In our latest instalment of formative years, a series about the experiences of women who entered boys' schools in the 1970s, Daisy Goodwin describes her time at Westminster ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009
*Now Television producer and writer
*Then Sixth-former at Westminster, 1978-80
In retrospect, going to Westminster did me nothing but good, though it wasn’t always wonderful at the time. I was lucky—I was lively and reasonably pretty and those two things made a huge difference, because it’s a dog-eat-dog world and when you’re a girl at a boys’ school it’s especially so. The imbalance of numbers between boys and girls was much greater then—there were only about 40 girls—whereas now about a third of the sixth form is made up of girls.
The particular architecture of Westminster meant that you had to cross a huge internal courtyard many times a day, and around it were loads of windows which were full of boys looking at you. There was this sense that at all times you were being watched and assessed. It was very obvious how popular girls were—you were either surrounded by a pack of boys in the yard, or you weren’t. It was quite brutal in that sense. Market capitalism and the rules of supply and demand were in full play. The girls had the advantage at that age of being, usually, more mature than the boys, and usually more hardworking, too, so they had a sort of double whammy: if you were OK-looking your self-esteem got a huge boost, and in lessons you might not be the brightest but you were up there. It gave you a sense of security.
My daughter is at Westminster now, and she hangs out mostly with her girlfriends, in packs, but I socialised with the boys much more. They were a bit gauche and insensitive, and they could be cruel about your appearance, but less cruel than girls are en masse. I’d much rather be with loads of adolescent boys than loads of adolescent girls. Girls are vicious to each other about the way they look. I think it toughens you up to be teased—it’s quite good for girls, and stops them being too precious. Westminster was a relief to me because I’d been at an all-girls school before and I hadn’t really fitted in.
The girls were scattered through the boys’ houses in a slightly random way. When I was there, the day girls who were allocated to boarding houses were assigned a small study, which they shared with two adolescent boys, who slept in there too. That was considered perfectly fine. We didn’t have a uniform—the only restriction was that you weren’t allowed to wear jeans. Today the girls have to wear a suit, the equivalent of what the boys wear, and they really resent it. The argument is that it’s unfair on the boys for the girls not to wear uniform, but the boys honestly couldn’t care less. My daughter is constantly being given detention because her skirt is too short. The girls aren’t trying to look sexy, they are trying to look cool, but the idea is that all these boys are inflamed by the girls in their short skirts. I think it’s the mothers of the boys who get upset and think that their sons are getting led astray by these brazen hussies. I don’t think boys need to see flesh, it’s just the proximity that turns them on.
The teaching was sensationally good. Some of the teachers had issues with the girls being there—one housemaster wouldn’t let girls inside his house. There was only one female teacher. The male teachers didn’t really hit on the girls, unlike my previous school where three masters ended up having affairs with or marrying girls they’d taught. I’d rather fend off the advances of my contemporaries than of predatory older men. Today the pastoral care is very good, I’ve been very impressed.
The BBC made a film about Westminster while I was there, and it showed me sitting on my housemaster’s desk while I was talking to him. It caused a huge furore. Lindsay Anderson, who directed “If...”, was one of the people who complained at the time. Apparently my housemaster never got a headmastership as a result of this. I felt really guilty because he was a good housemaster.
There were teachers you could talk to if you needed advice, I didn’t feel isolated. I was very happy and that’s why I sent my daughter there. It was a transformative experience for me. The odds were stacked in my favour and I was sufficiently vain to enjoy that. And in a slightly embarrassing, young-fogey way I liked the traditions of Westminster, having tea in a medieval hall, fagging, prayers in the Abbey and so on. The ritual appealed to me.
I think it made a huge difference to my life, it gave me confidence and prepared me for the world where you are going to be surrounded by lots of men shouting louder than you. If anything it left me cockier than I might otherwise have been, which is probably a bad thing, but it made me very sure I could handle anything. At Trinity College, Cambridge, I also never had any sense of men and women not being equal. It was only when I went to the BBC that I realised how the world really worked!
Illustration credit: John Holder