Jean Wilks, CBE, Hon. LLD, MA (Oxon), FCP ( b. 1917 d. 2014), was educated at North London Collegiate School and Somerville College, Oxford. She was Assistant Mistress of James Allen’s Girls’ School, Dulwich, 1943-51, Head Mistress of Hertfordshire and Essex High School, Bishop’s Stortford, 1951-64, and finally of King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham, 1965-77. Jean Wilks served as President of the Association of Headmistresses from 1972-4. A member of Council from 1971, she was deputy Pro-Chancellor for six years, becoming the first woman Pro-Chancellor, 1985-89.
Norman Hepple, the son of the portrait painter Robert Hepple, was trained at the Royal Academy Schools, and became an official war artist with the National Fire Service during the Second World War. He was much sought after as a portrait painter in the 1970s and 80s, painting royalty, and academic and military subjects. The University of Birmingham commissioned him six times during this period.
Jean Wilks, who has died aged 97, was a distinguished headmistress of King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham and one of the great educators of her generation.
Jean Ruth Fraser Wilks was born at Wanstead, Essex, on April 14 1917, one of three children of a prosperous surveyor. Her background included both freethinkers and nonconformist clerics, and as a teenager Jean was a convinced atheist — although she would embrace Christianity at university. A major influence on her was her uncle Mark, who was imprisoned because his wife — a doctor and women’s rights campaigner — would not let him pay her income tax. During his incarceration, a group of suffragettes sang songs under his window to keep up his spirits.
At the liberal North London Collegiate School, Jean excelled at English and History but showed little interest in other subjects. On scoring only six per cent in a physics exam, she and several like-minded friends were placed in a remedial class which included “classical logic”. The subject fascinated her, sharpening her debating skills, and she later introduced it in most of the schools where she taught. She read English at Somerville College, Oxford, studying Wordsworth under the renowned scholar Helen Darbishire and attending lectures by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, who read his students instalments of The Hobbit as he wrote it.
Jean Wilks began her teaching career during the war and recalled that a surprising amount of education could take place with a bible, stub of pencil and scraps of paper in shelters during air raids. After eight years as assistant mistress of James Allen’s Girls’ School, Dulwich, she became headmistress of Hertfordshire and Essex High School, Bishop’s Stortford, from 1951 to 1964, then of the highly academic King Edward VI High School for Girls in Edgbaston for 13 years.
Understanding girls’ expectations of greater freedom and independence, she broadened the sixth form curriculum, introduced more varied extra-curricular activities and broke down the old hierarchies. Out went the structure of Head Girl and prefects as the whole sixth form took on their duties, organised by two small committees. Out too went uniform for the sixth form, leading to some jaw-dropping expressions of individuality over the years, from miniskirts to witchy maxi-dresses.
Jean Wilks was determined that able girls from any background should enjoy the privilege of a top-class education. Many, including the actress Lindsay Duncan, the neurology pioneer Professor Anita Harding, the squash champion Sue Cogswell and the journalist and real tennis world champion Sally Jones were educated free under the (state-funded) Direct Grant Scheme during her tenure at King Edward’s.
Although self-contained, scholarly and seemingly austere, Jean Wilks was approachable, enlightened and personally generous. Without being soft or gullible, she believed the best of people and was perceptive enough to recognise talent and intelligence among her more lively and rebellious pupils as well as among the more diligent.