Baroness Warnock

Having received her formative education at schools in Winchester and Surrey, Baroness Warnock (CH, DBE, FBA, FMedSci ) is perhaps not strictly speaking an OHS Original. However, as a former Headteacher of OHS who, in just six short years, set her stamp on the school with the same combination of bold intellect and robust common sense that characterised her work in the fields of philosophy and public affairs, we felt she more than merited inclusion. 

Baroness Warnock was born Helen Mary Wilson in 1924 at Winchester in Hampshire, where her father, Archie, who died before she was born, was a housemaster at the college. Her mother, Ethel, was the daughter of the émigré Jewish wool merchant Felix Schuster, who set up what became National Westminster Bank. She was educated at St Swithun’s School, Winchester, and then Prior’s Field School, Guildford, where, she recalled, “All the cleverest girls were doing classics and I was jolly well going to be one of them.” She subsequently won a place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, as the senior scholar of her year.  

“On my first day, the day before term, I laid down that people must be allowed out of classes for Music lessons. I knew that I could get my way on that very first day but never again!”

Despite her studies being interrupted by the war, Baroness Warnock graduated in 1948 and went on to become a fellow and tutor in Philosophy at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where her circle included the novelist Kingsley Amis and the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Geoffrey Warnock, whom she married in 1949. She remained a tutor and fellow at St. Hugh’s until 1966, but it was also during these years that she gained prominence as a public philosopher, participating in radio debates and contributing a volume on contemporary ethics to the OUP’s Home University Library series.  

I1966, Baroness Warnock substituted the hypothetical study of ethics for a more practical version, when she accepted the appointment as Headteacher of OHS. She was typically enthusiastic and energetic here, making friends with many of the parents, taking up the French horn because the school orchestra was low on brass, and racing home every evening in time to give her children their supper. Building on her passion for music, one of the signal achievements of her tenure at OHS was the conception and design of the new music block, although she was also instrumental in managing the extension of otherwise unavailable academic subjects to Sixth Formers from the newly opened Cherwell School across the road. The pressures of running a school full-time proved too great alongside her other responsibilities, however, and when her husband was appointed principal of Hertford College in 1972, Baroness Warnock resigned to concentrate on an extensive refurbishment of the Hertford Lodgings. 

“Nothing was or ever could be truly intolerable, except the recognition that one had behaved badly in some serious, non-trivial matter.”

Having previously contributed to the work of the Oxfordshire local education authority, it was perhaps inevitable that Baroness Warnock’s next step should be to chair a committee of inquiry to debate the educational rights of what were then called “handicapped” childrenfrom 1974-78. This was in addition to her ongoing work as a Research Fellow of LMH (1972-76), authorship of her fifth major book, Imagination (1977) and her vociferous membership of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (1973-81).  

Described by peers as a ‘consummate chair’, Baroness Warnock’s involvement in this committee led to several key recommendations that were enshrined in the 1981 Education Act, and which laid the foundation for special educational provision within the mainstream setting. One of the recommendations of the final report was that a “continuum of need” should be recognised, so that, rather than being lumped into different and defeatist categories, such as “educationally subnormal”, disabled children should instead be assessed according to their specific educational needs, which often cut across these categories, and placed in ordinary schools, which should make special provision. When many of these reforms were rendered ineffective in the 1980s due to funding cuts, Baroness Warnock promptly revisited the topic and was highly vocal in her criticism of the absurdity of imposing a market philosophy on the education of ‘the really helpless’ as well as Thatcher’s supposed ‘vendetta’ against teachers and academics.  

However, it is perhaps as the Chair of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, which she chaired from 1982-84, that Baroness Warnock is best remembered. Baroness Warnock’s adept steering of this committee between the clashing rocks of religion, science and ethics, as crystallised in the 1984 Warnock Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology, delivered a consensus on the bioethical issues of human fertilisation and experimentation on embryos. Accordingly the report’s recommendations, which included the creation of new statutory and licensing bodies to supervise embryo research, were enshrined in law in the Human Fertility and Embryology Act (1990), which was applauded for its “sensible balance” and judicious catering for possible eventualities and saw Baroness Warnock receive a DBE.  

Baroness Warnock continued to contribute avidly to public life, both as a chair of further committees and a cross-party peer. She was also appointed Mistress of Girton College in 1985, but retired in 1991 when the Warnocks moved to Wiltshire. Here she continued to write prolifically, authoring The Uses of Philosophy (1992), Imagination and Time (1994) and An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics (1998). She also edited Women Philosophers (1996) and in 1993 chaired an appraisal of the Royal Opera House. 

Baroness Warnock’s final book was A Critical Reflection on Ownership (2015). In 2017 she was appointed CH and, active and engaged to the last, she wrote in 2018 on the potential of gene editing in The Guardian. She died in March 2019 and is survived by her children Kitty, Felix, James and Boz (Maria), two of whom attended OHS.