased to point out that she taught for many years in the state sector, in two prisons and was a member of HM Inspectorate of schools.
We met as she was sorting out those papers she needed to pass on to her successor, Mrs Sally- Anne Huang, and those to be shredded. We had met in that same room when she first arrived when we talked about JAGS. I had a year or two before written a history of the school.* Now, twenty one years later, another chapter has ended.
Marion is particularly proud of the school’s achievement of opening up JAGS to the wider community through its bursary programme. She highlights the fact that although there are 800 girls in the senior school, 126 are from less well-off homes and receive either a half or a full bursary which in some cases includes school uniform, lunches and travel. She is also proud of the quality of teaching and the attention given to pastoral care. Modestly, she does not mention JAGS high academic achievements.
If those were the plusses, on the minus side she would desperately have liked to see the planned community music centre built during her tenure. Started as long ago as 2005, the scheme has dragged on and been dogged by local criticism and she says she has even received hate mail over this building project. She has naturally been considerably upset by this, especially, she says, as the school shares its facilities, through its sports’ club with some 5000 community users. It would have been easy but unkind of me to have pointed out that it is because of this sharing of resources that independent schools such as JAGS continue to enjoy charity status as well as income from sports club membership. The plans have however now been passed and work is expected to start this autumn. I am sure it will be called the Marion Gibbs Music Centre.
It was disillusionment with the new direction the Inspectorate was taking with the advent of OFSTED that led her to apply for the JAGS headship after two years as an HMI in Classics. She accuses the new culture which came in with OFSTED as concentrating on number crunching, double standards and bureaucracy. She cites the 400 regulations of OFSTED rules and the 240 pages of the manual for inspections as prime examples. There is no mincing of words as far as education and Marion’s views are concerned! Yet she approves of informal inspections as a means of identifying good practice, but believes the inspectors should arrive unannounced. If she had it her way, these informal inspections would assess a school to see whether it was in serious trouble and found to be inadequate. If that were the case, then a formal inspection might be considered. She thinks that the present system where inspections are notified in advance, leads some schools to rehearse for them so diverting time and energy from what the school should be doing.
The discussion naturally led to seeking her opinion on the public examinations system. She is rather disappointed that her views on education have not been sought by the DEA, especially as she has been writing a monthly blog for SecEd, the newspaper for secondary schools, for some time. As usual, she is forthright..” Nobody takes any notice of me, but if I were head of Eton or Tony Seldon (headmaster of Wellington) I would have been invited to No 10 to discuss education but I never have.” Perhaps because some of her views might be considered too radical no invitation is likely to arrive. A pity, because what she says is based on a lifetime of experience at the sharp end of education and resonates with the many in the teaching profession. She advocates a single national examination board instead of the present confusing and sometimes uneven situation which prevails with multiple boards. “It would deliver a level playing field”, she firmly believes. She goes further, by saying that if universities were prepared to change their admission dates to January, there would be no need for UCAS form filling or schools predicting grades, but instead the examination results would be known before applications were made. This would free up considerable time for concentrating on the A level exams themselves and leave a final (autumn) term for performing community action work.
She finds the AS exams disruptive but rejoices over the demise of GCSE course work modules, arguing that pupils can resit modules time and again. This she considers silly. She would like to see league tables abolished and argues that what is the point of a parent taking into account a school’s standing in examination success rate tables seven years before the child itself is entered for the exams; staff change and different year cohorts often have quite different capabilities. She also accuses some schools of chasing points to get higher up the league tables.
By now, fully on a roll, she criticises society for not valuing academic and skills-based subjects equally, and treating craftsmen as second class citizens. She complains of deskilling in this country and cites the success of Germany’s engineering tradition. She sees an opportunity to redress this imbalance in the Government’s new decision to make school attendance for all children compulsory up to the age of 18 - providing it is prepared to develop technical schools.
She is equally forthright in her dislike of the trend towards the proliferation of academies and especially those run by commercial chains. While the old local education authorities were sometimes found wanting, she believes, in time some of the current wave of academies will also. She has resisted JAGS sponsoring an academy but points out that she was a co-founder of Southwark Schools Learning Partnership with Dr Irene Bishop CBE, a Saturday learning co-operation between three independent and seven state schools aimed at boosting results and breaking down barriers. Marion says that the scheme has affected the lives of thousands of students and hundreds of teachers. It was for this initiative that she was awarded with the CBE.
Was she, I asked, as passionate about single sex education for girls as her predecessors had been? “Definitely yes,” was her reply. According to Marion Gibbs, girls perform better at subjects such as physics and maths in a single sex school. “ In co-ed schools there is a tendency for girls to sit back and let boys take over these subjects”. Furthermore, she believes that girls are not so concerned how they look if they are not sharing a class with boys.
Marion has had no problems with Muslim students’ dress. “Parents from all faiths are informed when they apply, that JAGS is a Christian school and they are happy to agree that headscarves and trousers will be permitted but there would be no wearing of the nihab or burka.” On the other hand, she says, there is an issue of over girls’ feelings of anxiety, caused perhaps by the current national paranoia concerning the sometimes depressing state of world affairs.
In an interview she gave recently in the Evening Standard it was a comment she made about the pressure being greater on girls’ lives from the widespread use of social media rather than from exams that made the headlines, not the rest of what she said. But, she also takes a swipe at media generally, saying that it “increases pressure on girls to look slim and pretty, do well, get a good job and bring up five children”.
To counter the intrusion of social media, she banned mobile phones and tablets in the classrooms and she suggests that they should also be banned by parents in girls’ bedrooms. The problem, she says, is that some parents are unable to say no and set and maintain boundaries so important in the development of adolescents.
Marion is buying a house on the Sussex coast. It has a large garden and she is looking forward to growing fruit and vegetables. She also wants to take up sailing again, perhaps as a crew member on a yacht. She intends to write and will try fiction or drama. She wants to catch up on her reading She also intends to get well. Unknown to the staff of JAGS, Marion has been unwell for some time. She will keep up a connection with Dulwich as she is a governor of The Charter School.
She will miss JAGS and JAGS will miss her. She would like to be remembered for her famous 3Cs - Care, Courtesy, Consideration. “ I am very proud of JAGS success, and the good standards achieved by teaching in tandem with pastoral care...I have touched a few lives”.