Image-ining Gender: Highbury Hill High School: Girls’ school identity and educational change by Amy Gower

School Bulletins of Highbury Hill High School, 1977 and 1978 – personal collection. Copyright: Seona Myerscough


School newsletters or bulletins were a common feature of grammar schools, especially in the late-twentieth century. Used to share news with parents, alumni and pupils, communicate important changes, and celebrate the achievements of pupils, the newsletters also communicated a sense of institutional identity. These two covers show scenes from the life of Highbury Hill High School in Islington: girls on their commute, and the taking of school photo, likely to have resulted in panoramic snapshot to be rolled up and taken home. By delving into the history of the school, it is clear that these images served a particular purpose during a moment of potential crisis in the history of the school, by attempting to unite the wider school community and preserve a sense of institutional identity.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, local education authorities nationwide began a process of ‘comprehensivisation’, as the tripartite system of technical, grammar, and secondary modern schools was replaced with mostly co-educational comprehensive schools. Critics of the tripartite system saw the selection process for grammar schools as inherently unjust, sorting pupils at age 11 by supposed intellect, and replicating an unequal class system. Yet in some areas, such as Reading and parts of London, single-sex grammar schools persisted. Many girls’ grammar schools prior to comprehensivisation promoted a strong sense of school identity, sometimes rooted in the long historical legacies of such schools as spaces of academic and social achievement for girls.

Such schools were also seen by some pupils, parents, and teachers as spaces in which girls could flourish and be free from unwanted male attention and distraction. Research in the fields of sociology and education in the late-1970s and early-1980s had found that girls benefitted in many ways from the absence of boys in the classroom. Education researcher Sheila Riddell observed that in mixed settings, the dominance of loud male classmates in drawing teachers’ attention meant that girls were at times deprived of support and could easily abandon their work for quiet chats with friends. Harassment and victimisation of girls by boys was also a major concern for supporters of single-sex schooling. These understandings of the benefits of single-sex schooling meant that across the country, some single-sex schools survived the spread of co-educational comprehensivisation.

Highbury Hill High had become a comprehensive school in 1976 after decades as a grammar school, expanding its pupil base from those who had achieved higher results at age 11+ to an intake of varied academic success. This new intake drew in girls from across the bands of the London Reading Test. Some years later, it was revealed that administrators within the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) had an unfortunate habit of reclassifying some top performing girls into lower bands. This was to maintain a truly ‘comprehensive’ intake in co-educational schools but meant that many high-performing girls lost their first preference of secondary school. This tension for local authorities between balancing the egalitarian spirit of comprehensives with the problems girls faced in co-educational spaces proved a difficult issue for educationalists, feminists, and teachers throughout the late-twentieth century.

Highbury Hill was unusually left as a single-sex school, despite co-education generally accompanying comprehensivisation. In the 1977 School Bulletin, the headmistress, Mrs Butcher, commended the successes of the school in adapting to this new mixed-ability intake. Yet she also alluded to tensions, drawing parallels between the academic ability and behaviour of the new comprehensive intake, as she warned newcomers of the ‘self-defeating habit’ of truancy and the danger of future unemployment should such behaviour continue. Conceptualisations of intellect and class fundamentally shaped how teachers saw and interacted with their pupils; many former grammar schoolgirls from working-class backgrounds have reflected on the hostility and elitism they faced from teachers and peers. Such tensions between staff and new pupils had the potential to jeopardise the harmony of the school.

In contrast to the concerns of the Headmistress, the School Bulletin cover of 1977 shows happy, cheerful girls with handbags, bicycles, and a mix of hairstyles heading towards the school, a picture of youthful enthusiasm. Similarly in 1978, the cover shows the taking of a whole school photo, girls cheerfully sat cross-legged in the playground. Both depict moments of social cohesion and school pride. If considered alongside the recent changes to Highbury Hill High and the threat of comprehensivisation to school identity, the images can be seen as representative of the need to unify the student body and project an image of harmony to potentially concerned parents and pupils. The covers were drawn by a pupil from a cohort of exclusively grammar pupils. Whether the representation of unity was encouraged by teachers or not is uncertain, but the decision of the pupil to present a harmonious image of this new mixed student-body suggests the possibility that for pupils, these supposed tensions were less threatening than they were for some teachers.

