Tuesday 15 September 2020

Boarding Schools 4

At my single-sex, convent boarding school we had an English teacher - let's call her Miss Watson. She was very good on the English language, and liked us to understand every word, phrase and metaphor of a Shakespeare passage.

But she managed to teach A Level English Literature without ever using an abstract noun. No hint that King Lear is “about hubris” or Howard’s End “about class”. And your essay couldn’t have a theme – it was about either language or character development. We were supposed to write – at great length – about the characters, and how their development was shown in the language, with copious quotes. Her only other topic was "atmosphere". ("How does Forster convey atmosphere in Chapter 9?")

We were forbidden to read around the subject, or read what critics had written, or research the historical background. One girl quoted from a book in an essay and was told off for "cheating". We might have found out that there are different points of view about everything, and that people can debate questions without the sky falling in. Plus, these commentators might have discussed "adult themes".

An ex-pupil agreed that we had to just pull those 40-page essays out of ourselves. "And what did we know?" Another Old Girl relates that the class were disappointed they did so badly in A Levels – for which they had not really been prepared. You can't write at that length in an exam.

In the Sixth Form, we had to write an essay on a general topic once a week. The best were read out at a ceremony known as "Thursday Morning Essay", that combined the Upper and Lower Sixth. We chose our own subjects, and I can't remember any of those essays – apart from one. I had been to the theatre to see a JB Priestley play. Its theme was the way the younger generation criticised the old, and then made the same mistakes and faced their own critical children. It was the late 60s and youth rebellion was in the air. I wasn't very sure what we were protesting about – perhaps we were rebelling against living in a closed society where we had no voice.

My essays tended to be short – I didn't waste words. At one point in my review of the play I said something like: "And so the younger generation rebels against the older, then becomes the older generation and its children rebel in their turn." I didn't think it was a particularly good piece of work, and my essays were never usually read out.

So I was surprised when I was called to the front. I read out my piece, and went back to my desk. When I'd sat down, Miss Watson laid into the essay, shouting at me for about ten minutes, and quoting the above sentence. I think she called it "glib" – something she was particularly against. But it was the theme of the play, and what's more it happens in real life. She had clearly planned this rant in advance.

I sobbed for the rest of the session. An older girl at the next desk lent me a handkerchief. (Thank you, Pippa.) Afterwards, everyone was sympathetic, even the older girls who normally never spoke to me, and said that Miss W shouldn't have attacked me like that, however bad the essay.

I can see now that the school – old-fashioned, hierarchical, authoritarian, snobbish – felt threatened by the Youthquake. Miss Watson hated anybody to be critical of anything. We feared her sarcastic tongue, but she didn't like competition. In the end, I became a journalist. I'm sure a critical attitude – and an in-depth knowledge of the English language – helped. Miss Watson would have been furious!

Times were changing. The Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council shook up the nuns. In a few years, they had shed their robes, and brought in more "lay" teachers. Many of the sisters went "out into the world" to work on social projects. Gradually the nuns ceased to run the place, and it became a regular school. I don't think Ofsted inspectors would approve of teachers who failed to prepare students for public exams.

I wanted to do Biology and Geography at A Level. They said we could do Zoology, but not Biology. They did not provide a teacher, but gave us a textbook and some old exam papers and told us we were on our own. I gave up after a few weeks. The Geography teacher was so inept that I think we all gave up. But why didn't the school suggest other subjects? I had a year in hand – I'd been fast-tracked aged ten. I'd been doing four A Levels, now I was doing two. Nobody said a word to me about it. We had a "Mistress of Studies". Where was she?

And for the rest of my life, people assumed I was "privileged", and hesitated to talk to me about their own education.

The school's history can be found here.

More here, and links to the rest.


  1. Fascinating and sad. The food story so weird, yet so believable. Such strange places, and the attitudes of parents so very different from now (on the whole). ONe of my bugbears (from both books and day schools...) is the bizarre injunctions against 'sneaking'. I can understand why criminals & wrong-doers would be against it but why would figures in authority hate it so much? No wonder bullying was ripe when it was illegal to report it.

    And uniform...?

  2. And yet our behaviour must have been surveilled and recorded - probably by the prefects.