Girls, careers and posh schools

Picture of Vivienne Durham, a late middle-aged, blonde white woman wearing a white jacket with a white top underneath and necklace of large white and orange beads.Girls must choose career or motherhood, says top head - Telegraph

The Telegraph has interviewed the ‘headmistress’ of a London private girls’ school, Francis Holland in Regent’s Park, who says that she’s “not a feminist” and that teachers should make it clear to girls that there is a “glass ceiling” and not deceive them otherwise, and that they have to “plan for a biological fact, i.e. motherhood”. The headline claims that she said that girls faced a choice — career or motherhood — but she doesn’t quite say that, or at least the article doesn’t say she does. What she does say is that women shouldn’t be judged harshly for choosing “the road less taken”. I am not sure whether she means having children and no career, or a career and no children, or either rather than trying to do both.

I looked up Francis Holland on Google and an anonymous review came up from Yelp, which noted that the school taught London’s ‘elite’, had an intensive interview process and managed to make sure there were no unattractive girls there. That may be a bit of an exaggeration but the girls she teaches will be well-placed to choose one or the other, and if they choose both, they will likely not find the cost of childcare much of a burden. The chances are, none of them will need to entertain a man who earns less than £100,000 per year and will, if they so choose, get places at prestigious universities themselves. I don’t know if someone told this lady, but the cost of living in London is sky-high and a single salary that would have been considered quite respectable not that long ago (and that of any teacher, nurse, social worker etc) will not meet the cost of a family home, at least not without a lot of family support, state benefits or a mountain of debt. That’s why a lot of women who would rather be bringing up children work, or at least work longer hours than they would like to, and not necessarily in professional jobs.

I know it’s the Telegraph, but why on earth is the head of a private school that caters to the wealthy always considered a “top” head? While they may throw a few crumbs down to clever children from ordinary families in the form of bursaries (though these often don’t cover all the costs, such as those of overpriced uniforms, special bus passes and the technology the school assumes all children have access to, and don’t change the fact that the ‘poor girl’ might be made to feel an outsider), they won’t be teaching any challenging pupils, any from broken families, any who are in care, any recently arrived from war-torn parts of the world who have missed large parts of their education, and they can expel pupils not only for their own real or alleged misbehaviour but also that of their parents. It is a vastly less challenging job than being the head of an urban secondary (or even primary) school that has to deal with the complex problems of the neighbourhood it serves, yet when we hear of a “top” headmaster or mistress’s opinion, it’s never one of these heads, even if they achieve very respectable results in terms of qualifications gained and pupils going on to get good degrees. It’s always a head of a school that teaches rich kids (very occasionally a grammar school or academy head who is in political favour).

And it’s notable that she only talks about the women’s propspects, whether their choice to have or not have children will impact on their careers. The benefit to the child of having one of their parents available most of the time before they start school, of having home-made rather than convenience foods, of them being there when the child comes home from school, of them being available in the event of illness or them being unable to go into school because of bullying or something similar, is not considered, because these issues tend to affect families that cannot afford nannies, or easily afford childcare, or are on incomes that require two incomes, at least, to keep their heads above water. I’m no feminist either and I believe having their mother around in the early years is better for a child than being put in group childcare at age two. But years of government policy driving up the cost of housing for ordinary people has made that impossible, there are no plans to change any of it, and “top heads” like Vivienne Durham are not the ones dealing with the consequences.

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