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Sylvia Mawson, inspirational headteacher at Primrose Hill Primary School

Her fresh approach to leadership made her “the forerunner of the changes coming” in education

22 March, 2019 — By Helen Chapman

Sylvia with husband Arthur

SYLVIA, Mawson surprised colleagues by turning up to Primrose Hill Primary on her first day as headteacher wearing jeans.

Her fresh approach to leadership made her “the forerunner of the changes coming” in education – she encouraged pupils to have political awareness and inspired colleagues to progress in their careers.

Sylvia, who has died aged 85, was headteacher of Primrose Hill Primary School from 1971 to 1991.

Maggie Clime, who worked with Sylvia at the school, said: “She was an unconventional head at the time – and would be even more so nowadays. She encouraged staff to try new things, to go on courses and take on different responsibilities.” During the miners’ strike in the 1980s, Sylvia held a school assembly to inform schoolchildren.

“As I remember it, [it was] a very apolitical talk,” said Maggie. “Someone’s parents reported her to the local education authority for bringing politics into school and an inspector was sent to speak to her.”

Sylvia, who grew up in Newcastle, lived in King Henry’s Road, Chalk Farm, for 52 years with husband Arthur, an artist before becoming a teacher in Hackney. “It meant we all had half terms and the six weeks of summer holidays together,” said her son David. “My mum was well known in the sector. Public service, that was her thing. She liked to have a purpose and teach children.”

Sylvia in the 1970s

Before Primrose Hill, she was headteacher at Christopher Hatton Primary, in Holborn, for a year in 1970. In the 1960s she had been deputy head at Paddington Green School, in Westminster, and had also worked at John Keats School, in Swiss Cottage, and Newington Green Primary, in Islington.

Marlene Wardle, who worked at Christopher Hatton School with Sylvia, said: “Sylvia was a forerunner of the changes coming. It was exciting, as a young teacher, working for Sylvia at that time when social structures were being turned upside down. She was passionate about education, justice, equality and we had such fun.” Outside work, Sylvia could be found with her head stuck in a book or at art galleries, cinemas and Hampstead Theatre, in Swiss Cottage.

His parents were interested in art and cultural things, said David. “In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, my parents were keen on folk music. I remember the house was constantly full of people staying who were musicians – friends visiting the city who needed somewhere to stay.”

Sylvia suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually meant she was not mobile enough to work as a headteacher.

She left at the age of 58 after the infant and junior buildings at Primrose Hill Primary were combined and she found the stairs difficult. “Right through to when she died she was as sharp as a button,” said David.

“She was very gregarious and had lots of friends who kept her busy in retirement.”

Sylvia died peacefully in her sleep on February 7 after suffering from pneumonia.

She is survived by David.


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