Sharon Pontin

“Education should be about giving opportunities to those who will seize them and flourish”.

 

“I do remember my first day of school – we were sat in alphabetical order in the class in pairs. My surname began with an ‘A’ then and I sat next to a girl called Abiola who had no one from her school come up with her and I only had two friends that had come from my primary school myself. There were a lot of girls who were there from the prep school, but we were both kind of similar because we had come from a state primary school and we didn’t really know anyone and we didn’t know how to do things at a private school. I also remember going into our first assembly, where you’re the tiniest kids in the school and sitting cross legged on the floor looking up at a stage and our headmistress at the time was quite a formidable woman so it was all a bit “ahhh”! Then of course when you leave the school you’re the biggest kids and you’re sitting on the stage you think how did I get here, you know, how did I make it this far, how did I do it all.

I come from a single parent family, my brother was severely disabled so my Mum was his full- time carer and we didn’t have very much money. I went to our state primary school and they just happened to suggest that some of us sit the test for Streatham & Clapham. I did, obviously knowing that if I got in there was no way my mum would be able to afford to send me there. I did get in, and the government had the assisted places system then so I was really fortunate to get one of those, although Mum had to try and pay for the uniform and sports kit and things.

I think my time at Streatham & Clapham taught me a lot. I know that I would’ve ended up in the local comprehensive otherwise where everyone left at 16 and no one was really bothered about going on to further education. I loved school so I wanted to do something different. I was the first person in my family to go to university or get A Levels in fact, so it was a big deal for us. The thing about Streatham & Clapham is that it nurtured the ethos that it was okay to like school and to want to be clever. Yes, there were girls there who didn’t want to try hard, but those of us who were from maybe lower income families wanted to do well because that was the kind of school you were in, whereas if I had gone to the local comprehensive wanting to be clever and wanting to do well wasn’t ‘cool’.  The school also taught us that we could get where we wanted to be if we worked hard and put the effort in. The one thing that has stuck out for me is that it gave me so many opportunities that I would never have had otherwise. Yes, we were limited to how many of those opportunities we could take because of our financial situation, but just being at the school gave you opportunities.

From my background, women didn’t have an education particularly, they didn’t go beyond GCSE’s as they were at the time. People had gone out to work really early on, and no one had been bothered about school. Streatham & Clapham instilled that whole thing of, ‘yes, you’re female, but you can get an education and you can go and get a career and you can do that alongside having a family if that’s what you want to do, but you don’t have to do that’. There was the idea that you could do umpteen things, that you could go and do whatever you liked if you worked hard enough, you didn’t just have to settle for a boring job. As a smaller school the guidance was better and it was more tailored to you as an individual, which was really different from what I was used to. Also, I knew I wanted to get A Levels and that I wanted to go to university – and at Streatham and Clapham I was in an environment where that was encouraged rather than being an exception to the rule.

I think the GDST is about empowering young girls to know that this education is available to them and it’s giving them opportunities that perhaps they wouldn’t have had, had they not gone to a GDST school. Alongside that with the bursary system, it’s also allowing children who don’t have the finances to attend schools like GDST schools to have those opportunities as well.

The GDST gives them the confidence and the empowerment to go, “do you know what, I can do this, I can have aspirations and I can have ambition and I can do that because it’s okay to try hard and work hard”.  My husband is a doctor, but went to his local state comprehensive and he said he spent the whole time at school pretending not to be clever because it wasn’t cool and the one thing he wanted our children to be able to do was to be clever if they were clever and be in an environment where you could be a bit quirky or ambitious or academic, so both of our children are in private school and they are thriving because they are using the opportunities available to them in those schools.

I would say my education definitely influenced our choice of school and just how we are as parents, in terms of really maximising the opportunities that our children get. We are fortunate to be in a good financial situation compared to where I came from so we can afford to give our children some of those opportunities like music lessons and sports clubs and things like that.

Education shouldn’t be about who can afford it, it should be about giving opportunities to those bright intelligent kids who will seize those opportunities and will flourish with access to that kind of education and those kind of opportunities that perhaps they wouldn’t get if it was all based on what you could afford. I work at a school that has a real ethos of education for all. They’ve got a big bursary campaign on at the moment and I really believe their ethos, it’s just a shame that such a breadth of education isn’t as available in the state sector.

We make sacrifices to send our children to their schools in the same way that my mum made sacrifices for me. She didn’t make financial sacrifices, but she would often go without a meal so I could have friends home for dinner because she was very conscious of the fact that perhaps my background was very different to my friends. I think the ethos has changed now and it’s not so much that kind of rich/poor divide like it was when I was at school, and I see where I work that the boys treat each other as equals and they very much don’t care about where you come from or what you do, so giving everyone that equal opportunity is phenomenal”.

Sharon Pontin
School Nurse, Royal Grammar School, Guildford
Alumna, Streatham & Clapham High School
Class of 1992

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