100 years of women in FE and skills. A passion for opportunity: Pauline Perry

100 years of women in FE and skills. A passion for opportunity: Pauline Perry

16th May 2018

In the sixth of our posts on the women who shaped further education – marking 100 years of women's suffrage – we consider the work of Baroness Pauline Perry, a teacher, educationalist and politician who became the first woman to run a British university

Baroness Pauline Perry’s first teaching job in the UK was at a girls’ secondary modern school in a ‘slum area’ of Wolverhampton. The height of her pupils’ ambition, she recalled years later in her valedictory speech in the House of Lords, was to work in the ‘dirty room’ – the ‘acid room’ – of the local Eveready factory because ‘although they knew that they would lose the ends of their fingers after a few years, it paid better than any other available job’. Even though they were ‘bright, often clever girls’, they were ‘given no challenge in the curriculum on offer in the school, and no hope for a more ambitious future’, she said. ‘I vowed to do what I could to see an offering of different education for young people like them – one which would raise their aspirations and their life chances.’

The experience of working with these warm, funny, intelligent girls, sparked Baroness Perry’s lifelong passion for education, and helped make her one of the shrewdest, best-informed and most knowledgeable modern political voices on the subject, her insights spanning primary, secondary, further education and higher education. As a Conservative peer, she demonstrated a meticulous eye for detail and a willingness to work across parties, notably with Baroness Sharp, Liberal Democrat education spokesperson in the Lords, in ensuring that education bills ‘were better when they left this house than when they arrived’. Her contribution to public life is substantial.

Baroness Perry’s political life was the culmination of decades of active involvement in education. Born Pauline Welch in 1931, she was educated at Wolverhampton Girls’ School and Girton College, Cambridge. She married Oxford University lecturer George Perry in 1952, just a few weeks after graduating from Cambridge. His work as a university professor took the couple to Canada and the United States, where Baroness Perry began her career as a teacher and lecturer, work she combined with early motherhood. The couple had four children during this time, three sons and a daughter. She continued teaching when they returned to England, while also sharpening her skills as a writer and broadcaster.

In 1970, Baroness Perry joined HM Inspectorate in the Department of Education and Science, accumulating wide experience of inspection in schools and further education colleges. She was appointed Chief Inspector of Schools in 1981, a post she held for five years. In January 1987, she was made vice-chancellor of South Bank Polytechnic, and oversaw its conversion into a university in 1992, when she became the first woman in history to lead a British university. She went on to hold a number of other key roles in higher education, including President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, which aims to give women an opportunity to study in later life. She set up the Lucy Cavendish College Centre for Women Leaders in 1996. Other roles included the post of pro-chancellor of the University of Surrey.

Baroness Perry became a life peer in 1991 (the same year she was awarded the Freedom of the City of London). Her first recorded contribution, from the Conservative benches, was on the Further and Higher Education Bill, which introduced substantial changes to the funding and administration of further education and higher education in England and Wales, including allowing 35 polytechnics, her own included, to become ‘new’ universities and removing colleges from local authority control. She welcomed the move to greater independence for colleges, noting that ‘There is an organic dynamic within institutions which enables and encourages them to service the needs of their community and the nation far better than any external planning can hope to do’. She also welcomed the conversion of polytechnics to universities as a crucial step forward in achieving ‘parity of esteem’ between academic and vocational education.

This was to be a theme of Baroness Perry’s many contributions in the Lords. Debating the 2002 Education Bill, she urged:

We need parity of esteem between vocational and academic education. We need it for the sake of the country; we need it for the sake of the economy; and we need it for the sake of the kids themselves. However, we are saying to the less motivated kids, to the less bright kids, and to the ones who are failing, that they can become the vocational stream and that the brightest kids can go into the other stream.

While unafraid to call out bad teaching, she also believed in giving teachers the freedom to teach, and recognised the challenges posed by the frequency of new legislation (11 education bills in seven years under Labour, she noted). She also believed in allowing students the opportunity to pursue their own passions in learning and not have subjects imposed on them, arguing that they would ‘find breadth within their own studies if they are well taught’. She became increasingly concerned at the drift towards greater centralisation in the later years of New Labour. ‘Decisions get progressively worse the further they are away from the people who actually have to implement them,’ she said. ‘The people who are implementing the decisions are the ones who should take them and make them’.

In 2016, after 25 years in Parliament, including 13 years as Chair of the All-Party Universities Group, she retired from the House of Lords to make room for younger voices. In her final speech, on 23 May, she spoke of education as the

foundation of everything which establishes this country’s place in the world order. Education changes lives and changes societies… Good education gives to our young people the freedom of our culture as a nation: an open mind, strong values and character, the richness of science, language, art history, and so much more. But poor education, whether in the failing schools of our own country or in areas of extreme poverty in the wider world, indeed deprives the young of the freedom of their culture.

She reminded her fellow peers of the ‘transforming power of education’, that economic growth and productivity depend on it, as does the advancement of technology and our ability to deal with it. Her commitment to giving all young people the opportunity to benefit from a decent education, fostered in her early years as a teacher, drove both her political career and her leadership in education, and few have made a more impressive or concerted contribution to delivering it.

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