At least once a week I’m asked by someone on Princeton’s campus which high school in England I went to. When I say I went to North London Collegiate, assumptions are made simply based off of the name.
“Oh, was it really posh?”
“Was it traditional?”
“Is it like (insert a frequently mentioned school such as St Pauls/Eton…)?”
I can’t deny that there were “posh” or “traditional” aspects to the school—it was more than 150 years old and situated in an 18thcentury palace after all. However, led by Headteacher Bernice McCabe throughout my seven years, North London Collegiate School (NLCS) wasn’t simply “posh” or “traditional”—instead was an odd mix of these things, combined with a secure sense of feminism and forward thinking. Founded in 1850 by Frances Mary Buss, it was the first school to educate women in the same manner as men with a motto of “We work in hope.” Twenty-one years after NLCS’s founding, Buss established a second school, Camden School for Girls, which ensured families unable to pay NLCS’s fees at the time could still have access to a full education. Both schools still exist, and NLCS now offers as many bursaries and scholarships as it can, with 10% of students offered 100% scholarship and many more on bursaries that at least cover some of the fees. At least once a year during my time there, we heard of a new bursary being established that would support more students. These facts aren’t intended to be an advertisement for the school in any way, and the school had and has many faults, as any institution does. But I can’t deny feeling grateful for what I experienced of these founding principles, and how they were pushed forward during my time there.
A little over a month ago I received news of my headteacher Mrs McCabe’s passing. With her death came a flurry of responses that commented on her character and impact on the school. I in turn began to reflect on my perceptions of her and the school. During my time at the school, we had been educated about the impact of the previous headteachers, each of whom changed and developed the school in new ways. For example, Sophie Bryant, the second headteacher was the first woman in England to be awarded a doctorate of science, meanwhile, Dame Kitty Anderson, the fifth, was the first woman from her own school to even go to University and pushed forward with international connections between NLCS and other schools in a revolutionary way. When initially reflecting on Mrs McCabe, the eighth headteacher, it seemed somewhat unclear she, born in the 1950s with any educational opportunity open to her, brought to the school. There were, of course, immediate impacts that she had on NLCS that were met with mixed reactions to say the least. In 2011, NLCS opened its second campus, this time co-ed, with the Korean Government’s support on the Island of Jeju. Only six years later, in 2017, a similar situation occurred in Dubai with plans being put in place to open up campuses in Thailand and Singapore. The establishment of these campuses was not met always with positive reactions by the students often who felt them to be a distraction from certain struggles on the main campus. In fact, I have a distinct memory of the entire student body groaning in 2017 when NLCS Singapore was announced in a school gathering. We weren’t afraid to express our discontent.
When Mrs McCabe passed away and I thought back on my time at the school properly for perhaps the first time since I had graduated, it wasn’t the various different campuses that I remembered, as strongly as I remembered the boldness of the students encouraged by Mrs McCabe’s leadership. One of my earliest memories at the school was the strange weekly “elocution lessons” that each sixth grader had to have with Mrs McCabe. The idea of “elocution lessons” seemed oddly old-fashioned to me, something of the 19thcentury, more than of the 21stcentury. I thought we’d be told to say things like “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” in a posh British accent just as Audrey Hepburn did in the film My Fair Lady.The reality was rather different. We were in fact being instructed to stand up and speak our mind, taught to present our beliefs on a whole manner of subjects, learn how to clearly present our passion for something whether it was cooking a rich chocolate cake with a family member or the nuances of Jane Austen’s use of silence in Persuasion. MrsMcCabe herself didn’t hold back when giving feedback, quite clearly expressing her thoughts on our posture and the way we held ourselves, while also engaging in a discussion about whatever we were speaking about. It comes as no surprise then that when we didn’t agree with something about the school, we didn’t hold back either.
However, while I’d initially expected the woman that was teaching such elocution lessons to be dressed in traditional but smart suits, she instead wore fashionable dresses or pant suits with shoes that my friends and I would later discuss for the next half-an-hour after class ended. We would wait before class with anticipation of what Vogue-worthy outfit she would wear that day. Even more surprising were the green heeled Converse in her office and the discussions we would have in my last two years about nail-polish. As she herself said to The Telegraph, she wanted girls to realise it is “perfectly acceptable to be interested in academia and makeup.” This didn’t result in girls turning up to school in heavy makeup and accessorised school uniform. Instead, it resulted in a quiet confidence that this was something we had the choice to do.
Thus, just as we were encouraged to express ourselves through speech, we were also made aware of the ability of fashion to hold similar powers. This was most clearly apparent on ‘Founder’s Day’ every year. ‘Founder’s Day’ was supposedly dominated by an odd traditional “daffodil procession,” but under Mrs McCabe, it became an expression of the cultural and racial diversity of the school. Girls in their final year came dressed in culturally traditional clothes of saris, kimonos, Nigerian headdresses and so on. For seven years, we’d been shows how to use fashion to express ourselves and as a final year student—‘Founder’s Day’ became a celebration of what we had “found” during our time at the School.
Yet, while I always appreciated these expressions of strength from Mrs McCabe and the ways in which they encouraged us, I also found it extraordinary when she did expose herself in spite of having a very public appearance both in the school and in British education at large. In my final year at the school, a friend and I went into her office to discuss our successful organising of a large conference on the Romantic poets. My friend, that day, had also just returned from a stressful interview at University College London. It was at that moment that Mrs McCabe decided to tell us, that unlike the headteachers that had preceded her, she never received an offer from university when she applied. Instead, she called up Bristol University after receiving her exam results and demanded that they let her in. While that probably wouldn’t work nowadays, for a student going through the strenuous academic system in the UK of exams and university applications, her words were touching. NLCS is frequently seen as an academic hot-house, where students aren’t allowed to fail, and are assumed to not be allowed to get below an A or A.* However, as presented by Mrs McCabe’s exposure of her own failures, this wasn’t the case. Instead, it was a matter of working out how to use the inevitable setbacks, even those posed by the school.
For example, there was the school’s perpetual refusal to allow us to have a feminist society. In a school founded on, and encouraging of, feminist principles, this seemed undeniably strange. Eventually, through proposing the society as a group that would focus on more academic, particularly literary, understandings of feminism, the students received permission. At the time, I didn’t understand the pushback from the school and administration that outwardly encouraged pursuit of anything we believed in, including feminist organisations. It was only earlier this month, with Mrs McCabe’s passing and my reflections on the school, that I began to understand the possible reasons for the pushback. Throughout, we’d been encouraged to have a secure sense of our “feminism,” without the need to have organisations for it or even outwardly express it at risk of only doing so for the sake of it. As an alumna of 2015 put it in an article debating which was the strongest girl’s school in the UK, “Every North London Collegiate girl will be aware of her own inner Beyoncé or female boss and will undoubtably run the world in the future.” Afterall, those four other global campuses certainly seemed to be preparing us for just that.