Dame Mary Richardson - 2005

Dame Mary Richardson


Chancellor, July 2nd seems such a long time ago but there may be some people in this congregation today who attended the Live8 concert in Hyde Park. All of us will have been caught up in the ground swell of emotion that was generated about poverty, debt and the developing world. The 3-second finger-clicks, recording the time between each child's death in Africa, had an effect. It led some people to talk of revolution and a change of attitude among even the most hard-bitten political leaders.

Our honorary graduand understands that emotion. As Chief Executive of the HSBC Education Trust she describes herself as weeping her way around the world when faced with some heart-wrenching situations for children, including a school in India for blind street children, a hospital in Brazil, which has many babies with HIV and children scavenging on rubbish dumps for a living. She admits that it would be unbearable were it not for the fact that she is in a position to help.

At the same time, she knows not to trust feelings and emotions alone because these often lead to short-term, patronising responses to hugely complicated problems. So when she begins to talk about ways of helping the very poorest and most needy, she is quite clear that education must be at the centre for education empowers people, enabling them to create their own solutions.

She is now Chief Executive of the HSBC Education Trust, overseeing sixty million pounds worth of donations per year to education in 79 countries. She describes her job as the best in the world and I think we'd probably agree. Some of us would like to know how you get a job like that. Well it all started when she was Head of a school here in Brent and became involved in a reciprocal shadowing scheme arranged for heads of public and private bodies. She shadowed the Chairman of HSBC, Sir John Bond, and vice versa. When she retired he asked her to set up the HSBC education trust. So what exactly did he see in her?

Well, of course, she was hugely successful, which is important. On her arrival at the school, only 8% of pupils left with more than 5 A star to C grades at GCSE; 61% did so on her retirement. But others have turned 'round schools. What's special about our honorary graduand is that she created a school that changed people's lives, not just their exam results. In the words of a former pupil 'this school taught us to help each other and to help others. It taught me that I could achieve anything.' She was able to do this because she believes in some pretty unfashionable things: that leadership is service, that if you share control you empower people, that schools are there purely to serve the needs of the individual child and that work should be fun.

To understand the sources of these beliefs we need to go back to the early years of her life. She was born in Liverpool. Her grandfather, a professional solider, became the great influence on her life when her father, a Royal Navy officer, was killed in the war. He taught her Army values and by the time she entered Liverpool University to study English and enrolled in the University Officer Training Corps, her main ambition was to join the family of the King's regiment. Her mother wanted her to be a teacher so she did her PGCE. But the second it finished, literally, she went off to join the regiment. For six years she enjoyed community life and learnt from it. As she says: 'In a community you develop by helping each other, and self-interest cannot be the dominant consideration.'

This helped quite a bit during a period of domesticity when she gave up her career to become a doctor's wife, telephone answering service and mother of two children. She tells the story of a friend of hers, newly remarried in her seventies after decades of widowhood who replied to the casual question 'How's life?' by saying, thoughtfully: 'This being married; it's very time consuming.' She agrees. She eventually returned to work teaching part-time at her children's primary school.

In 1985, she was appointed to the Headship of what was then the Convent of Jesus and Mary School, a failing inner-city school down the road in Harlesden and was able to put everything she had learnt into effect. She created a school that was dedicated to the service of the individual child. Every contract of employment included the phrase 'in the service of the children' and this applied to her, too. She encouraged laughter in classrooms. She shared the authority and responsibility of headship as widely as possible and was therefore able to mobilise the efforts of everyone in the school. It was normal to hear a receptionist correcting a young person's grammar or for a dinner lady to insist on 'Please' and 'Thank you'. When she was honoured with a DBE in 2000, her first thought was that everyone in her team should have got one, too.

At Harlesden, she proved that through education it is possible to break cycles of deprivation and to open doors to opportunity and hope. No wonder Sir John offered her that job. She is now working to do everything possible to reverse the alienation, disaffection and despair that threaten education and personal development globally. But her sense of fun is undiminished. On a recent visit to a village in China she was asked if she would like to meet one of the older inhabitants of the village, a man who was 100 years' old. As she approached him, he asked her, in perfect English, 'who are you and what do you want from me?' She is now planning for the day when she is 100 and able to put foreign visitors in their place by speaking fluent Mandarin.

Chancellor, in recognition of her humanitarian record, I present to you Mary Richardson for the degree of Doctor of Education honoris causa.

July 2005

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