Anne Burrell

Doctor of Laws

Tuesday 19 July 2016 at 4 pm - Orator: Professor Ros Sutherland  

Mr Vice-Chancellor

This is a story of an exceptional woman, who returned to her city of birth and transformed the lives of young people in South Bristol. This is a story about the history of education in Bristol. This is the story of Anne Burrell, whose drive, tenacity and leadership have been fundamental to improving the quality of education in this country.

Anne’s school education started at St Michael’s on the Mount primary school, only a stone’s throw away from where we are today in the Wills Memorial Building.  Anne remembers the palpable poverty that she witnessed at this school, and from a young age decided that she wanted to become a teacher. Her favourite game was “school world”, played with her dolls and her own “homemade register”.  In these moments of play Anne must have been imagining what she was to grow up to become.

Anne talks passionately about her wonderful parents and the strong work ethic in her family. Anne’s father John was a fireman at Bristol Central Fire Station, and this is where Anne lived until she was 11 years old. Her mother Dorothy was a “Wills girl”, working at the Wills Tobacco Factory in Bedminster. Anne’s early life was enriched by the culture and history of the city: Bristol Central Library, Bristol City Museum and Dean Lane swimming pool. Anne’s mother was a very good swimmer and Anne swam at the Bedminster pool, eventually swimming front and back crawl for Bristol. Anne’s father regularly took her to the Central Library, which lent her the books that were lacking at home. Family is very important to Anne and we welcome here today her husband Alastair, her older sisters Sally and Jane and her son Alex and daughter Abbie, who recently trained as a teacher at the University of Bristol.

In 1967, Anne left primary school to go to St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, which was the first comprehensive school in Bristol. Most of her primary school friends left school at 15, but after passing her O Level examinations Anne continued her education, studying A Level History, English and Religious Education. At this time there were only twenty students in the sixth form of this new comprehensive school, and twelve in Anne’s year.   One of these was Alastair Pike, who was to become Anne’s future husband. Anne’s leadership skills clearly stood out at school. She became Head Girl and also Captain of the netball team.

After school Anne chose to study History at Swansea University.  This was an ambitious choice as only four students from her school year went to University. Imagine the pride of her mother and her Welsh father. Anne was the first of more than twenty grandchildren from her mother’s side of the family to study at university. Alastair also chose to study History in Wales, at St David’s University Lampeter. Every weekend they travelled on public transport to meet up, making arrangements by pre-planned calls from phone box to phone box, unimaginable today when everyone owns a mobile phone. But young love always “finds a way” and forty years ago, in the hot summer of 1976, Anne and Alastair spent many romantic weekends on the beautiful Rhossili beach on the Gower coast.   After graduating they were married and Alastair has become Anne’s life partner who has supported her throughout a very demanding career as a teacher and school leader.

After training to be history teachers, Anne and Alastair started their teaching careers. Anne combined work with bringing up two children. This was not always easy, and when Anne took up the post of Head of History in 1986, some months after her son Alex was born, another teacher seeing a child’s car seat in the back of her car said,  “You shouldn’t be working, you should be at home with your child’.  Her daughter Abbie was born in 1989 and, soon after, Anne became Deputy Head of Brockworth School, Gloucester. The Chief Education Officer for Gloucester, David Potter, spotted Anne’s leadership potential and supported her in the early stages of her career. Of the many qualities that he noticed he particularly remembers her having the highest aspirations for students and staff, never accepting second best and never ducking tough decisions. By 1994, Anne became head of John Bentley School in Wiltshire, where she remained for eleven years. After this she worked as the South West regional Senior School Improvement Adviser.

We jump now in time to tell the story of Merchants’ Academy. In 2006 the then Vice Chancellor of the University of Bristol, Sir Eric Thomas, had the foresight to agree that the University of Bristol would be a co-sponsor of Merchants’ Academy, together with the Society of Merchant Venturers. The new school opened in Withywood in 2008, one of the most deprived areas of the country. The old Withywood School had been allowed to deteriorate and employment in the area has never picked up since the closure of the Wills Tobacco factory in 1990.  The higher education participation rate from this area of Bristol is one of the lowest in the country, 8% compared to a national average of 36%.

Anne became Principal of Merchants’ Academy in 2010. In all of her career she had never worked in Bristol and she passionately wanted the opportunity to lead this new school. From her new office she could see where her Auntie Glad and Auntie Olive had lived, and also see the high-rise council flat that she had moved to at the age of 11. When Anne took over the school only 25% of students were achieving 5 GCSEs at A*-C, including English and mathematics and by 2013 this had become 51%, which led to the school being recognised in 2014 as one of the fastest improving schools in England.  Not only did Anne understand the need to improve teaching, learning, behaviour and attendance, she also understood the importance of co-curricular activities, such as debating, sport, music and photography.  In February 2016, the school was recognised for its excellence in music by being given the award of the Best Music Department nationally.

In 2013, Merchants’ Academy became an All Age School through a merger with a local primary school. There were enormous challenges associated with this merger, and Anne again demonstrated her level-headed approach to leadership through tenaciously tackling issues related to historical low educational performance at the primary school.  The challenges of transforming both a primary and secondary school would be sufficient for most people, but not so for Anne Burrell. In 2013, she led a bid for a new free school for children with autism. This school, also sponsored by the University of Bristol, will open as Venturers’ Academy in September 2016.

One of the challenges for Merchants’ Academy has been to develop its post-16 provision. By 2015, there were 64 students in the sixth form, and 18 of the 21 students in Year 13 progressed to university. This is a small sixth form by current standards, but it is interesting to compare these numbers with those for St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, where in 1974 there were 12 students in Anne’s year and only 4 of these progressed to University. Nowadays this school has one of the biggest and most successful sixth forms in Bristol, demonstrating that it takes time to build an academic sixth form.

As an historian and as a Bristolian, Anne understands better than anyone how the river divides the city.  It makes her very angry when educational decisions disadvantage students in South Bristol. She understands that one of the biggest challenges for Bristol is raising the higher education participation rate of young people in South Bristol. She understands that one of the barriers to participation is GCSE performance. She understands that improving the life chances of young people in South Bristol is a long-term project, and she has left a legacy that is a key building block for educational change across the whole of South Bristol.  The University of Bristol is proud to be a sponsor of Merchants’ Academy and Venturers’ Academy, and this is very much due to Anne Burrell valuing and capitalising on the long-term commitment of the University to the education of young people in South Bristol.

Mr Vice-Chancellor I present to you Anne Burrell as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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