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The Big Interview: Gordonstoun’s first female principal on breaking through the glass ceiling

Gordonstoun principal Lisa Kerr.
Gordonstoun principal Lisa Kerr.

There is no standing on ceremony with Lisa Kerr, even though she oversees an institution which has educated several members of the royal family.

On the contrary, the woman who became the first female principal of Gordonstoun School in 2016 is happy to engage in plain speaking about many of the biggest issues in today’s world.

Ms Kerr shared her concerns over politicians “bulldozing their opinions” on others in the Brexit debate and tackling the “prejudice” which led publishers to advise JK Rowling to use her initials to “disguise her gender.”

She also believes that education is about far more than gaining great exam results and recounted how, while working in business, she had received CVs “full of A grades, but then, when you meet the person, they had nothing about them”.

Gordonstoun was founded by German Dr Kurt Hahn in 1934, and lists Prince Philip, Olympic rowing champion Heather Stanning, author William Boyd and the Duke of Rothesay among its former pupils.

Three years after assuming the role at the establishment, Ms Kerr has become a driving force for more partnerships between private and state schools and seems determined to break down barriers wherever she finds them.

But this hasn’t happened without the occasional brush with the status quo.

She said: “There were interesting conversations as everyone got used to a woman in a role which had always been held by a man.

“I was once referred to as the ‘Lady Headmaster’. I still get asked what my husband does or who looks after my children, which aren’t questions often asked of male principals.

“However, I believe my appointment did send out a wider message: now that there are more women in leadership roles in education, these appear more attainable.

“Having women in leadership has an impact on pupils – and not just the girls. Girls have always looked to both men and women for inspiration, but it’s so important that we encourage boys to have female role models too.

“We need to move away from the same prejudice that led publishers to advise JK Rowling to use initials as a pen name to disguise her gender.

“She is now a huge role model for aspiring writers, male and female, and I hope the new generation of leaders in education will inspire boys as well as girls in the future.”

Ms Kerr embarked on a memorable voyage in the Arctic in 2017 aboard Gordonstoun’s 80ft sail training yacht, Ocean Spirit of Moray.

She related the influence which the journey had on her and her charges, and obviously agrees with Dr Hahn’s conviction that not everything can be learned from books.

She said: “I was lucky enough to get a berth for a week around the Svalbard archipelago and I was overwhelmed by the experience.

“The physical challenges were considerable, but more powerful was seeing these young people, from such diverse backgrounds, working together to sail, cook, clean and realise what they were capable of.

“I will never forget being on watch on deck in the midnight sun and looking around me and knowing this was something which would change their lives forever.”

As somebody with a passion for debate and discussion, Ms Kerr has been dismayed by the level of vitriol and abuse which has been prevalent in politics lately, especially on social media.

It’s a subject she is evangelical about and she recently invited children from different backgrounds to come to the school to learn the art of dialogue.

FACT FILE

Name: Lisa Kerr

Age: 46

Education: Broughton High School, Edinburgh, followed by a BA honours in music York Unversity

Previous roles: Following a career in the commercial radio industry, including a period as a producer at Classic FM, and then as vice-chairwoman at Scottish Opera, Ms Kerr ran her own media and communications consultancy. She was also a school governor.

Best bit of current role: “Seeing hundreds of children doing things they love and which challenge them every day.”

Ambitions: “To cement Gordonstoun as a world leader in character education.”