The Telegraph, 05/01/15, as identical twins they are friendly rivals, but when it comes to girls’ education these high-fliers speak with a single voice, says Joanna Moorhead. HMC member Jenny Brown, Headmistress, St Albans High School for Girls features.
“At primary we had been in the same class, but by the time we moved to secondary school we were ready to be in different forms,” says Jane. English was an unsurprising favourite subject for both, given their parents’ profession, but Jenny remembers the English teaching at school as less than great.
“Jane and I once had a row about whose English teacher was worst, because we both thought they were terrible. So we decided to swap classes so we could try each other’s out. And guess what – the teachers were so hopeless, neither of them even noticed.”
But that experience didn’t put them off studying English at university – Jenny at Oxford, Jane at Bristol – and then Jenny went into publishing and Jane got a job with a marketing company. Jenny was the first to realise that teaching was in her blood, and accepted a position at Cranleigh School.
“One morning I was sitting at my desk staring at some customer satisfaction figures on my computer,” says Jane. “And Jenny phoned me up. She was about to teach a class on King Lear, and she wanted to know if I could help with some ideas for it. We had a lovely chat and then I put the phone down and thought: 'Gosh. She’s being paid to do something that wonderful?’ And I walked straight out of my office to the newsagent’s and bought a copy of the TES, where I found an advert for a job teaching English at Wellington College.”
That epiphany changed Jane’s life: not only did she go on to teach at Wellington for several years, eventually becoming headmaster Dr Anthony Seldon’s deputy, but she also met her husband, Neill, there.
The couple now have two children – Josie, 15, and Jamie, 13 – and as Neill is part of the senior management team at Wellington the family live in a house there, from which Jane now commutes to Wimbledon.
Jenny, whose husband Ben is a playwright, has two children of similar ages – Jessica, 16, and David, 14. Her early career took in spells at Highgate School and South Hampstead High School in London before she was appointed head of English at Channing and then director of senior school at St Paul’s Girls’.
“That was a masterclass in the leadership of girls’ education,” she says. She was approached for headships from her second year there, but it was only when the call came from St Albans that she decided to go for it. “I went to see the place and fell in love with it. It’s an interesting school and it gets amazing results.”
Not to be outdone, Jane immediately pitches into the conversation about the equally stunning results at Wimbledon High; and it becomes clear how much these impressive, high-flying women owe their success to being twins.
Both speak without seeming to draw breath, and often as one is telling a story the other is waiting to jump in, causing the first sister to speed up even more. So, yes, says Jane, of course it made a difference. “Being a twin makes you pathologically competitive. You spend your life comparing yourself to your twin.”
Jenny interjects: “You’re measuring your life against someone else’s the entire time.”
“It’s the warmest and friendliest competition possible … but it’s still competition,” Jane replies.
One of the best things about being twins recently has been that each has had the perfect person with whom to share new-head anxieties. “I can’t tell you how brilliant it was that Jenny was starting at St Albans at the same time I was arriving at Wimbledon,” says Jane.
Taking up a headship, she says, is a tricky transition, and having someone so trusted who is going through an almost-identical career moment, was invaluable for both sisters.
So, too, was the chance to plan their heads’ wardrobes together. “Everyone says, 'You’ve got to get your clothes sorted,’ ” says Jenny. “And I thought it would be a treat we could do together. But when I tried to book an appointment with the personal shopper, she said they didn’t do two people together because everyone had different needs, both in terms of how they looked and in terms of what sort of wardrobe they needed. But when I explained the situation, they relented; because our needs really are the same and, of course, we’re exactly the same to look at.”
So far, there has not been time for Jenny to visit Jane’s school or vice versa; but it will happen soon, they say. “We have a little trick we do at assembly, and we’re looking forward to introducing one another at our respective schools,” says Jenny.
Meanwhile, they’ve also put in their first appearance together as heads at the Girls’ School Association. “We had people coming up and hugging the wrong sister the whole time,” says Jane. “And I often feel sorry for the other participants at debates because when we’re both piping up from the back of the room, some people must think we’re one very noisy person.”
Another place where their views coincide is on the issue of single-sex education for girls, which – unsurprisingly – both think is extremely valuable.
“There’s probably more of a need for single-sex education now for girls than there was when Wimbledon High was founded in 1880,” says Jane. “Life is all so relentless for girls at the moment, and they need a safe place, a haven, where they can understand who they are.”
The fact is, says Jenny, a single-sex school helps build girls’ confidence. “And confidence is what it’s all about for girls. I know of girls who come out of Oxbridge still not confident about their abilities; it’s not about how bright they are.”
There has probably never been a more demanding time to be a leader in girls’ education, the women agree. “We’re educating girls for 50 years in the workforce. They have to be resilient, resourceful and flexible,” says Jenny.
Both women agree that the coming changes to A-levels will be good for girls. “Giving the sixth form back is so important. It’s the right thing for girls. They’re such perfectionists and it’s right for them to be able to sit back and learn, which is what a change away from the modular system will allow.”
Meanwhile, both Jane and Jenny are convinced they’re doing the best and most important job in the world.
“The point of education is to prepare young people so they can go out into the world and spend their lives doing something they love,” says Jane. “What I want to instill is the value of learning for its own sake: the intrinsic value of learning,” says Jenny.
Slightly different viewpoints, but entirely complementary; much like the sisters themselves, in fact.
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