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Mrs Burgess welcomed back

At this morning’s special assembly we welcomed back Averil Burgess OBE, Headmistress of South Hampstead High School from 1975 to 1993 and former president of the Girls’ Schools Association.

In conversation with Mrs Bingham, Mrs Burgess shared memories and anecdotes from her days at South Hampstead. She told the girls how she fell into teaching, enchanted by the magic of History.  She joked how Historians tend to be over-represented in headship roles: “There’s so much marking to do; becoming a Head is a very good way to escape all that marking.”  Appointed as Headmistress of the school in 1975 – at the age of 35 – she learnt, in hindsight, that she was hired: ‘to loosen the place up a bit.’ Her successful tenure, spanning three decades, and legacy suggests she did just that.

Among her initiatives were abolishing the strict rankings of exam results twice a year, replacing them with a more opaque grading system, “to remove artificial competitiveness.” She also abolished the prefect system, instead sharing leadership roles more broadly and equitably across the Sixth Form.  Recalling the girls’ tendencies to flout any school uniform rules – from black roll-necks peeking out from yellow shirts, to experimental hair dying – she commented that such transgressions were rarely met with any consternation. “They were probably displacement activities… they certainly didn’t channel lawlessness in other ways.”

Charting the school’s evolution, from a direct grant grammar school, she explained how one of her priorities was to raise over £100k for bursary provision, to provide free places for as many bright girls as possible.  Another key achievement was acquiring the site on which to build Waterlow Hall, to alleviate the cramped conditions of a growing school – a feat which involved charming a local garage owner. Mrs Burgess added how much she was looking forward to seeing the new manifestation of the revamped Waterlow Hall – the state-of-the-art performance space is due to open its doors in 2020.

She described the school, both then and now, as an “extraordinary place… a wonderful combination of eccentricity and consideration.”  She fondly recalled one of her most bizarre memories: on the cusp of taking a term’s sabbatical after 10 years’ service, the Sixth Form leavers organised a large, hairy gorilla-gram, who stalked her, before picking her up “King Kong style” and planting a kiss.

Some of her former pupils who are now parents at the school – including a Circuit Judge and BAFTA-winning actress – joined current pupils in the sports hall at the special assembly to hear from their old Headmistress, chatting over breakfast afterwards in Oakwood – a wonderful opportunity to reminisce about their schooldays together.


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