Islington community centre could be renamed in tribute to UK’s first Black female headteacher

Yvonne Conolly CBE. Photograph: Islington Council

A community centre could be renamed to honour Britain’s “trailblazing” first Black female headteacher.

Yvonne Conolly was appointed to the top job at Ring Cross Primary School in 1969 when she was just 29.

She had to be escorted to the school on her first day because of racist threats.

Islington Council wants to rename the community centre on the Ring Cross Estate after her.

She was posthumously awarded the Freedom of the Borough this year.

She once recounted arriving in the UK from Jamaica in 1963 on “a grey, grey day – I wondered what I had done”.

Speaking to the BBC in 2019 she said she was aware of racial tensions in  a number of UK schools: “There were small silly things, nothing dangerous but enough to cause discomfort.”

When she was made headteacher at the primary school in Holloway’s Eden Grove, she was the focus of media attention.

She recalled: “When I was appointed somebody threatened to burn the school down.”

Conolly added she was sent the articles with her picture crossed out and “nasty comments” written over them. Some Black people thought she had “sold out” too, she said.

However she was determined to do the job she trained for.

“I had a responsibility for all the children in my school, regardless of race or religion,” she said. “In fact the differences were less than the commonalities that we shared. And therefore we had to get on with it.

“Happily the parents were only interested in whether their children would get a good education. And that was my focus.”

Conolly died in January 2021, aged 81.

Holloway ward councillor Rakhia Ismail, who was the UK’s first Somali-born mayor, proposed renaming the Ring Cross Estate after Conolly.

Ismail, the only Conservative on the council, brought a motion last week saying: “Black and minority British children’s voices are still under-represented in great numbers in education establishments, and it is obvious that discrimination on an institutional and structural level is experienced daily in the leadership of children’s learning.”

Cllr Ismail said 92 per cent of headteachers and 85 per cent of school teachers in England are white British, according to 2019 data.

She said: “We can lead from the front as we have historical icons in our borough like the late Yvonne Conolly, which will give hope and aspirations to all Black youth and community in Islington schools.”

She also suggested the council should work with the Caribbean Teachers Association and Islington History Museum to showcase Conolly’s achievement “so it encourages Black youth in Islington and the UK and families too”.

Fellow Holloway councillor Jason Jackson (Lab) proposed an amendment, saying it would cost residents and businesses money if the estate changed its name.

He said Yvonne Conolly “made a name for herself in Islington”, adding: “She became a trusted member of the community in Holloway. She will be sorely missed.”

He suggested renaming the community centre after the inspirational headteacher and putting up a plaque rather than a statue. He also supported working with teachers and the museum to celebrate Conolly’s contribution to teaching and the borough.

The council is talking to The Hyde Group and the Pilion Trust, which own the community centre, about renaming it.