Sanctas clavis fores aperit


First published on January 30th 2012:

During our dinner on Saturday evening we got into the dangerous conversational territory of schooling in Altanta.  As couples, MM and I have fairly different opinions from our dinner companions regarding the schooling of our children.  We support our public schools and believe that if more and more ‘middle class’ families like ourselves support the state, public schools in the City of Atlanta the better they will become.  Many other families in Atlanta use the good elementary schools but then send their children to private middle and high school which can cost around $20k per child per year.  Our perspective is that with the five degrees we have between us, their exposure to international travel, and our general involvement in our children’s education – they will be just fine going through the Atlanta Public School system.  However, when someone starts telling me how atrocious the high school is, I can’t help but question my decision.  It always makes me revisit my schooling and wonder if things had been different would I have ‘turned out’ any different?

I was educated in the UK and my primary education was significantly different from my children’s.  To begin with I was raised in a tiny village near Bury in Lancashire.  There was one Church, a newsagent, a corner shop and a recreation ground and we lived in a 2 up 2 down terraced, stone cottage – all five of us!  The primary school was across the street and there were probably only around 60-80 children in the whole school.  Everyone knew everyone.  I remember it fondly, though because the school was so small it meant you could never really avoid your nemesis.  When I do look back I don’t ever remember being told, or feeling, that I was smarter than anyone else, or that I possessed any outstanding ability – in fact my Mum still tells me the story when one of my teachers told her I had ‘absolutely no number sense’.  Maybe I didn’t back then but I ended up doing my Maths O’level a year early so I must have caught up…It just demonstrates how tricky it is to predict your child’s ability.  Anyway at the age of 10 I was entered to sit the entrance exam for Bury Grammar School for Girls (BGSG).  I think the intention was for me to have a practice run for the following year, and I’m sure Mum and Dad didn’t expect me to pass – but I did and I was accepted to enter into the last year of the preparatory school which basically meant I was a ‘shoe in’ for the senior school.

St. Mary's Church

Hawkshaw Village Church

I remember being very excited – especially about the uniform as primary school hadn’t required one.  I don’t ever remember thinking about the implications, for me or my parents, of leaving my little primary school a year early in order to attend a fee paying, all girls school in town.  It soon dawned on me though in 1981 when I started my new educational chapter.  My eyes were opened as I met girls of different backgrounds, races and religion.  It took me a while to figure out why a number of girls went to different rooms for morning assembly – then one day I was informed they were off to Jewish and Muslim prayers.  I had no idea what ‘being Jewish’ meant.  My best friend was the daughter of a wealthy pediatrician and I remember going to her house for the first time – I never knew a girl could have so much ‘stuff’ of her own.

BGS logo

I’m never sure if I was genetically wired to be competitive or if BGSG developed it, but I always wanted to do my best and be in the top of my class.  I hated failure, and though I was never reprimanded for an occasional crummy grade I carried the shame of it, swearing next time would be better.  Maybe it was the fact that we were all ‘high achievers’ – as we’d all passed the entrance exam we were all obviously relatively smart – so the bar had been raised and I had to step up my game.  I also think girls versus girls made everything more intense as we couldn’t fall back on “well boys always do better in maths/science tests”.


Bury Grammar School (Girls)

I went through school never really being comfortable in my own skin – but who is with all that teenage angst?  I moved from clique to clique, never really feeling settled, and I found my real happiness in studying.  By this stage I think my Mum and Dad were somewhat out of their depth academically, and with little parental involvement I did well in all my subjects.  In my desire to feel included I auditioned over and over again for the school choir and finally the music teacher took pity on me.  Everyone was in choir – all the cool girls – and the music teacher had amazing enthusiasm, but executed favoritism like no other.  She adored her ‘special’ girls – the rest of us were ignored, and a mild inconvenience.  It was similar to that in P.E. – if you were anything less than brilliant at hockey or netball you didn’t stand a chance of being noticed.  Now, as an adult, this behavior really bothers me – I actually find it strange that they were allowed to get away with it, but then BGSG always needed to be seen as excelling, not just in academics.

Roger Kay Hall

Morning Assembly

Interestingly, I recently read Janet Lawley’s “A Ballet of Swans”, the previous headmistress’s tale of BGSG, from its founding to the present day.  Though some of the references were familiar, I have to say no fond feelings were awakened – it actually made me feel a little prickly that only 10% or so of the girls there, when I was a student, got the full support and attention that we all deserved.  Elitism was rife, and if you weren’t applying for Oxford or Cambridge at A’level time you really weren’t of much interest.  Maybe I harbor some resentment as no one told me what I needed to hear, and what I tell my children every day – “you are more than capable, don’t be afraid”.  If a teacher had just taken the time to tell me that in my moment of weakness then I may have taken a different path.

