Updated: Sep 18
Yvonne Conolly CBE was born Cecile Yvonne Conolly in 1939 Jamaica.
After completing three years training as a primary school teacher in Jamaica, she made the decision with her ex-pat teacher friend Elizabeth Heybeard to come to Britain to teach.
She arrived in the UK in 1963 and initially found work as a supply teacher and took jobs a babysitter, cleaner and typist to supplement her income.
Conolly eventually found permanent teaching position at George Eilot School in Swiss Cottage, north London. Here, for five years, she excelled and eventually became deputy-head of the primary school; she had originally planned to return to Jamaica after three years.
On a whim, she applied for the headteacher role at Ring Cross Primary School and much to her surprise was offered the role in January 1969. At just 29 years of age, she became the UK’s first Black female headteacher.
She received racist abuse after being appointed headteacher and needed a bodyguard to accompany her to work. She was subjected to repeated attacks in national newspapers and would receive hate mail at home.
She recalled in one of her last interviews with the Islington Tribune in February 2021: “And I remember people looking at me washing my hands, thinking the water would run brown. Were they being racist, or just ignorant?”
In her role as headteacher, Yvonne was appointed to a multi-ethnic team of inspectors assembled by the Inner London Education Authority in 1978.
Her job on the board was to help schools in the capital tackle racism by looking at resources and policymaking, with a particular focus on North London.
After leaving Ring Cross Primary she was later made an Ofsted inspector and also set up the Caribbean Teachers' Association.
She was an Ofsted inspector for seven years between 1977-1986. When this role ended, she continued being an active voice in the home secretary’s advisory council on race relations.
The Department of Education paid their respects to Connolly in a statement, describing her as a “history maker.”
After retiring from teaching in 2001, Connolly remained chair of the Caribbean Teachers’ Association and in October 2020 she was honoured for her services to education with the Honorary Fellow of Education award from the Naz Legacy Foundation.
HRH Prince of Wales, who announced Connolly’s award, said at the time that she had “character and determination” which helped her break barriers for black educators.
In the Queen's Birthday Honours in October 2020, Conolly was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for services to education.
Conolly is also remembered in Islington where, near to her home in Finsbury Park, the 'Yvonne Conolly Garden' in Wray Crescent Park was dedicated to her in 2019.
Yvonne died in January 2021 after battling the incurable blood cancer myeloma for 10 years.
Image credits: Myeloma UK