“Right from the start, I immediately felt welcome at the school. It was the first time I felt I fitted in somewhere, and valued for my rather nerdy skills and enthusiasms (solving maths problems and writing very long stories). I remember the teachers were very kind and that it was easy to make friends because you were partnered with people for work and form time.
I think the most unusual aspect of my time there was the genuine friendships and intellectual collaborations between girls from different years and between girls and staff. I felt like so many of the staff, especially in the English department but also in the maths, history and classics department, were genuinely interested in my thoughts, and in developing my interests and talents. I felt that ambition was encouraged without it necessarily feeling like swottiness – there was a lot of silliness too. And I felt able to try out aspects of grown up life – editing a magazine, interviewing well known figures, giving public talks, arranging panel discussions – because there was a sense that we took ourselves seriously as citizens of a community engaged with the wider world.
My parents were separated and I lived with my mother, who couldn’t work because she’d been disabled by an accident and had severe mobility issues when I was a small child. At the time I started at South Hampstead, she was retraining as a psychologist, doing a part time degree at Middlesex University. She did her best for me financially but there was no way I could have gone to South Hampstead without a full bursary. I was really delighted to get the assisted place. I’d loved South Hampstead when I looked round it and very much wanted to go there.
As a recipient of financial assistance, I hardly ever felt disadvantaged, but it did mean that I couldn’t go on the foreign trips, which were too expensive for us, and I felt left out because these were often the places where new friendships were formed or existing friendships developed. I was aware that most of my friends had much larger houses than mine, but I rarely felt that they were snobbish about this.
I really thrived at school, and gained confidence as a writer and a thinker and someone who felt able to take on the world on my own terms. I think it’s less likely this would have happened elsewhere – it was the particular set of influences at South Hampstead that enabled it. I still feel that it’s the values I formed at school that guide me today. And I wouldn’t have had that experience without financial assistance.
My time at South Hampstead taught me a number of things. I learnt the importance of clear, original thinking. I learnt that women could do everything that men did, and had as strong a voice to project. I made a set of kind, brilliant, thoughtful friends who continue to challenge me today.
After I left South Hampstead, I studied English at Oxford, had a couple of years travelling and doing internships in publishing, then did an MA and PhD and got a job in the English department at King’s College London, where I’ve been for ten years. Over the last decade, I have also published four books, and done a lot of journalism (I write regularly for the Guardian). I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and have been awarded a series of prizes and grants within academia – for example, a European Research Council Starting Grant and a Philip Leverhulme Prize.
Having the chance to attend South Hampstead gave me the confidence to talk, argue, laugh and fight as an equal with some of the most brilliant minds of my generation and to believe in myself as a woman whose voice had a right to be heard.
To a girl receiving a bursary today, I’d say that she has an extraordinary opportunity and should make the most of it, throwing herself into whatever quirky aspect of school life she excels at, not worrying about prizes and grades, using the opportunity to test her thoughts against the minds of her friends and her teachers and not to be afraid to think differently.
I feel very conflicted about private schools still existing. On the one hand, I don’t think I’d have thrived as much as I did in most other schools, on the other hand I think the division between educational systems is responsible for a lot that’s wrong with Britain. If private schools are going to exist, then I think it can only be justified through extensive systems of bursaries. I think the GDST has a particular role to play in working against sexual discrimination. By sending into the world powerful young women who believe in themselves, they help to give women a strong voice. It’s vital that these women come from all kinds of background.
If you are in a position to contribute to the GDST bursary campaign, you have the power to change the life of an eleven-year-old girl and the power to send authoritative women into the world who can fight against sexual inequality and can fight for all the shared values of the humanist democracy that are under threat”.
Professor of Modern Literature and Culture, King’s College London and Author
Alumna, South Hampstead High School
Class of 1998