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The Girl On The School Sign Steps Out

She has what must be Britain’s best-known silhouette – yet for 40 years she has been anonymous herself.

Since 1964, the sign displaying a little girl leading an even smaller boy across the road has been warning motorists to slow down near schools. The silhouette is a self-portrait of graphic artist Margaret Calvert, now 68, who created the familiar sign at a time when mass motoring was taking off across the country.

She has revealed that feminism inspired her to depict herself leading a boy across the road. And a desire to celebrate the comprehensive schools – then replacing grammar schools – ensured she tried not to make the youngsters look too ‘middle class’.

Miss Calvert also designed a series of other signs, including the all-too-familiar ‘Men at work’ one.

It was in the late 1950s that her former tutor at the Chelsea College of Art, Jock Kinneir, was appointed head of signs for Britain’s roads. He gave Miss Calvert the job of redesigning the then chaotic road sign system and she threw herself into the project, producing a series of easy-to-understand pictograms that are still in constant use now.

Miss Calvert, who was born in South Africa but came to Britain aged 14, said: “We’d always seen Britain as very literate, so having pictures on signs, which was more European, was seen as a big change.

“There were pictograms of children on European signs, but they were often crudely drawn by engineers. There were some illustrated school signs in England, but they used to be of a boy of about ten with a satchel and a cap, and a small girl behind him.

“It was quite archaic, almost like an illustration from Enid Blyton, and very grammar-schooly. I wanted to make it more inclusive because comprehensives were starting up, and I didn’t want it to have a social class feel.”

She added: “I switched it to make the girl more caring, with her leading a little boy. My model for the girl was myself as a child – although I was very skinny as a girl, so I beefed myself up a bit because you have to draw a shape that can be seen from a distance.

“There were some rude remarks about the sign when I finished it. People said it looked like a girl leading a small gorilla.”

She also drew the sign of a cow, which warns of the presence of farm animals. “My main model was a cow called Patience that my farmer relatives had in Wiltshire,” she said.

“I did the road works sign too. There were jokes about it because I drew the shovel going into a mound of earth – so it looks a little like a man having difficulties with a very large umbrella.

“I just wish I’d left the tip on it to show it was a shovel.”

Miss Calvert first revealed herself as the girl in the crossing sign on the BBC Radio 4 programme Routemasters.

She is still designing in her studio in North London and was awarded an honorary degree by the University of the Arts in London in May 2004.

Neil Sears
Originally published in the Daily Mail (UK). 29/5/2004.