A former pupil at one of England’s top schools, Sally-Anne Hayward had mixed feelings about her alma mater. Would a school reunion – and a radical new initiative – change her mind?
Illustration by Claire Jones
A few months ago, I opened an email that read:
I am organising a ‘class of 89’ reunion for all those who left the High School in 1989 as that’s 25 years ago!
All sorts of feelings ran through me. Dread, excitement, fear, nosiness, nausea…
My school was incredibly high achieving. The headmistress was committed to the school academic tables. As the school always fared remarkably well, it was in her best interests to get rid of anyone who may bring the average grade down. “How could you even consider doing Italian for A level when you only got a C in French for your O level?” she barked when I went in to discuss my O level grades. I did nothing for those exams. And when I say nothing, I mean NOTHING. I remember spending all my “revision” time plucking hairs out of my legs with tweezers. “I think I did pretty well given how much work I put into it,” I replied.
I’d already decided I wanted to leave. I was going to enrol at the College of Further Education and study drama but, nevertheless, I let her carry on. “Why don’t you consider nursing? There’s a very good management training course with Marks and Spencer.” This was the penultimate nail in the coffin; she clearly didn’t know anything about me. And when she finished her speech with, “The theatre is all a dream, Rachel, no one makes it in the theatre,” my mum said, “Sally, shall we go now?”
(Miriam Margoyles went to the school and once said on TV, “I went to the best school in the country and this is why I speak like I do.” She then said that when the school had enquired if she could ask her friend, Dame Maggie Smith – another ex-pupil – if the school could name a theatre after her, Dame Maggie replied, “Oh no. I didn’t like it there.” The theatre is all a dream, Miriam and Maggie. No one makes it in the theatre…)
So, in preparation for the reunion, I did what any committed academic does: I got straight onto Google to find out what had been going on at the school since I left. That’s when I found out about the current headmistress at Oxford High School, Judith Carlisle, and an initiative she’d launched last year called The Death of Little Miss Perfect.
“Real life is not about perfection,” she told Tatler. “It’s as much my job to prepare students for the uncompromising and often unfair real world, as it is to ensure that they have the A level grades to get them to university.”
Apparently, overachieving girls are as insecure and anxious as underachieving girls. This revelation came as something of a shock. Many girls in my class were highly intelligent. They did nothing but their homework and revision. Us underachievers presume the overachievers are happy with this and that is the way they are programmed. All those sneers and all that taunting from one camp to another: what an utter waste of time. We were all just a mass of tissue and fear trying to find our way in the world.
Reading about Carlisle’s campaign calmed my fears and anxieties regarding the reunion. Rather naively I presumed my old classmates would be discussing maths formulas and Latin declensions. I thought that, upon hearing I was performing standup comedy, they would just look at me askance and then continue with their conversation (“Mensa, mensae, mensae, mensam, mensa, mensa, mensae, mensarum…”)
How wrong I was. It was a joyful occasion.
About a third of the year showed up. Some couldn’t make it. Some wouldn’t make it. I ate lunch with a remarkable bunch of women. Doctors, teachers, several photographers and an art historian: all friendly, self-assured and funny. We had a tour around the school and pointed and laughed at various points where we held such clear memories. Memories of sitting in cupboards making different animal noises until the teacher snapped. I was reminded that once I had pretended to be a French Exchange student when we had a new teacher, and I was proud of my former self for being so creative in her mischief).
True, we were privileged girls. We went to a fee-paying school. What did we have to moan about? Yet what united us in many ways was the fact that we were all a little scarred by our time there. We all seemed to carry the same worry that we hadn’t done well enough. A tyrant of a head and who knows what pressures at home conspired to make us insecure and wary of our schoolmates.
But, when we met up, we seemed to fall in love with each other.
Judith Carlisle has embraced pastoral care. Although academic results are important, she is clearly more interested in whether each of the school’s 900 girls is happy. What a revolution. Some of the current pupils served us our lunch (on a Saturday, no less) and were delightful.
I have a lot of faith in Carlisle’s opposition to perfectionism. She’s doing a cracking job. The word that stands out from my brief return visit is “encouragement”. It’s too late for me now but the current girls should go on to do very well. And by that I mean not just academically but personally. And that, ultimately, is the most important thing.
Oh, and Oxford High School now has a fabulous purpose-built theatre.
Nah nah na-na nah.