“I remember feeling really excited when I first started, but nervous as I didn’t know anybody, having come from the state school system. I tried to find people who, like me, were brand new. I remember one girl who was really upset and this made me feel stronger and more at ease, so I got chatting to her and helped her get through the day.
The person I remember most fondly from my time at Royal High School Bath was Miss Winfield who was the Head during my years there. She is still very much linked to the school and attends the various alumnae events – I decided to attend one of the events as we were told Miss Winfield would be there. I remember one saying she always used, “Once a Bath High School girl, always a Bath High School girl” and whenever I get together with my school friends, we say it to each other. We never really knew what it meant when we were at school, but it gave us a sense of being united and being the type of girls that could go and march out into the world with the backing of their school.
To begin with, I was actually quite petrified of Miss Winfield as she could be strict. But when our family fell on hard times, she showed a very different side which helped me realise that my teachers wanted to support us. They were there to discipline and guide us, but through Miss Winfield, I could see the human side and ever after that moment, I wanted to work hard for her. Since then, I have always looked for the human side to the leaders in my life.
Up to this point in time, I think I had maybe taken being at Bath High for granted a little bit, but when my mother’s financial situation collapsed, I realised what was at stake. The school, and particularly Miss Winfield, made it clear that they wanted to help me be able to stay and were able to secure financial assistance from the GDST to allow me to stay on at school. By this time, I was 13 or 14 and although I didn’t really understand the details of what was happening, I knew I was devastated at the idea of leaving. However, thankfully I didn’t need to leave and my Mum regularly reminded me that I needed to work hard to thank the school.
What was really important is that my school recognised the fact that for pupils like me with challenging family circumstances, sometimes we needed other forms of support.
I never felt disadvantaged, I always felt lucky, the teachers never made me feel different, ever. In my job now, I spend a lot of time speaking in disadvantaged communities and particularly to women of colour. What I have tried to do is to turn my experience of feeling different and not knowing if you belong into an advantage. I have turned this into a topic of discussion inside government departments – how do people feel they connect and belong in society? What does that mean? What is the politics of belonging?
When I first walked into Whitehall, I felt a sense of difference again. I am of a different colour and didn’t go to Oxbridge – it is so important to me that government departments can be opened up so that more people can get involved and help make policies to work on our sense of belonging. My overall experience at Bath High made me feel valued, accepted, encouraged and supported – and I have been able to use that to help others throughout my career since.
My time at school taught me about the importance of friendship and a strong sense of sisterhood. I also learned that sometimes people need second or even third chances – Bath High certainly gave me more than one chance. The school made me see my confidence and strong will as positive forces and I use these every day in my work. The school saw my potential, even if I didn’t at first. I now always look for the potential in my speaking roles with young women – I listen for it and connect with them on a very human and genuine level. What I know now is that many of the girls I went to school with who didn’t receive financial assistance had to deal with issues and challenges of their own. Everyone has their own story.
When it came to further study after Bath High, the school gave me the best advice. I’d missed one of my grades at A Level, which at the time was devastating for me – Miss Winfield advised me not to take my second choice university but actually my third – which I was really sceptical about. She guided me to take a joint course in French and Politics, which was all taught in the French language and included an access programme to one of the top political universities in France. As none of my friends were going there, I really didn’t want to, but I did and, of course, fell in love with politics and government. From there, I went into journalism and broadcast journalism, and was a newsreader for a while. I then joined the Civil Service and was fast tracked to the level of Cabinet spokeswoman, serving Cabinet Ministers for several years. After a hectic 10-year period of being a 24/7 spokeswoman for ministers, I was able to switch roles to focus on communications coordination and disadvantaged families when there was a commitment to better understanding how to improve social mobility and to tackle social exclusion. I realised I wanted to be looking at how policy translates into action and not picking up the Sunday papers and briefing them into Number 10.
I ended up becoming one of the founding directors of the Institute for Government and then had the chance to move to work with the Boston Consulting Group to establish a global foundation dedicated to effective government. For the last five years, I have worked at the Centre for Public Impact and at the start of last year, I became Director and am now hoping I can persuade the Boston Consulting Group to set up a UK-focused public impact charity.
My advice to any girl receiving financial assistance at a GDST school is to never feel different, never feel second rate – go for it! This is your chance.
I think bursaries are still very important today because we haven’t yet been able to equalise education across this country and it is important that the potential of talented children can be spotted and they can be given a chance. Ideally, we’d have one fair education system for all, that enabled all children to fulfil their potential and be prepared for life in the professions. Ideally, women would be reaching the very top of the professions and we’d have full equality at the executive board tables. That’s also not yet achieved. I don’t think the hard pressed state school system can be left alone to climb this big hill – we all must play a part especially when it comes to harvesting the dreams of young women that so frequently get squashed before they’ve been realised.
By supporting bursaries, you can shape a future, you can change a life and who knows, this person might end up changing the world. Bursaries can help ensure a demographic mix in GDST schools which is important today. That’s the real world.
I think there is something very unique about GDST girls, a sense of confidence, brightness, a lack of doubt. And it is obvious that they are being encouraged to appreciate the world and to give back”.
Director, Centre for Public Impact
Alumna, Royal High School Bath
Class of 1993