Brendan Wignall: a tribute

On Saturday 24th February, representatives of HMC including our Chair, Vice Chair, Chair Elect and General Secretary will say a final farewell to Brendan Wignall, stalwart of our association and Treasurer since 2019. He became Headmaster of Ellesmere College on David Du Croz’s move to Marlborough in 1996 and he remained in post, as he wished, until his death on Friday 26th January 2024 after a brave fight with illness.

Brendan was phlegmatic about his condition. He was determined not to let it define him and he was absolutely determined to beat it. Given that, he saw no reason to lighten his load, nor stop doing the job that he loved. He enjoyed his role as Treasurer, his trips to London, the occasional dinner at the Wolseley and the influence he could exercise in an association that, according to him, had saved his job at the start of his headship.

His only concessions to illness were occasional absences for treatment. Each of these, he assured me, would result in recovery, and even the week before we lost him, he took part in an online strategy meeting discussing HMC’s preparations for the impending general election. On Wednesday 24th, he had another medical review, but my enquiry the following day received an uncharacteristic text in response: ‘unfortunately 2-3 days to go. Please update everyone.’ An optimist to the last, we lost him the next day.

Brendan grew up in Preston, attending the local grammar school before heading for the less restrictive environment of an FE college. “The lack of expectation was liberating. For me the lack of structure and the freedom to do nothing if I felt like it actually worked well.” Leaving with 5 A levels, he read Philosophy at York University before proceeding to Leeds for his MA. He gained a PGCE at the University of Leicester before beginning his teaching career at Oakham School. After three years, he moved first to Christ’s Hospital and then to Denstone College, where he was Head of English and subsequently Registrar.

He was appointed to Ellesmere College at the remarkable age of 36, becoming one of HMC’s youngest members. Whilst not completely unusual for the time, Brendan’s path to Headship ensured that he had a healthy scepticism of received educational wisdom combined with a pragmatism that meant he would plough his own furrow. His ‘aggressive lack of interest in statistical outcomes’ was doubtless honed as a lifelong fan of Liverpool Football Club, but it meant that he was more interested in the individual than the institution, in the whole educational experience than the simply academic.

This did not mean, of course, that Brendan could not occasionally be stubborn. He had strong views and he expected people to engage with them. But in my experience, at least, he had that essential ability to change his mind and he was always willing to consider different perspectives and evidence. He also had the endearing capacity to surprise: never more so when he was ‘outed’ by his daughter on social media as a Taylor Swift superfan.

Brendan’s contribution to HMC over the years has been enormous. He was a highly active Chair of the Membership Committee, a strong voice on the Officer Group for smaller, rural boarding schools as well as a capable Treasurer, who saw in the new age of HMC governance and the professionalisation of our finances and operations. He was also Chair of Trustees for the Bulkeley-Evans Scholarship Fund, providing gap year grants to pupils in HMC schools. Like all true servants of the association, he was altruistic, giving of his time not for status or himself (for such a successful man, he was without personal ambition), but to support others. He believed in HMC and whilst at heart a conservative, he appreciated the need for change in a changing world.

This is not the place to pay tribute to Brendan’s incredible tenure at Ellesmere College, nor indeed to his service as Chair of the North West Academies Trust, CReSTeD, the leading dyslexia accreditation charity for schools, and the British International Education Association, a non-profit organisation with a mission to promote the best of British educational practice overseas. Brendan was a modest man and, he once told me, remarkably uncomfortable in the set-piece social occasions that are a necessary part of the Head’s diary. At Conference, he would prefer a quiet supper with Anne to a formal HMC affair. He was not one for small talk but could be a caring friend and a loyal colleague. He will be sadly missed.

Simon Hyde, General Secretary


23 February 2024