Kiwis in Oxford

December 2011


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JUDE BARBACK talks to New Zealander FELICITY LUSK about becoming the first woman to lead a prestigious boys’ school in Oxford.

Many Kiwis call Oxford home. There is something about “the city of gleaming spires” with its beautiful colleges, punts drifting back and forth along the rivers and quaint nearby villages, which has captured the heart of many a New Zealander... and some of these Kiwis are moving and shaking the education world around them.

Miss Felicity Lusk joins this club of expats. One year ago she began her role as headmistress at the prestigious Abingdon School, a public boys’ school in Oxfordshire. This in itself is impressive, but the fact that she is the first woman in the school’s 750-year history to take the helm, is truly remarkable.

Abingdon School has over 1000 students aged four to 18, including boarders, and just 20 per cent of its staff are women. Prior to taking on the new challenge, Lusk had only ever taught at girls’ or coeducational schools, including Oxford High School, one of the leading girls’ schools in Britain.

Nearly one year into the role, Lusk reflects on what she has learned about and the Kiwi roots to which she attributes her success.

Lusk is certainly passionate about her New Zealand heritage. “I’m part Māori and have a strong pioneering instinct inherited from my English and Scottish forebears who were amongst the first settlers,” she says. Lusk visits New Zealand often and claims she will always call it home. TVNZ recently filmed her for the programme Sunday and making the documentary allowed Lusk to step back and really think about her roots and why she’s proud to be a New Zealander. She attributes her ‘can do’ attitude entirely to her upbringing and being a Kiwi. She believes there are always solutions to problems and it is always best to be bold; there is no room for “shilly-shallying”.

Indeed there has been very little shilly-shallying in her life to date. Upon graduating from Victoria University of Wellington with a degree in music education, Lusk went on to become director of music at Wellington East Girls’ College. “I didn’t have an OE when I left school,” says Lusk. “I went straight to university, married young and started teaching. When, in my early thirties, I found myself able to think about a change of direction, I didn’t hesitate to come to live in the UK.” A Woolf Fisher Fellowship brought Lusk to the University of York in 1985 to pursue postgraduate study in music education, an experience she enjoyed immensely. In 1989 she returned to England with a one-way ticket, “determined to make it work”.

Lusk’s first year in the UK could be described as a whirlwind of success. She was appointed director of music at Hasmonean High School, London and shortly after deputy head and head of the girls’ school. A year to the day she landed at Heathrow, Lusk found herself sitting in the Council Chamber as a newly elected councillor of the London Borough of Enfield. This marked a four-year commitment for Lusk, which she embraced. “I made good friends quickly, and I’ll always be grateful for those early kindnesses. My son settled into a good nursery. It seemed to me that I was meant to stay.”

Lusk is clearly motivated by the pursuit of excellence and the realisation of aspirations. “My 14 years as head of Oxford High School were happy, successful and fulfilling.” While tempted to stay put, her inner restlessness pushed her to look for fresh challenges, which she found at Abingdon School.

“Having nearly completed my first year, I’m now turning my attention to where this outstanding school will go over the next decade – and there won’t be much in the way of playing around at the edges.” Lusk is confident the principles that apply to running a successful girls’ school are exactly the same as those needed to run a successful boys’ school, or a coeducational school.

She believes strongly in communication. “A head can have an exceptional vision for a school, but if he or she cannot communicate this vision, then the school is going nowhere.”

She also believes a school needs to inspire its pupils and give them a voice. One of the first things she did at Abingdon School was introduce a school council run by the students, for the students, to discuss issues important to them and feed back to staff – an initiative already beginning to reap benefits.

Lusk thinks good communication channels should extend to the parents. “They trust you to make the best of their child’s future – that is an enormous commitment and they have every right to be kept informed of the progress.” When she arrived at Abingdon the students, parents and staff were all consulted through an extensive survey and Lusk repeatedly returns to its findings.

Lusk is realistic about knowing that as head she is unlikely to please everybody all of the time and consequently is unafraid to take tough decisions. “My overriding proviso in a decision making process is, ‘is this best for the students?’”

However, it is her determination to challenge the status quo, her belief that “no good school stands still”, that “complacency is limiting and risky” that hint most fervently at Lusk’s success as the leader of some of the most prestigious schools around.

It is easy to see why she is happy in Oxford, yet there is a certain wistfulness detected when she talks of “home”.

“I do miss the wonderful landscapes of New Zealand, seeing my family, walking on Waikanae Beach, but I love my life here. I do, however, know that I can always go home. Perhaps I will some day.”

Principal principles:

Lusk’s five tips for effective school leadership.

1. Communication is key

2. Giving your pupils a voice is crucial

3. A school needs to inspire its pupils

4. Don’t be afraid to take tough decisions

5. Challenge the status quo.

Another Oxford-bound Kiwi

Professor James Belich will take up the Beit Professorship of Commonwealth and Imperial History at Oxford University in October this year. The Beit Professorship was established in 1905 and provides research leadership in Commonwealth, imperial and global history. Belich will be the seventh to hold the prestigious position, which is awarded to a historian of exceptional and international reputation. Belich is no stranger to Oxford. The Wellington-born professor gained a Master of Arts from Victoria University before attending Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and graduating as a Doctor of Philosophy in 1981.

One is reminded of John Hood’s term as vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford from 2004 to 2009. While at times described as “controversial”, Hood made history in being elected the first vice-chancellor from outside Oxford’s academic body. He was also the first to address the scholars’ congregation via a webcast. Like Belich, Hood was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.