Judith Coghlan

“I could not have studied the combination of A-levels I had chosen at any other school in the area. I doubt that I would have obtained a place at Oxford to read physics without the encouragement offered by the school.”


“I joined Norwich High School for Girls just after I’d taken my GCSEs at the local comprehensive school, and so for me, starting at Norwich High meant a very huge change to my morning routine. I’d gone from just walking to school just down the road and all of a sudden, at a time in your teenage years, when you’re forging your own way and feeling very uncertain and suddenly I had to get the bus to school. I remember getting the bus and feeling a little bit more like a grown up, but also feeling very nervous, because I didn’t really know where I was going at the other end, whether I’d be able to get off at the right stop and all of those things.

I remember finding my way to the school and just being a little bit overawed, because of course, when you join at that stage most of the other girls your age have been there much longer than you and they definitely have a real sense of what they’re doing and where they’re going and it was all new to me.

I definitely remember feeling, for those first few moments, like an outsider. But the amazing thing was, at this time of complete uncertainty, of feeling very nervous and not really very sure of myself, I remember my tutor and the other girls were just so welcoming and I got swept along in this wave of enthusiasm and support. They immediately identified that I was a new girl because there aren’t many new girls who join at sixth form stage and everyone just wanted to help. We’re going to assembly now and this is the way we go, do you want to come with us, it’s over here. The girls and the staff were hugely welcoming.

There is one particular thing I remember fondly from school- it really struck me at the time and it still strikes me now. It was my first exposure to a real celebration of diverse strengths. At my previous schools, I hadn’t really experienced people celebrating other peoples’ success to the extent that Norwich High school really did – and I don’t just mean academically, I mean across everything – if there was something the girls had achieved outside of school there was a real celebration of it being a success and that being something worthwhile. I do also remember being a little bit terrified in my further maths lessons, of a particular teacher, but so was everyone a little bit… you weren’t afraid, but it was just respect I think, and you knew that you needed to go prepare and that was incredibly good grounding for going to university and not just drifting. You had already had a sense that you will, if you don’t do it you will probably get found out so you’re going to do it. I went on to Oxford and it was a really good grounding for tutorials or just trying – not that I didn’t try – but you know when you get stuck on problem sheets. It’s inevitable – that’s what they’re there for, but I remember thinking I can’t just say I can’t do it, I’ve got to start, work out why I can’t do it and then at least be able to give a thorough account of myself when I am put in this one on one scenario, because I know that’s going to go much better than just not even trying.

At my local comprehensive school, I was pretty good across the board at subjects and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that stage. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a scientist or follow something else and so the A-level choices that I wanted to make, which at the time were, English Literature, History, Physics and Maths, were not really supported by my school, because when you are dealing with a whole lot of people you have to try and work out how you can best fit them into topics and most people don’t chose a diverse group like that, they’ll tend to go for sciences or essays really and I didn’t want to do that. And rather than force me into making a decision, my parents encouraged me to look at Norwich High School for Girls – I really respect them for making the suggestion because they weren’t particularly well off and they absolutely couldn’t afford the school unless I was on some kind of assisted place and so there was a risk on their part, that I would go and like it and maybe obtain a place and then not have any kind of financial assistance or blame them for not being able to support me through the  education that I wanted, so I totally respect my parents for even offering it up as an option. But they did offer it up as an option and thankfully I did obtain that assisted place.

Norwich has shaped my life today in a few ways actually.  It taught me time management, much more clearly than any experience I’d had up to that point because all of a sudden, I had extra things to deal with in my day. I had a commute of about an hour each way, so the time that I otherwise might have frittered away, suddenly had to be spent achieving other things if I was going to keep up with my school work and so that need to better manage my time definitely started in that phase of my life. The other thing that it taught me, and this is much more general, is the celebration of the success of others and being surrounded by people who are excellent and who have lots of different aspects to their character. It encouraged you to want to be better at things too and so even now I can see the girls at Norwich High School on social media and they still inspire me now, the things that they are doing, the things that they are achieving, and I’m just really pleased for them. That feeling of being pleased and excited that someone is doing well is something I don’t think people necessarily do very much. Social media doesn’t really do that – it encourages envy and feeling disappointed in your own life, but I don’t really feel that in relation to any of my interactions with any of my old Norwich High School girls, I just feel really pleased for them. And I think that absolutely comes from my time at Norwich High School.

When I get communications from my school or when I drive past a GDST school or otherwise hear about friends who are teachers there or wives or husbands who teach at the GDST, I immediately feel warm feelings and I expect it to be an excellent school. I do think providing bursaries and financial assistance is important in today’s world because a very simple explanation is the fact that 20-25 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to have the advantages that I had going to a GDST school without there being some kind of financial assistance. Giving people like me, who are gifted academically or otherwise, a bursary, gives them a real opportunity to follow their passion in a supportive environment. How can that not be something that’s relevant and something to encourage? Particularly in a world where funding is being cut across the public sector. It is about giving girls with talent opportunities.  I think you are changing someone’s life. I would probably have been okay had I not attended Norwich High School because I was bright, but I think I’m better and I’ve done better because I did go there, and there may be someone out there who wouldn’t have been okay and bursaries offers that person a real opportunity”.

Judith Coghlan
UK and European Patent Attorney
Alumna, Norwich High School for Girls
Class of 1997

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