BHM: Yvonne Conolly

Updated: 19 October 2023 at 16:23pm

October is Black History Month - a month to celebrate Black History and to highlight the importance of education in eradicating racism and discrimination. This year’s theme is ‘Celebrating Our Sisters’ and we'll be sharing stories of Black women who played a crucial role in shaping history, inspiring change, and building communities. Today we'll be celebrating... 

Yvonne Conolly CBE

Yvonne Conolly CBE was a Jamaican teacher, who became the United Kingdom's first female black headteacher in 1969, aged just 29-years-old. She arrived in the UK in 1963, as part of the Windrush generation, and went on to have a career in education that spanned over 40 years. 

Yvonne was born in Jamaica in 1939 and after completing three years training to become a primary school teacher, she made the decision to come to Britain to teach. She arrived in the UK in 1963 and found work as a supply teacher, babysitter, cleaner and typist before starting a permanent teaching position at George Eliot School in Swiss Cottage, north London.  

Initially, she had planned to return to Jamaica after three years, but after excelling as a teacher for five years she became deputy-head of the primary school. 
In January 1969, and much to her surprise, Conolly was offered a promotion to become headteacher at Ring Cross Primary School on Eden Grove in Holloway, Islington. At just 29-years of age, she was the country's first black female headteacher. 

After being appointed to this position, Conolly received racist abuse and had to be accompanied to work by a bodyguard. Her appointment as Head Teacher attracted lots of attention from the British media, she endured repeated attacks from national newspapers, as well as receiving hate mail at home.

In an interview, she remembers, “When I was appointed as headteacher, somebody threatened to burn the school down. I had newspaper articles which had announced my appointment, sent to me, crossing out my photograph with nasty comments. Happily, the parents were only interested in whether their children would get a good education and that certainly was my focus.” 

She did not let the negative press and racism prevent her from delivering an effective education service to the children of her school, and much of her experience at Ring Cross was to inform her later career.  

Yvonne went on to set up the Caribbean Teachers Association which give confidence and practical advice to black teachers who wanted to become school heads. 

In 1978, after spending nine years as headteacher of Ring Cross Primary School, she left to take up a position as a member of the multi-ethnic inspectorate created by the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority). As an inspector she looked into how to deal with racism, in particular examining schools in Camden and Islington. She was also an active voice in the home secretary's advisory council on race relations. 

In 2001, she formally retired, after 40-years-of service in education, but remained chair of the Caribbean Teachers' Association.  

In October 2020 Conolly was honoured for her services to education with the Honorary Fellow of Education award from the Naz Legacy Foundation. In the same month she was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for services to education.

In receiving the award, she said: "I am delighted, and feel profoundly honoured to be receiving a CBE for the recognition of my work in education over many years. I am most grateful to my nominees and to the Honours Committee for this prestigious award which I am proud to share with my community.

In January 2023, Yvonne Conolly lost her 10-year fight with the incurable blood cancer myeloma, and died at the age of 81.  

The UK's Department of Education described her as a “history maker” and “an inspiration [who] leaves a lasting legacy.” She has also been hailed a “remarkable trailblazing educator and a wonderfully supportive woman.” by a former Times Educational Supplement editor. 

Join us tonight from 5-7pm for a free community event to celebrate Black History Month at The Green Man and we want you to join us! Attendees can enjoy a Zen-den, free massages, arts and crafts, home-cooked food by our cafe and special guest talks. Find out more and book your place.