“It was fascinating, it really opened my eyes to ways in which you can make social mobility work… I found it all absolutely brilliant”, says Lindsey Hughes, head of Channing School in Highgate, as she talks about an earlier career working for the Sutton Trust.
She joined the social mobility charity when it was in its infancy in 1998 – part of a career shift after a graduate job doing marketing for Virgin Megastores and Our Price.
“I had a real moment of ‘why am I making all this money for Richard Branson when I should be doing something that’s good for my soul?’” she says, explaining why she entered the charity sector.
“It was literally the four of us in an office…it was amazing, I loved it, I spent lots of time visiting schools and evaluating applications for funding.”
“I had a unique perspective on education and schools before even starting.”
The trust, set up by the philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, was at the forefront of encouraging independent and state school partnerships and Hughes was the trust’s representative on the board of Belvedere School in Liverpool as it became open access in 2000.
It was these positive first-hand experiences of schools that made Hughes realise that her destiny would be in teaching – something she had initially considered in the sixth form. “I had a unique perspective on education and schools before even starting,” she says.
A historian, she taught first in state schools before crossing to the private sector “far sooner than I’d ever intended” and held leadership roles at Solihull School and St Helen and St Katherine. She was deputy head at Lady Eleanor Holles School and took on Channing as head in September 2020.
“I’ve got a really interesting set of skills that come from being a historian, in marketing and working for the Sutton Trust particularly,” she says.
“I spend a lot of time talking with my state school colleagues about the issues that face them.”
She has been a member of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) since 2008 and currently represents the Girls’ Schools Association at the organisation.
“It’s been some of the most personally and professionally fulfilling work I do,” she says.
“I spend a lot of time talking with my state school colleagues about the issues that face them, and that’s really useful and interesting,” she adds.
“I have always found it really valuable to have a different perspective on what’s going on in all sectors.”
She says that throughout her career there’s been “a thread of where can our partnership work happen, where can we find opportunities for mixing?”
When she saw the Channing job advertised, the school was looking for someone who had the energy and drive to put rocket boosters under its partnerships programme.
“It really was just tailor-made for me,” says Hughes, who had been waiting for such an opportunity.
Although the pandemic slowed progress initially, the school’s partnership programme is now bearing fruit.
She says: “Yes, my pupils come from a place of privilege where their parents can afford to send them to a school like this.
“Unitarian values now have a real 21st Century resonance.”
“But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be aware of what else is going on in the world and there shouldn’t be opportunities for them to mix with other people.
“I want to keep working really hard to offer as many opportunities as possible to as many children as possible regardless of their backgrounds,” she says.
While Hughes was drawn to this opportunity to make a difference, it was also the unique Unitarian values of the school which chimed with her own way of thinking.
The school was set up in 1885 for the daughters of Unitarian ministers and named after one of Unitarianism’s leading theologians, William Ellery Channing.
Its tenets, says Hughes, are “kindness, respect, inclusivity, tolerance of everyone’s path to spiritual enlightenment”.
She says: “In their 1800s heyday they were big campaigners, abolitionists and campaigned for the rights of women to have education.
“It’s a dissenting tradition and now Unitarian values have a real 21st Century resonance.
“I was really drawn to the values,” she says, “I felt really at home here from the start”.
“Parents want to hear your vision.”
Alongside promoting the school’s values and driving the partnerships programme, there is of course a lot more for Hughes to do.
The school is popular, with 90 per cent of pupils living locally, but she is far from complacent and her marketing skills come in “handy” she says.
“It’s an all-girls school in a very competitive London market. Ensuring that what makes Channing special is really well understood by prospective parents is really important to me.”
The role of the head in marketing, she says, is “vital”. “Parents want to hear your vision,” she says.
With a large London school to run, there is not much time left for anything else, but what does Hughes do when she does have a moment to herself?
She spends time with her teenage son, family and friends and makes the most of what London has to offer in terms of food, wine and gigs. Watching cricket and other sports such as rugby is her “real escapism”, she says.
And the best thing about living in London? “You can go anywhere and do anything,” she says.
It’s perhaps an appropriate motto for the head of a girls’ school encouraging her pupils to become “10 per cent braver” in everything they do.