Kathleen Mitchell believed in the power of education to change lives and saw access to the arts as crucial to achieving her goal
Kathleen Mitchell, who has died aged 100, was a pioneering figure in the early years of comprehensive education in England. A radical thinker, as head of Pimlico school, central London, in the 1970s she created in effect the first state specialist music school. She had been equally innovative in developing pastoral care and social education at Starcross school in north London.
Kathleen came from a generation of strong, articulate women who dominated state education in London in the 60s and 70s. She believed in the power of education to change lives and saw access to the arts as crucial to achieving her goal.
When she became head at Pimlico in 1974 she inherited a big school with discipline problems. In response, she developed a rich curriculum to engage students from all backgrounds. The school had its own symphony orchestra, and a chamber orchestra, and had close links to the London Schools Symphony Orchestra. Every year 15 students were picked by the Inner London Education Authority (Ilea) to become part of the schools special course for musicians, and many went on to become professionals.
Kathleens personal life revolved around music: her second husband, Donald Mitchell, was a well-known writer on music, particularly on Gustav Mahler, and went on to set up the publishing house Faber Music with Benjamin Britten. The Mitchells became good friends with Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, and the Pimlico schools choir and orchestra appeared in Brittens Noyes Fludde at the Aldeburgh festival. The work is based on the account of Noahs flood given in the Chester Mystery Plays, and towards the end of his life the composer had been planning a new stage work, A Christmas Sequence, for the school, adapted from the same source.
The adult world that Kathleen inhabited was a huge contrast to her beginnings she was living proof of her belief in personal empowerment. Born in London, she grew up in West Norwood. She was always close to her mother, Trudy (nee Johnson), who ran a coffee shop. Her father, Charles Burbidge, a post office worker, was fond of the local pub and a less than constant presence in her life. Her brother Reg, an RAF pilot, was killed in the second world war.
Kathleen loved her local grammar school, but university was out of the question until she earned some money. She worked at the London County council as a secretary, then enrolled in evening classes at Birkbeck College, where she studied history and met her future husband, David Livingston.
He had always wanted to start his own school and Mitchell was enthused. In 1939 they set up Oakfield school, in Dulwich, south-east London. It flourished and became a draw for talented teachers.
The couple married in 1940, with Kathleen already pregnant with her son, Mark. She did not care much for convention and what would have been considered scandalous in peacetime was noticed less during the war.
Among the teachers who came to Oakfield school was Donald, who was younger, and a conscientious objector during the war. They began a passionate affair and around 1950 she left her first marriage.
Kathleen and Donald set up home together and she began teaching at Hammersmith comprehensive; they married in 1956. She was talent-spotted by a school inspector and became deputy head at Dick Sheppard comprehensive in Tulse Hill. While there, she and her husband adopted two boys, Bernie and Keith.
In 1964 Kathleen became head of Starcross girls school in Camden. The following year it merged with another school, Risinghill, to create a 1,200 girls comprehensive under the Starcross name, which later became the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington.
When Gladys West joined the school as a teacher in 1967, she found Kathleen to be an inspirational head. After she addressed us at the beginning of the year we walked out feeling that we could conquer the world. We felt empowered and enabled.
The school was a laboratory for Kathleens ideas. Many of the girls came from extremely deprived backgrounds and she was empathetic and supportive. Arts was embedded in the curriculum, including dance. Sir Peter Newsam, who became chief education officer for the Ilea in 1975, remembered his first visit to the school. I went to her school and there were two very overweight girls dancing to I Am a Rock, and they were bloody good. I still remember the look on the faces of those two girls when the audience of children and parents applauded them. It was a school that valued people.
This was Kathleens trademark: everyone mattered. To that end she developed strong pastoral support for the girls, and for the most disaffected she devised an alternative curriculum covering sex education, citizenship and community service. It was so successful that the number of girls leaving school at 15 dwindled, and Mitchell extended it to the whole school, a precursor of what became known as personal, social and health education PSHE.
Kathleen would explore many ways to motivate difficult students rather than exclude them. Some girls could attend college for part of the week and she established an off-site unit staffed by experts in behaviour management. At the same time she introduced programmes for high-achieving girls and established a link with Sussex University. If they came from homes where no one had been to university, she ensured they had extra support.
But all this did not mean discipline was lax. Mitchell believed structures were important for children. My job as head is to set up an organisation that works. I dont think it would be any good having marvellous ideas if one couldnt be efficient in a school. But its no good organising so that the humanity is out of it ... the human side is important and takes priority on every occasion.
Kathleen became a magnet for ambitious teachers, many of whom went on to become heads themselves. She set up a pioneering workplace nursery to encourage teachers who had had children to return to work. She attracted staff who had made their names in other fields, among them the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham and the cartoonist Glen Baxter.
At Pimlico, she still had fresh ideas in abundance: she ensured form tutors stayed with their class for a full five years; she brought in architects to develop the Front Door project, getting children to draw their journey to school and think about how its environment could be improved; and she invited students from Imperial College to work with students in science lessons.
During her time at the school she developed painful arthritis. John Bancrofts grade II listed building was full of stairs and became difficult for her, and she retired as a head in 1979. She continued, though, to develop a sixth-form enrichment programme across London.
In the late 80s her activities were curtailed by her loss of sight following a bout of shingles. After 50 years of living in Bloomsbury, she and Donald moved to a nursing home in Camden earlier this year.
She is survived by Donald and their son Keith, her son, Mark, from her first marriage, and three granddaughters and five grandsons. Bernie died in 2014.
Kathleen Gertrude Mitchell, educationist, born 26 November 1916; died 22 May 2017
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