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‘What it means to be a cornerstone’: life at an all girls’ school

Lois Heslop reflects on her experiences of single-sex education.

“May our daughters be the polished cornerstones of the temple” was the motto of my all-girls day school, situated in ‘Made in Chelsea’ country and frequently featured in Tatler magazine. It’s a funny motto, old fashioned and seemingly bearing very little relation to the education of young women in the 1880s but having read it more carefully I think I see what our founder was getting at. Cornerstones are the foundations of the building; the first stone laid down, breaking into previously unmarked earth. And I think this was in the spirit of a school which came out of the Victorian push for women’s education; feminism was even on our curriculum.

Surprisingly, we latched onto this motto and on our last day of school – fondly known in much of the Independent school sector as “muck-up” day, where the girls wreak well intended havoc on the school – a particularly creative student created badges for all of us reading “Once a Cornerstone, Always a Cornerstone”. It’s an obvious symbol of the privilege that we had to trash the school for fun, when many schools around the country are struggling for basic supplies and teaching staff, and the trust that the school had in 50 or so school girls not to blow the place up. In fact, it did go rather wrong as the school had foolishly scheduled multiple tours for prospective parents on that day, and they were rather surprised to see our “art installation” on the main stairs as they came into the building, which included silly string, bunting, and a selection of our finest lacy underwear adorning the entrance hall. 

Going to an all-girls school did present a number of unique issues not faced by our co-ed counterparts. The question I get asked most by people who went to mixed schools is “how did I meet boys?”, and to be fair it’s a very good question. Unless you got lucky and had a brother who could conjure up some friends, the main way of meeting boys were at the sterile and heavily supervised school socials. 

In my first two years of secondary school we had the universal girls school experience of school discos with a neighbouring boys’ school. For much of the night it was girls on one side of the room and boys on the other, but once some brave souls crossed no-mans-land, the rest of the night constituted a competition over who could achieve the most BBM names (the coolest phone to have was a BlackBerry). I was small for a Year 7 girl, being a year ahead of my age group, and not as physically developed as some of the others (this seems like nature’s little joke, as I’m now 6’0”), so I never won, but gossiping in the locker room at the late hour of 9pm, which smelled of Victoria’s Secret body spray, was fun nonetheless. 

When I got to be 13, the school had a radical shakeup of the socials format and adopted a practice from the boys’ Public Schools; reeling. Reeling is a type of Scottish Ceilidh dancing, but we danced the posh Anglicanised version; it’s much less rowdy and raucous that its actual Scottish counterpart. Much more English. The practice is often carried into the adult lives of those who learn it at school; this is the reason that Caledonian Balls tend to have a larger population of red trouser wearers and people who bank with Coutts than you know… Scottish people. 

When it came to Year 11, many of the girls decided to leave for boarding school or to go to a mixed school for sixth form. I was one of the ones who decided to stay on and complete the full seven years at a single-sex school. I did so partly because at this point I knew I wanted to study science. At the mixed schools near me I realised I would be the only girl in the further maths class, and I didn’t feel prepared enough to be sure of standing my ground against louder, more confident boys. Physics at Oxford is one of the most male-dominated subjects, with under 20% women, and in fact I had only one female lecturer last term. What my all-girls school gave me was a safe environment within which I could flourish, building my self-confidence and providing important mentoring and encouragement to pursue STEM, despite the massive gender imbalance in further education. It makes sense that girls school alumni are 6 times more likely to consider applying for STEM courses compared to girls who attend co-ed schools.

One anonymous review described the school as a “holding pen for ridiculously wealthy and perennially stupid future “it” girls”. While I’m feeling a bit perennially stupid at the moment, facing exams, I wholeheartedly disagree. My school imparted in us the spirit of the cornerstone, of those original 14 young women who crossed the threshold in 1881, those pioneers of girls’ education. What that little school produced was hard-working and conscientious girls with a fiercely feminist dialectic, aware of their significant privilege, and a certain ability to weather the storms to come. 

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