Head’s Blog: Baroness Warnock Remembered

19 November 2019

The portrait of Baroness Warnock that has pride of place in the OHS Foyer meets the eye of every student, staff member and visitor to school. It is a powerful symbol of her exalted place in the School’s history and heritage, and it was therefore with great pride and respect that I attended her memorial on behalf of OHS at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, on 22nd October this year. 

During his eulogy, Baroness Warnock’s son, Felix, reminded us that, by even the most conservative estimates, his mother’s career was ‘multi-layered’, with Baroness Warnock equally at home in academia and the corridors of power. It came as a pleasant surprise, however, to learn that her private life was no less multi-layered; Baroness Warnock was not only an accomplished horsewoman, but also a plantswoman and ornithologist, as well as a wife and mother of five, who was at her happiest either on horseback or striding the edge of a windy clifftop.

This relentless curiosity and appreciation for life in all its forms is perhaps the hallmark of her philosophy. From her earliest book, on Sartre and Existentialism, through to the articles for the press that she faxed off to editors from the local Post Office when she was in her nineties, Lady Warnock engaged, as a philosopher, writer, committee member and leader, with the great issues of the day, and was a renowned example of that possibly-soon-to-be-extinct species – the public intellectual.

It is, above all, though, as a school teacher and leader that I would like to celebrate her. From her earliest experiences of teaching as an undergraduate during wartime, Lady Warnock showed herself to be a natural teacher. Her clarity and compassion combined with irrepressible energy and interest in people to make a winning formula for bringing out the best in the young. She was a passionate and effective advocate for the interests of children with special educational needs and her work in framing the principles by which these needs are met in schools lay the foundations for current practice.

I have never enjoyed anything so much as the last two years at the High School. Baroness Warnock

Choosing to become a Headmistress, as she did at OHS in 1966, seems an unusual step in the context of a career spent in university colleges up to that point. It is, however, characteristic of a woman who was not bounded by convention and whose restless energy to learn, communicate and change things for the better found outlets on the broadest of planes. The School Archive contains fragmentary clues to her remarkable style as Headmistress, including her beautifully-crafted entries in the school magazine and a photograph of her dashing down the corridor, gown flapping. (Excitingly, the gown itself is also there.)

The school’s quascicentennial publication records her delight in teaching Beginners’ Latin to Year 8 and her struggles to enforce a presentable standard of dress among the Sixth Form (having abolished uniform for Year 12 on her arrival). The best anecdote, recalled by Felix Warnock in his Eulogy, was of her taking up the French Horn from scratch to reinforce the depleted ranks of the School Orchestra. Her competitive spirit came to the fore in challenging all comers to better her at the instrument but, in the end, she was forced to admit defeat when pitted against a talented newcomer by the name of Sian Edwards.

Mary Warnock left OHS in 1972 to take up a post as a Research Fellow at L.M.H. and to support her husband, Geoffrey, in his new post as Principal of Hertford College. A long, distinguished career in academia and public service lay before her. However, of her time at OHS, she said, ‘I have never enjoyed anything so much as the last two years at the High School.’ Her time at OHS left an indelible impression on her, as it does on all who embrace what the School offers. Equally, and to our continuing benefit, it has also left a lasting mark on the School which she led with such energy and imagination.

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