THE SUN shone down this week on the Gothic tracery and cream stonework of the Royal School in Bath. It looked grand, which it is: girls are educated here at a cost of pounds 10,000 a year. It looked tranquil, which it is not. A few weeks ago its headmistress, Judith McClure, medieval historian and former nun, wrote to the parents of her sixth-form girls: ' . . . they hate me at the moment (and that is of course hard, though I hope it will not last for long)'.
Dr McClure, who retains a fondness for flowing dresses and large jewellery worn on the chest, is a charismatic kind of headmistress who wants her girls to feel liked. Judging by her own words, she wants to be liked in return. How sad, then, that since she sacked the sixth-form's housemistress the corridors of the Royal have been full of rumour and anger.
Out of the gates came a pupil, a young woman, head held high. 'I'll talk,' she said. She sat on a park bench and looked straight ahead, stern faced. 'We had decided on Tuesday not to talk to the press any more,' she said. 'Then one girl photocopied some of the articles and says she was soundly ticked off. A lot of my friends are scared to talk.' Her face tightened. 'But we aren't going to let this drop.'
When the young woman had finished talking, she slipped back through the school gates, into a maze of buildings, old and new, over which the huge school chapel towers, a symbol of the school's moral aspirations. Moral qualities. Character development. These are at the heart of the Royal's curriculum, and have been since daughters of the Empire's officers first had their copperplate script and their characters formed within these walls. But the degree and speed of character development at the school in the past few weeks has taken staff and governors by surprise.
'We're independent minded,' the pupil said before she slipped away. 'It was Jude who always taught us to be liberated - to go for what we feel is right, be just in our decisions. And now she doesn't seem to understand why we're behaving like this.'
'Jude the Dude', as her pupils sportively call her, or, more cruelly, 'Curtains', has always encouraged her pupils to express themselves. The door to her elegant apartments has always been, at least metaphorically, open. So, in May, when she called the sixth-form house together and told them she had dismissed their housemistress, Jenne Davies, but declined to give the reason, they reacted, in Dr McClure's own words, warmly and fluently. Some burst into tears. Others stormed. Why had she gone? They organised a petition. Slogans appeared on the house messages board: 'Lost, One Housemistress' and 'We'll Have Nun Of It.'
These are polite girls in a polite city. They planned a polite, symbolic protest: no longer to stand up in that great morning chapel when Jude the Dude walked in. Chapel was cancelled. Self-expression, it seemed, was no longer the order of the day. A new, sad slogan appeared on the board of Mrs Davies's old house: 'I Want To Pray.' Their feelings about Mrs Davies run high. A good housemistress is mother figure and friend. The pupils had found her efficient, caring and tough when need be. The sudden shock of having her taken away without explanation must, for some of them, have been a little like an unheralded parental divorce.
In a sunny room somewhere in Bath, adults close to events at the school talked about their reactions. Such is the atmosphere surrounding the Royal that the discussion took place in a safe house outside the school, and the participants begged that no names be mentioned.
'The girls painted out their feelings,' one adult said. 'One painted a picture with a head rolling in the dust and called it The Head Must Roll. They pinned it in the dining-room. When that was taken down another painted a piece called Art Is The First To Go In A Totalitarian Regime.'
The pupils were getting no answers to their demands for information, and their sense of frustration was high. They wrote to Sir Robert Pascoe, KCB, MBE, chairman of the board of governors. He declined to discuss the matter because an appeal was pending. An indignant group climbed to the headmistress' open door for much the same reply. Mrs Davies, still in her school flat, but without a telephone, could not talk. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers could not comment either, on this or any of the five differences of opinion between other teachers and the headmistress.
One of my adult informants leant back: 'Talk about a secret society] That's what any public school is.' The others nodded, resigned. The woman said that media coverage has distorted reality but did not take up an offer to explain how. But the girls of the Royal wanted nothing to do with silence or discretion. They discovered that their housemistress had been been sacked for failing to tell the headmistress at once that an 18-year-old girl had gone absent for a night without permission. The boarder had been given her usual leave to spend Saturday night at a day-girl's house, but had gone early to spend Friday night there, too, without permission.
'We just felt disgust,' the schoolgirl had said. 'It seemed to us such a trivial reason.' Having found all of their governors' private addresses - several were secret - the pupils wrote to every one direct, to tell them so.
The girl gazed at the calm facades of Bath, all around us. 'I feel strong now. I can make my views felt without being rude,' she said. 'I can't speak for us all. But I know we won't let it drop.' The pupils are back now on their monitoring duties, their A-levels, back praying in their huge, echoing chapel, a life curiously set between this century and the last. Mrs Davies's appeal is due to be heard in mid-July. Thanks to the girls, it will not go unnoticed. Dr McClure goes in January, leaving her girls playing lacrosse, to take up the position of headmistress at St George's School in Edinburgh, a city with which Miss Jean Brodie, of course, was well-acquainted.
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