So was a private, all girls school good for me?  Maybe it helped shape me and make me more competitive but I think I discovered my true self at University.  Did I get a great education?  Yes, but I never really knew what to do with it, we were given no life lessons.  Were they happy times?  They were okay, but I couldn’t wait to get as far away from everyone I knew when I went to University – I was the only one in my year that went to St. Andrews – and I was just fine with that.

Hence, when it comes to my children’s education my greatest concern is that they have the opportunity to discover their talents and be true to themselves – not what others think is ‘best’ for them.  As a parent my role is to be hands on, without meddling and overly influencing their decisions based on my experiences.  Crumbs – another parental challenge.


10 thoughts on “Sanctas clavis fores aperit

  1. Patricia Taylor

    I would LOVE someday to sit and chat over a bottle of wine…just the two of us. I was private schooled and sent my children to public schools. That you are passionate about parenting(and many other things!) and aware of balance tells me that you and yours are on a happy path. 🙂

  2. Kit

    You ought to talk to hubby some time. He taught at Private School for 5 years and has now been in public school for 7. He can give you the good the bad and the ugly of each. And it just depends on your schools as well. Good reason to get together at Cristin’s again and have some vino!

  3. dinagideon

    I taught at a middle school here in NOVA for years. That was always the way it went…the middle class families would send the kids to elementary school and then off to the myriad of private schools locally for middle and high.

    I NEVER question what a parent does or why, but I could definitely see the kids whose parents were most involved in their children’s lives were the kids that were most successful at school, regardless of income levels.

    That said, with the high prices of living here in this area, I can understand though why so many parents can’t be as fully involved as they would like, often many parents hold down two or three jobs apiece just to live here. Agh!

    Regarding our own choice, it was simple…we are Catholic, and my children will be attending the same exact schools I went to as a kid. I realize this is rare and special, and I am grateful we can do it.

    We would have no problem, though, with the local schools, however…clearly we were okay with me teaching in one! 🙂 So we know the kids will be okay, regardless. Great post!

    1. Poppy's Style

      I agree – every situation and child is different – I wrote this more of a retrospective on my schooling and why it was somewhat influencing my decisions, rather then what I think is right or wrong. I just want to do the right thing as always lol…great to hear your perspective xx

  4. Diane

    Jo, I just had to reply to this post, it brought a tear to my eye, as I went to private secondary Hulme Grammar in Oldham (all girls as well) but I never felt that I fitted in with the schools high academic focus ( I did well in my exams but always felt that my vocation lied elsewhere and not in something so academic). I sadly still am unsure of where my vocation lies even at 36 and am adamant that my children will not go through this. I always say you can do whatever you want and encourage them to try lots of different activities so they can find their genuine love. I could waffle on on this subject for ages , but thank you so much for re visiting this particular blog as it really strikes a chord at the moment as my eldest daughter is due to take grammar school entrance exams in sept and I am apprehensive to say the least due to my own experiences ( we live in Trafford so the grammar schools aren’t fee paying hence why it’s a really difficult decision).

  5. cc

    Interesting post. We sent our children to a public school (there are several parochial schools here, but not many private schools). There have been times when we’ve considered some sort of private schooling (mostly as a result of bullying and socail issues), but since they tend to have many interests outside of school that they accomplish themselves, we have left the situation alone. It sometimes is hard to decide what to do, and it’s not only the academics, but the social situation as well. We tend to have a tight knit family, and our kids still listen to us (our oldest just started high school), and they still pursue their own interests (my daughter loves writing and has won national and regional writing competitions), so hopefully, they will be on the path to success no matter what school they attend (fingers crossed!!).

  6. iolanthewears

    I was on the receiving end of a private UK boarding school education and whilst I wouldn’t wish that on my children, I am struggling with the lax curriculum and various differences in the public system they are/will be in here in Canada. I don’t have a solution at present, we’re just keeping on top of things and doing some extra tutoring at home.

  7. evi

    a great post… your childhood reminds me somewhat of mine…. I grew up in a very small village too, went to a small school together with children with many different background, language, religion…etc.
    the time in the “gymnasium”(that´s what middle and high school is called here) was a mix of that awkward teenager self-consciousness but also great times… I loved learning languages and everything about literature, music, art…most of the teachers were great and encouraged all of us a lot (actually I always thought I´d become a writer and teacher)
    I guess the most important thing for children is to try out many different things to find out what they can and like best.


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