In our final instalment of formative years, a series about the experiences of women who entered boys' schools in the 1970s, Tracey Camilleri admits to feeling liberated when let out of an all-female environment ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

Tracey Camilleri

*Now  Associate fellow at Said Business School, Oxford
*Then  Sixth-former at Bryanston, 1976-78

Roughly a third of the sixth form was made up of girls, and they were just starting to take girls all the way through the school. We lived in two girls’ houses which were away from the main body of the school, and we were also attached to boys’ houses for various inter-house activities like sport and debating. One girls’ house was run by a woman, the other by a housemaster who had a wife and family.

Because a lot of the boys’ houses were in the main school, we’d go there at break times. The first time I went to coffee in a boy’s study I saw a boy holding a pavlova which he’d made for someone’s birthday. I think Bryanston was not a very macho or competitive place, perhaps because of its focus on the arts, or because of the particular ethos with which it was founded [in 1928]. I didn’t feel that we defined ourselves against the boys, or that gender was such an issue as I have felt at times later in my life.

For example, our English teacher’s passion was Jane Austen, so there was no sense that we were following a male canon, or of the attitude that you teach to the boys and the girls will look after themselves. It’s absolutely key for girls to have role models, they can’t just be taught by men; there was one teacher called Dr Kaye Mash who was glamorous and interesting and clever and cool, and she was very important for us.

There was mutual support between the girls, and we made great friends with the boys and we’d go around in a crowd. There wasn’t pressure to look a certain way or be glamorous. We were girls in all shapes and sizes, but there wasn’t a culture of teasing or cruelty. I remember feeling quite fat and wearing grandfather shirts and jeans. I do remember ghastly moments—going into the dining room for the first time and feeling that you were an object under scrutiny—but that wore off quite quickly.

I felt an enormous sense of liberation, of no longer being in an all-female environment. I remember with great clarity a moment of transformation, when a teacher asked me for my opinion, and I thought “no teacher has ever asked for my opinion before, they’ve always asked for the answer.” A new sense of identity emerged around that. For me it was a great leap into a different sense of myself from the one I’d had at an all-girls institution. I think it made me more confident. It wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t thwarted or muffled by school, and given all the nightmares that can happen when you’re a teenager, that’s pretty good.

I am fascinated by what holds women back from being ambitious for themselves and speaking up in the moment and making themselves heard. At school in the classroom, shy as I was and not that I made a great splash, I didn’t feel constrained, I felt enabled. We were known as individuals, we had a good tutorial system, we were given the opportunity and expected to speak and were valued. I think we felt equal to the boys. The challenge for girls, especially if they are in a minority at school, is how to remain the subjects of their own lives and not the objects of others’. I think we remained subjects, we were able to be ourselves.

I am absolutely in favour of a mixed education—my daughter is at a mixed school, also in a minority of about a third. I think, though, that schools have to handle it carefully, because girls and boys don’t learn or express themselves in the same way, and if they get it wrong it can be very damaging. I have taught at St Paul’s, at both the boys’ and the girls’ schools, and I was struck by how girls often express their intelligence in a different way from boys. Boys will often express ideas as statements, girls will express them as questions. If boys do ask you a question and you give them an answer, they’ll ask you a subsequent question, often challenging your answer, whereas girls will often be happy with the answer that you give them. When I occasionally taught them together, there was always more airtime taken up by the boys.

Girls are not just boys in dresses, and just because they are not making a fuss or crying in the corridor, it doesn’t mean to say that you are getting the best out of them. Teachers have to remember that girls may manifest their strengths and creativity in very different ways from boys, which are not worse, just different. At Bryanston somebody had thought through very carefully about what the whole experience would be like for the girls, and for me it was a great positive in my life.

Illustration credit: John Holder

(Tracey Camilleri is an associate fellow at Said Business School, Oxford. See also Rebecca Willis on Charterhouse and Daisy Goodwin on Westminster.)