Leading Article: The lessons of St Paul's

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The Independent Online
HELEN WILLIAMS, the High Mistress of St Paul's Girls' School, no doubt feels as if she has been flattened by the proverbial steamroller. Only three years ago she was appointed to head one of the most academically successful private day schools in Britain. After a review of the curriculum, Mrs Williams concluded that the outstandingly bright and well-motivated pupils - known rather endearingly as 'Paulinas' - did not need to be driven remorselessly through a large number of GCSE examinations. Since all the girls at St Paul's normally go on to take A-levels, there seemed little point in accumulating GCSEs which teachers thought were too limiting for high-flying girls. Mrs Williams suggested reducing the number of GCSEs taken by each girl, and giving them a wider range of non-exam courses designed to broaden and deepen their learning.

Of course, Mrs Williams knew that her proposal was acutely sensitive. Parents pay pounds 5,000 a year for the privilege of a St Paul's education. A sizeable minority were alarmed that their daughters' seven GCSEs might look pale against comparable boys' schools which stack up a dozen per pupil. Those parents had no real cause to fear: university admissions staff are unconcerned about large numbers of GCSEs, particularly from schools such as St Paul's. Mrs Williams was right to question assumptions at a school that had a reputation for hot-housing its girls; she wondered if they were losing out on exploratory learning.

During her Governors' Day speech in July Mrs Williams put the point quite simply: 'Are we, in our ever-increasing programme, allowing enough time to curl up and become truly absorbed in a book? . . . I sometimes worry that we are too often reading 'for something else', rather than as an end in itself.' She added: 'Nothing will change my commitment to the idea that a truly liberal education is much more than the sum of external examination syllabuses.' In the abstract, it is impossible to disagree. But many St Paul's parents did not have the time or inclination to debate educational principles: they were anxious about pieces of paper in two years' time. And Mrs Williams's style - quiet, reserved, donnish - contrasted sharply with that of her predecessor, Heather Brigstocke (now Baroness), whose no-nonsense approach was much admired by the school's governors. Parental suspicion was evidently fuelled by Mrs Williams's presentational shortcomings. She had to go.

Variations on these events are tales for our schooling times. Parents and governors are exercising their right to challenge the head-

teacher's professional captaincy; the trend can only grow, as schools opt out of local authority control. Usually, the debate is productive. Occasional outbreaks of tension, however, are inevitable between professionals who have a long-term interest in a generation of children, and parents who are interested only in the immediate prospects for their own offspring. Schools are quite like families: in good times they are warm, supportive, intimate communities, but when they argue, they turn cruel, claustrophobic and often quite irrational. In the particular case of St Paul's, the kitchen became too hot for Mrs Williams to remain. But there is a broader lesson: in this new educational climate, governors have a great responsibility to stay cool.