Can you take the heat?

Whilst friendly and warm, the pressure can often be too much in the academic hothouse that is all-girls grammar school.

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Like a lot of people, the ages of eleven to eighteen were the height of my tear ducts’ careers. My best memories were laughing until I thought I would die whilst quietly drawing misshapen horses in German lessons with my best friend, and wiping my eyes with the cuff of my jumper watching my friend write ‘bum’ on the whiteboard afterschool.

However, I also spent a lot of my time crying about my work, myself, and life, fuelling my suspicion that the school could have saved a lot of money replacing the treated water supply with student tears. As teenagers often are, I was always overwhelmed with feeling.

Attending an all-girls grammar school in Essex where students were often surrounded by the pressure from high expectations of themselves, school, and home, these surges of teenage emotion were often too much to grapple with. Although I was privileged enough to attend a school that received more state funding than its neighbours, it still was not enough to uphold a visible and approachable pastoral system outside of the kindness and empathy of individual teachers.

The phenomenon of ever-receding academic goalposts blurred the line between ambition and toxicity – it went unquestioned that silver was just not good enough. This mode of thinking went for homework, test scores, appearance, weight, and personal qualities, which is why mental illness was pandemic – until coming to Oxford (which isn’t exactly a hotspot of mental wellness), I assumed that anxiety disorders were like the common cold.

This is not to say I think my school wanted us to achieve the title of the Unhappiest Women in Essex, because I knew everyone who worked there wanted nothing but the best for their students. However, to maintain the funding we had, it was crucial to uphold the stellar grades our school continued to achieve, and it’s hard to maintain that youth is about making mistakes whilst depending on a lack of them.

I can’t speak for other all-girls schools, but in my school self-doubt spread like the plague. Maybe it was partly because of the mutual admiration that normalised things which clearly weren’t normal. Comparison of school reports or how our kilts hung off our hips came so naturally that satisfaction was a shared indulgence. The well-meaning encouragement of ambition and self-improvement by the school often led to a more sinister culture of seeking achievement at the expense of mental and physical health. 

I fondly remember the word ‘resilience’ being promoted as a key constituent of our school’s learner profile. It became a sort of in-joke as an overly-exhausted panacea that lost its lustre by its third eponymous assembly, despite its undeniable importance in teaching us to pick ourselves up every time we tripped. It became a de-facto stand-in for tangible help, and there’s only so much a single word (however good) can do. 

Nevertheless, aside from periodical retreats to the toilets for a luxurious sob, I really did gain a lot from the all-girls school I went to. The knowledge that a lot were suffering from stress and emotional hardship instilled a sensitive awareness and care with which friends’ problems were approached – my school raised the kindest and most empathetic people I’ve ever met.

I’d also learnt the importance of finding comfort in trying situations, even if that meant bringing biscuits and cake to history revision sessions or, more clandestinely, watching figure skating on mute during biology lessons. One of the most important traits I gained from going to my school was an unbridled and unashamed passion for learning and participation, which was only encouraged by classmates and teachers. I suppose that’s a silver lining of the cloud of academic pressure – no one was scared of being judged for what they love. 

I don’t intend this to be a criticism of my school; in fact, I am very grateful I went there. The supportive environment, coupled with universal respect for hard-workers and extra-curricular hotshots meant that I could be as geekily enthusiastic about whatever took my fancy, without having to worry about whether it made me seem cool, clever or sexy. 

I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to let me give them advice on educational administration, especially when it would come from a twenty-year-old who regularly has pick ‘n’ mix for breakfast. I also recognise that many of the problems I encountered were unique to my school. But whilst I’ve been left unconvinced by the grammar school system, I don’t think I’d want the end of all-girls schools. I owe them a lot for the intellectual confidence and a questioning attitude towards (male) authority that got me to where I am today. My school – with all its flaws – made me enthusiastic, thoughtful and kind, and I am happy with that.