Ruth-Anne Lenga, Associate Professor and Programme Director UCL Centre for Holocaust Education (on secondment) reflects on this achievement.
The list of Dr Vanessa Ogden’s achievements is staggering. She is the founding CEO of Mulberry Schools Trust, and a National Leader in Education. In the process of her career, Vanessa has improved the quality of education in dozens of London’s inner-city schools, impacting profoundly on the lives of thousands of young people.
She is an incredible advocate for women’s education. She won the prestigious Women of the Future Inspirational Educator Award, in 2009, and is a trustee of the Women of the World Foundation. Vanessa chairs several boards including the Fair Education Alliance which works to ensure that no child’s success is limited by their socio-economic background, and the Unicorn Theatre – fulfilling her passion for the performing arts and its importance in education.
But I was particularly delighted to read last week that she has been recognised in the King’s New Years Honours with a CBE award for services to education.
I am also delighted to say that Vanessa is an alumna of IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, where she first trained as a teacher of RE and later gained her MA and a PhD in education policy and school improvement.
In my 30 years of working at IOE, I can think of no worthier recipient of such an award. Naturally unassuming and self-effacing, Vanessa is a bold leader who remains strong in troubling times facing some of the most difficult school challenges including those relating to recent global events. She operates with integrity and reliability – qualities that do not falter and which have earned her the admiration and respect of many, not least her own students some of whom, return to their school in later life to start their own career as qualified teachers.
It was while Vanessa herself was training to be a Religious Education teacher at IOE (then part of University of London) that our paths first crossed, as far back as the early 1990s. Even then, she stood out as an exceptionally gifted teacher who believed in young people and was committed to helping them see how barriers to achievement can be overcome and that it is possible, with hard work, to become anything one strives to be.
In 2006, she became headteacher of Mulberry, a girls’ school in East London, consisting of students largely from Bangladeshi Muslim heritage. Vanessa’s extensive knowledge and genuine respect for the culture and religion of her student body created a climate of mutual trust between the school, parents, and the extended community. This in turn, helped make it possible for the students to fully engage in ambitious learning experiences, within and beyond east London. There are so many examples that illustrate this: students running their own annual intercollegiate conference inviting high profile woman achievers to speak on the theme of women’s empowerment, and students participating in international debate through the United Nations International School Youth Conference and the Model United Nations Conference in New York. Her Year 10 students also took part in a significant research project with IOE’s Professor Kathryn Riley (The UCL Centre for Educational Leadership) on a project entitled ‘Leadership of Place’: it examined whether students feel like they belong in school and measured the extent to which belonging influenced students’ ability to act with agency and confidence in their school communities.
One of Vanessa’s most ambitious student-initiatives took place in 2012. Students journeyed to Bosnia with a camera crew on a mission to interview survivors of the Bosnian Genocide, nine years after the event, as part of an exploration on seeking justice after genocide. It was during their preparation for this considerable challenge that I had the pleasure of meeting the impressive young film makers. Vanessa wanted the students to know what had been learned from interviewing Holocaust survivors so they might benefit from such insights as they embarked on a parallel journey. The camera crew documented the young women to a further destination – The Hague – to sit in on the trial of Radovan Karadzic who was later convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal. The film, entitled Justice in Action won ‘Best International Documentary’ at the People’s Film Festival (TPFF) in Harlem, New York, in May 2013.
As CEO of Mulberry Academy Trust, Vanessa now leads a family of schools in Tower Hamlets and East London, – some of the most deprived areas in the country (pupil premium entitlement is currently running at 50%). Despite the many issues that arise for these schools, student exam results outperform national averages, and a significant number of students end up at top universities. In fact, in 2023, an impressive 75% of Year 13s achieved places at university while others chose to opt for degree apprenticeships or went straight into the professional workforce. Vanessa not only drives teacher and student achievement throughout the Trust but also works to assist many other schools too, in her capacity as a designated National Leader in Education, providing school-to school support in a range of challenging issues.
She has also established a Teaching School, a parent and community centre, a STEM Academy, sponsored by Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix, founded the Mulberry UTC, a college specialising in equipping young people for beginning careers in Health, Science, Business, & Theatre, and has fostered enterprising collaborations between the school and local commerce and industry. The nature and number of innovations she has brought about is truly phenomenal.
But it’s Vanessa’s dedication to the education of women and her determination to see students flourish, is what stands out. It was why, in June 2015, the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, chose Mulberry School as the place to launch, in person, her Let Girls Learn initiative in the UK. I remember the day so well. I vividly recall the sea of Mulberry students welcoming Obama as she arrived via cavalcade, which caused a major traffic jam on Commercial Road.
When Michelle Obama addressed the students, she stated:
‘…And maybe you read the news and hear what folks are saying about your religion, and you wonder if people will ever see beyond your headscarf to who you really are -– instead of being blinded by the fears and misperceptions in their own minds.
And I know how painful and how frustrating all of that can be. I know how angry and exhausted it can make you feel. But here’s the thing — with an education from this amazing school, you all have everything — everything — you need to rise above all of the noise and fulfil every last one of your dreams’.
After the visit to Mulberry, Michelle Obama returned the compliment. She invited Vanessa and students back to The White House for tea and a business meeting. Vanessa worked to ensure money was raised to enable as many students as possible could make the trip.
Vanessa’s achievements are both credible and incredible. I am sure, she will continue to champion young people and inspire future generations for many more years to come.