When highly acclaimed medium Mavis Pittilla attended a Buckingham Palace Garden Party some years ago, she was “off duty”. Instead of being centre stage, she was enjoying the day as the invited guest of her close friend, Dame Jean Else.
Dame Jean had received the royal invitation as a sign of her standing in the field of education. The peak of her achievement was that in 1994 she took over Manchester’s Whalley Range High, a chaotic school for girls, and transformed it.
In 2001 Tony Blair made her a Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to state schooling. From 2003 to 2007 she was also a trustee of the Imperial War Museum.
As Rogers and Hammerstein wrote, “There is Nothing Like a Dame”, but until the case of Jean Else there was nothing like a deposed Dame.
On February 8 this year, the London Gazette announced that Jean Else’s Damehood had been revoked. She is the first and only DBE to have had her honour withdrawn. This came at the end of several years of struggle to defend her position.
Today, together with Mavis Pittilla, with whom she shares a Cheshire home, she is a founder of Spiritual Explorations, which provides psychic and mediumistic development workshops and seminars.
When she took over as Head of Whalley Range, the school had the worst truancy record in the country, examination results were abysmal, and discipline appalling. Jean Else, a former PE teacher, refurbished the school, introduced uniforms, tightened up the rules and greatly improved the exam results.
She engaged interior designer Peter Strang to devise a makeover for the building, and was not above picking up a paintbrush herself. The new décor was said to have been bizarre for a school, including purple and lime green walls in the lavatories. There were also gold plastic Grecian maidens, ornate benches, pot plants and gold trellises dotted around.
Former Labour Education Secretary Estelle Morris, an ex-Whalley Range pupil, (no doubt before its gradual deterioration), so much respected Dame Jean’s opinions that she allegedly slipped her a draft of the Government’s White Paper on the future of education, to obtain her comments before publication.
The first hint of trouble came in October 2002, soon after the royal garden party, when an investigation into Dame Jean’s conduct took place after a former member of her staff made a complaint.
At that time Jean’s salary was £140,000 a year, but there was thought to be extravagance within the school. Thousands of pounds had been spent on the makeover. It was alleged that she drove around in a golf buggy, barking out orders, which she denies.
Three staff members took cases of unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal, including Peter Strang, whose salary had been slashed by half. He, the caretaker, and the assistant head were all paid off with public money. Each signed a confidentiality agreement as part of the deal.
The Audit Commission, now disbanded, began an inquiry into the school’s finances. The commission’s report also accused Dame Jean of nepotism. She had employed her sister, Maureen Rochford, as a clerical assistant. With no teaching qualifications, Ms Rochford eventually became Assistant Head on a salary of £58,000 a year.
The commission also found evidence of money being spent on private parties, secret payments to get rid of staff, and the awarding of a contract for consultancy work to a friend of Dame Jean. She was suspended in 2004 and finally dismissed in 2006.
Jean Else believes she is the victim of a witch hunt.
“I send my prayers to the person or persons who are so bitter they cannot let this matter rest,” she told the Daily Mail. “This has come from politics on high and I would like to find out who is behind it. As for my medal, they say they want it back, but it is staying in my china cabinet. If they wish to have it, they can come and get it.
“The best day of my life was when I became a Dame, and they will never take that away from me. When you think of the MPs who’ve been caught fiddling their expenses it makes me wonder why I’ve been treated this way. I never lined my pockets. If I had, I’d be living in a mansion, not a bungalow near Macclesfield.”
The Mail speculates about the reason for her downfall. Are there politicians or civil servants with long memories who have pursued a personal vendetta? Or is it her interest in psychic and spiritual matters or her personal life that have blotted her copybook?
One day we may know.