“I’m not sure I can remember my actual first day at Oxford High School, but I certainly remember the admissions interview that I had to go through to test whether I was academically able enough to attend the school to do O and A Levels there. I met with Mrs Green, the English teacher, who became very much a formative influence on me after that as she went on to foster a talent that I had for writing. The first memories I have of Oxford High were of it being a little bit daunting because the classes were quiet and disciplined, it was very much ‘chalk and talk’ in those days and I had just come from two terms at a rather rowdy comprehensive; but once I got used to it, I found it much easier to concentrate and learn that way.
In some areas, particularly in maths, my standard of education had really slipped, because I’d had so many changes and Oxford High was the fourth secondary school I attended, and the third change in my first O-level year. I remember feeling very out of it, as a new girl, particularly having joined half way through. The others were a year ahead of me in terms of O-levels, I was really having to work hard to catch up and copy out lots of notes night after night. I remember sitting in a Geography class, feeling very alone and awkward and out of place, and then the girl across the aisle from me had a spare desk next to her and she patted the desk to invite me to go and join her. She then became my best friend and we actually went to Aberystwyth University together and later she was my chief bridesmaid, so it really was a case of making lifelong friendships at OHS!
One of the things I noticed in particular about going to a single-sex school was that you didn’t have the disruptive influence of the boys, you could just concentrate on the subjects you were good at. It was very much a case of girls being good at science, girls being good at games, languages, art or literature – it didn’t matter that we were girls, we were just people with those particular interests.
I can’t remember ever being asked about how my fees were paid – it just didn’t matter. I certainly wasn’t treated differently by the staff – they supported girls with whatever interests or difficulties they might have. With me particularly, they put in so much time and patience and attention when I first joined OHS. Miss Kaye went over my homework diary with me every week until I caught up, and Mrs Walsh gave me extra coaching to get me through the Maths O-level because the other girls had taken theirs already and I had to do it a year later. The emphasis was on what you were good at and what you could do, and as long as you tried your best, it didn’t matter what background you came from.
Another teacher I remember is Mr Melvin, the music teacher. It was so characteristic of the school that, having discovered that I enjoyed playing the recorder and was trying to learn the flute as well, he included me in the O-level classes even though I wasn’t able to sit the exam, just to give me a flavour of what it was like to study it, and what it was like to play in the orchestra. This was typically inclusive: the teachers found out what you wanted to do and what you were good at, and then enabled you to pursue those interests as far as possible.
My parents divorced when I was six, so I had a very disrupted lifestyle after that, just moving around from place to place purely because of circumstances. I lived with my mother and she had quite severe mental health problems. I think these days she would probably have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder because years later I heard an interview by Steven Fry talking about his own experience with bipolar, and it was like light bulbs going off – I thought so that’s what it was, but it did make life very difficult for me. Recognising this, my older sister stepped in and got me the interview at OHS, and then arranged for the Ewelme Trust to pay the majority of my fees, with herself and her husband making up the balance.
However, when I was finally doing 3 straight A-levels like everyone else (I took English, French and Italian), my mother put a lot of pressure on me to go out to work and pay for things as we lived on benefits, and I think it must have got to the attention of a teacher somehow – probably through my form and French teacher, Mrs Clarke, who was aware of my difficulties and was very supportive. I know that my mother was called to an interview with Miss Kaye and I would love to know what happened in that meeting, but all I knew at the time was that I was allowed to carry on and do my A Levels. When I did meet Miss Kaye at the reunion in 2010, I said to her ‘I don’t know if you remember my mother’ and she said ‘oh yes, I remember her’, and that was all she said, but the forbidding look on her face made me think, you were the one who kept me in school. Nothing more was said about it, and I didn’t know until that moment when suddenly things fell into place. I kept in touch with Miss Kaye until her death, and with Mrs Clarke every Christmas, and was able to thank them both for setting my feet on a much better path than I expected to have through life.
I think what my time at Oxford gave me, and everyone else, was the opportunity to recognise and value talents and skills in both myself and in other people. It really helped prepare me for work, as I worked a lot in teams. Oxford High School started the process of helping me to find my voice and to re-form my own identity and develop confidence. It also taught me how to apply myself, to achieve the things I wanted to do despite difficulties, and to push through problems. As a result, my persistence, commitment and dedication has often been remarked on – particularly now in learning Welsh, which is a very difficult language!
I’m always interested to see how things have developed for the GDST today through its newsletters and magazines, and it seems to me that the ethos of fostering girls’ talents and abilities has carried on, which I am very pleased to see. Without that financial assistance I just would not be where I am today and I would not have had the life I’ve had – which includes a formative University education at Aberystwyth (BA, MA, PhD), a fulfilling and worthwhile career with The Open University (very rewarding to help others, as I had been helped, to have a good education), a long and happy marriage to John whom I met and married in Aberystwyth, and an incredibly busy retirement back in ‘Aber’! The GDST encourages girls to give something back to the community: I volunteer for our local branch of Age UK, and I use my academic skills volunteering at the National Library of Wales on various projects. Part of my life is now spent through the medium of Welsh, including having some small successes writing Welsh poetry and short stories for the Eisteddfods (literary and musical festivals)- thanks to the fantastic support and dedication of my Welsh tutors over the last 6 years, particularly Philippa, Felicity and Ioan.
Thinking back now to my time at OHS, I can trace how the seeds of my interest in literary and linguistic culture were fostered there, and have enriched my life ever since, for which I can say “Diolch o galon” = heartfelt thanks”!
Formerly The Open University
Alumna, Oxford High School
Class of 1977