It was thought, when I was a girl of 10, that a convent education would be the making of me. My parents weren’t Catholic; in fact, they weren’t even churchgoers. But the little they thought they knew of nuns – that they were honest, rigorous, and knew how to refine an undeveloped mind – was enough for them to decide that a Catholic boarding school was the way forward. In many ways, it was the making of me, but not in the way that was intended.
It’s a rare day that I find myself nodding approvingly at the knee-jerk observations of a man called Tristram. But when, on Question Time, the shadow Education Secretary seemed to cast doubt over the qualifications of those in religious orders to shape young minds, I did a little cheer. Of course, Hunt’s remarks about nuns and their lack of training weren’t especially informed – you might even say they were unqualified – but, even so, he was right to be sceptical.
If there’s one thing I can take from my six years under the tutelage of nuns, it’s that a hotline to the man upstairs does not an educator make. You don’t need a PGCE to know there are certain qualities that are required to be an effective teacher: empathy, warmth, compassion, an ability to communicate being just a few.
Granted, there was one nun at my school who embodied all these qualities. Her name was Sister Anunciata and she was the school matron so, alas, never got as far as a classroom, As well as having a most excellent name, she also had pink cheeks, a benign smile and a wonderfully cosy manner. Along with dispensing hugs to homesick kids (of which there were many), Sister Anunciata also kept a stash of chocolate bars in her room. Every now and then, when passing me on cold corridors, she would cluck disapprovingly and say, in her musical Irish accent, “Oh, Miss Sturges, you’re looking a bit thin today. Here’s a Mars bar to build you up.” How I adored Sister Anunciata.
But the others? The others could go hang. That was how I felt at the time and that is largely how I feel now (although thank you, Sister Vianny, for teaching me how to spell, even if it was by means of pure terror).
Never before or since have I come across such a flinty, uncharitable, prejudiced and censorious breed as those anointed daughters of the cross. That such women, intoxicated on their sacrifice, assured of their superiority and wholly blinkered in their world-view, were in charge of our spiritual, intellectual and emotional development now looks about as ludicrous as parachuting pre-teens into Isis encampments in order that they might learn the ways of the world.
Their assorted cruelties ranged from making us sit in arctic corridors in our nightdresses for daring to talk after lights out and pushing terrified non-swimmers into the deep end to showing videos of foetuses being aborted and supposedly screaming in the womb. Because, of course, if there was one thing worse than sex outside of marriage, it was abortion. They scared us rigid about God’s wrath and made it clear that, as daughters of Eve, we had a lot to make up for. In an attempt to prevent us from legging it off the school grounds and into the local town, they told us tales of Moonies who would bundle us into vans and brainwash us with electric shock treatment.
Theirs was an education built on fear, not respect; on dogma as opposed to discussion. Among their many wrong-headed mottoes was that “young ladies should be seen and not heard”, a stifling dictum that has caused me to shout as loud as possible ever since (one day I’ll grow up, but not yet). Nowadays it’s not God I fear – since I’m not a believer, I don’t think about God at all – but his self-appointed representatives on Earth, especially when they’re put in charge of young minds.
There’s a reason why teachers go through training, and it’s the same reason that mechanics need to know what’s under a car bonnet and surgeons find it helpful to know their way around our vital organs. It’s so they can cope with children of different backgrounds and behaviours; so they can find out about the best methods of communication and keep up with new technology; so that they can deal with overbearing, hostile or disengaged parents; so that they can negotiate the bureaucratic nightmare that is the post- teaching paperwork.
Crucially, proper, monitored training allows them to find out early on whether this profession, with all the impossible pressure that comes with it, is really for them. That’s not box-ticking, that’s common sense.
I wonder if the nitwits sinking their teeth into Hunt for raising an eyebrow at the concept of religious education have watched Sister Act and have taken Whoopi Goldberg’s smiling, salt-of-the-earth sister as the archetype for nuns everywhere. I’m not saying all nuns are inherently evil (though some of the ones who taught me came close). I don’t doubt there are some kindly Sister Anunciata-types out there, doing good works without feeling the need to punish others for it.
But would I hand over my child to a dedicated educator who has lived life, studied their profession and is pursuing their career without a spiritual agenda? Or would I entrust her to an untrained woman with no experience of the rough and tumble of real life and who is, to all intents and purposes, married to a figment of her imagination? Really, it’s a no-brainer.Reuse content