The illustrations and accompanying newsletter provide a snapshot into the life of one London school, and suggest that while comprehensivisation was regarded as a mission in equalising educational opportunity for all pupils, in some areas it led to unforeseen complications – particularly for girls’ schools. The images on the covers of the School Bulletins represent the efforts of schoolteachers and pupils to unify an ever-changing student body and wider school community, and to preserve the identity of Highbury Hill High School in an era of transformative local and national change.


Amy Gower is a doctoral researcher and sessional lecturer at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @AmyG_Historrry.

Image-ining Gender: ‘They are ordinary working-class women living in ordinary working-class houses,’ by Melanie Khuddro

Betty Le Cras, ‘Petition to Stand’ 29/10/1919.  University of Reading Special Collections, Political Elections 1919-1935, Best Wishes Before Election MS1416/1/1/1730.


The 100-year anniversary of women in Parliament brought with it a host of celebrations, discussions, and reflections on the achievements and legacies of women in British history. Among the various events hosted at the University of Reading, an online exhibition was produced with 50 archival records digitised relating to the political career of the first women to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, Nancy Astor of Plymouth Sutton. The first document published on the Astor100 Twitter page exactly 99 years after her election success was a petition written by the women of her consistency.

The petition featured a series of names from the new female electorate in the Plymouth Sutton constituency demonstrating their support for Astor to run for election. With the anticipation that Nancy’s husband Waldorf would vacate his seat in the Commons to occupy his late father’s seat in the House of Lords, the voting public began to speculate his replacement. The enthusiasm for Astor to represent Plymouth Sutton extended beyond the female demographic. Remarkably popular in her constituency, Astor won the by-election by a large majority, securing 18.6% more of the vote than her closest competitor, and enjoying 26 uninterrupted years in Parliament before resigning in 1945.

The publication of the petition in the digital exhibition immediately captured the attention of the people of Plymouth, being shared across several social media platforms and featuring in local news outlets. Characterised as perhaps the first ever #AskHerToStand moment, the impact of circulating the petition was remarkable. The names were retweeted by the official Lady Astor Statue campaign alongside the caption ‘Let’s find their granddaughters…’, sparking a revival of interest in local women’s history and new wave of support to the crowdfunding campaign.

Its significance extended beyond the scope of women’s history and provided the foundation for a discussion on the local history of Plymouth. The addresses listed indicated the existence of areas of Plymouth that had been lost during the Plymouth Blitz in WWII. Not only were streets physically lost, but the series of bombing raids eradicated historical records of them – something that the circulation of the document has began to help fill the gaps of.

Reactions to the exhibition emphasised the importance and power of material culture in modern history. Everything from the handwriting of the participants, to the nail holding the business card of Astor’s counting agent, Betty Le Cras, aroused the attention of members of the public. Small idiosyncrasies were reminisced and speculated upon by potential descendants of the constituents.

The nostalgia from the people of Plymouth that emerged from the search brought about a sentimental value to the anniversary. Members of the public contacted researchers associated with the Astor100 project offering information about their relatives and street names in the communal effort to identify the signatories. The enthusiasm behind it underpinned huge part of the centenary that sought to address the effort and progress of all women in the political world; notwithstanding the contribution of ‘ordinary’ women. An initial response from a historical researcher based in Devon articulated this feeling: ‘These aren’t the wives of “the great and the good” of Plymouth. They are ordinary working-class women’. The interest that developed from this document captured the essence of the centenary; great achievements for women by women.


Melanie Khuddro is a doctoral researcher and sessional lecturer at the University of Reading, and a member of the Astor100 team. 

Congratulations to Dr Jacqui Turner and the Astor 100 Team!

The Gender History Cluster would like to extend our warmest congratulations to our own Jacqui Turner and the rest of the Astor 100 team – including cluster member Melanie Khuddro, and our wonderful students Rachel Newton, Abbie Tibbott, Molly Edwards and Bronwyn Jacobs – on winning a 2020 University of Reading Research Engagement and Impact Award. The Astor 100 project celebrated the centenary of the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament, Nancy Astor. We enjoyed a year of memorable events, culminating in the unveiling of a statue of Nancy Astor in Plymouth last November. Jacqui used the centenary to highlight the importance of women in politics, demonstrating the value that historical research can have in ongoing activist efforts.

The main site for the Astor 100 project can be found here. You can find a range of short pieces about Astor and the project here. Visit the online exhibition, ‘An Unconventional MP’ on Twitter.