UK’s trailblazing first black female headteacher dies aged 81 ‘leaving lasting legacy’

News

The UK’s trailblazing first black female headteacher has died.

Tributes have been paid to pioneering Yvonne Conolly, 81, who had a long battle with myeloma.

She made history when she took the helm at the Ring Cross Primary School, Islington, north London, leading it from from 1969 to 1978.

Ms Conolly’s appointment sparked a wave of racist abuse – and thugs even threatened to burn her school down.

However, she also received letters of congratulations and support from strangers throughout the country.

She was awarded a CBE for services to education in the Queen’s birthday honours list last year.

The former headteacher was also recipient of the 2020 Honorary Fellow of Education award at The Naz Legacy Foundation last year.

At the time Prince Charles praised Ms Conolly as “a pioneer of the Windrush generation” to be “cherished by us all”.

He added: “I cannot begin to imagine the character and determination she must have shown to lead the way for black educators 50 years ago.”

Ms Conolly arrived in the UK with just £36 in her pocket in 1963, according to the Camden New Journal.

She was part of the Windrush generation, working as a supply teacher before becoming a headteacher aged just 29.

She told the Camden New Journal that ‘all hell broke loose’ when she was chosen to lead the school.

Ms Conolly was inundated with racist letters when newspapers reported on her story.

Thugs even threatened to burn her school down, which resulted in Ms Conolly receiving a minder to escort her into the classroom.

In an interview with the Department for Education, she said: “I received a range of letters from people I’d never known.

“I received some unhelpful racist letters. I also received congratulatory letters from people I’d never met, from Devon and all over the country.

“But they had threatened to burn the school down, so on the first day I was escorted into the building.”

She later worked as an Ofsted inspector between 1977-1986.

On receiving her CBE, she said: “Well, it turned out that I was the first female black headteacher.

“At the time I had no knowledge of that – I was just Yvonne Conolly applying for a headshop and got it.

“For me it was the start of encouraging other teachers, particularly in the black community, to know that they too could do it.

“I received a range of letters, some warm congratulatory letters.

“Some with my photograph crossed out with racist things written across it.

“The staff and I quickly came together as a team.”

A Department of Education spokesman said: “We’re sad to hear about the death of Yvonne Conolly, the UK’s first female black headteacher.

“She remains an inspiration and leaves a lasting legacy.”

Islington Council leader Richard Watts said: “I’m very sorry indeed to hear of Yvonne’s passing.

“She was a constituent of mine and always a great inspiration to meet.

“My deepest sympathies to her family.

“Schools in Islington Council already study her life and we will mark her massive contribution to our borough.”

Former Times Education Supplement editor Ann Mroz added: “Yvonne Conolly was a remarkable trailblazing educator and a wonderfully supportive woman.

“The world is a lesser place without her.”