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HeadteacherDouble standards for spouses of prep school heads

By Kate Hilpern

Have you noticed this in prep schools? That where there’s a head’s wife, she is expected to perform a vicar’s wife role, with pastoral care and tea parties for pupils, but when it’s a husband, he has his own life, and no expectations at all?

‘Very much a double act’ with his wife, ‘a gentle and hospitable woman,’ we say (not untypically) of a headmaster at one prep school. Yet her role is ‘limited to meeting prospective parents with him (most mornings), helping pastorally with the school nurses, overseeing the school’s second-hand shop, match teas and liaising with the PTA’.

Meanwhile, in another prep, also apparently run very much as a partnership, the head’s wife is described by parents as ‘an absolute gem’. But while his realm is all things educational, hers is saying, ‘And why exactly are you doing that?’ along with – guess what? – ‘helping the admin team, co-ordinating the uniform shop and PA and organising events’.

Even when these wives have their own, often high-flying, careers (one did her PhD while in post) there is still a general perception that these women should be willing to get their pinnies on at the cricket pavilion and lend a listening ear when little Arabella or Wigbert are having a hard day.

You’ll get none of this when it’s the woman at the helm. The husbands of married headmistresses of prep schools are expected to (a) have their own separate career and (b) remain firmly behind the scenes, possibly invisible.

‘Ah, welcome, welcome, let me take your coat and get you a nice cup of tea,’ says (conversely) headmaster’s wife after headmaster’s wife to our prep school reviewers, following it up with the small talk they are well versed at making at the PTA committee meetings. Yet the husbands of headmistresses are off and away on their own daily commute or keeping bees in their retirement and rarely even come up in conversation, except perhaps with a fleeting explanation as to their (usually unrelated) career. Not for him the handing out of scones and cupcakes in the school pavilion or even getting stuck into more ‘masculine’ pursuits of kicking a ball around with the school’s charges.

These double standards sometimes spill over to senior schools. Married to an ‘accomplished’ woman ‘who was head of department at two large state schools’, we say of one such headmaster. We were left in no doubt as to her intelligence and sharp wit after lunching with her and her husband, and yet her active role in school life is – you guessed it – ‘mainly pastoral’. Have you ever heard of an independent senior school headmistress, whose husband has a pastoral role in the same school?

Let’s be clear, we are absolutely not belittling these wives’ roles. What they do can be bloody hard work and a vital, often indispensable part of school life. Pastoral care is arguably one of the most important aspects of school leadership. Nor are we suggesting they are Stepford wives, equipped with endless supplies of twin sets and pearls, baking tins, sickly-sweet smiles and light-touch counselling skills. Time and again, parents tell us with a knowing look that these wives have a lot more input than you might think. Sometimes, it’s as if everyone except the male head knows the wife is actually running the show.

But it is disgraceful in this day and age (or in any age, for that matter) that they have to do this posing as a traditional vicar’s wife. This clear gender split in prep (and some senior) schools is based on outdated, sexist notions and this gender stereotyping is a bad role model for children at the schools. But with parent (and perhaps even school governor) expectations perpetuating the problem, I wonder how it can ever be changed. ‘I only got the job because of [my wife],’ jested the headmaster of one prep we visited.

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