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Girls who came out on top

Harsh discipline, team spirit and fond memories are the stuff of legend at a public girls' school that pioneered women's education. Hilary Wilce looks at a history of Cheltenham Ladies'College

CHELTENHAM LADIES: An illustrated history of the Cheltenham Ladies' College. By Gillian Avery. James amp; James pound;35.

Cheltenham Ladies' College. The very words are enough to prompt sniggers in the 99.99 per cent of us excluded from the world of posh girls' public schools. And there is plenty in this new history to turn those sniggers into guffaws. There are the white nylon gloves girls were still wearing on Sundays, even in the 1980s, the rigorously enforced deportment, and the early emphasis on the school opening its doors only to girls of the right kind - the daughters of gentlemen, military officers, diplomats, and professional men.

There was the craze for eurhythmics, the girlhood "raves" on older pupils, and the unbelievable petty snobberies. In the 1960s, one girl was punished with extra tasks by her housemistress for accepting a place at New Hall, the newest and least prestigious Oxbridge women's college, instead of trying for a scholarship elsewhere.

But although this might seem like another world, every girl and woman in the UK owes a huge debt to the redoubtable Miss Beale, the college's first significant principal, who dedicated her life to pioneering girls'

schooling. She was born in 1831 and had little by way of formal education until she studied at the newly opened Queen's College, in London, where she not only took classes, but got certificates to prove it. For the rest of her life, she believed being able to take exams was a huge privilege.

Her reign at the college started when she was just 27, and ended when she died in 1906, during which time pupils had begun to swap not only their Victorian bustles for recognisably modern shirts and ties, but also their limited Victorian aspirations for wider horizons.

Girls, Miss Beale argued, needed much better teaching than they had been getting, and as well as running the college, she founded one of the first training colleges for secondary teachers. She also set up St Hilda's, Oxford, which eventually grew into a fully-fledged women's college.

She was fierce and rigorous, ruling her school from a dais known as her "throne", but she also held ideas about education that were way ahead of her time. She was clear that the best learning was a process of self-guided discovery, and that teachers should not be task-masters to their students, "but fellow workers with them, and desirous with gentleness and patience to understand and remove their difficulties".

Miss Beale inspired such awe and affection that her successor, Lilian Faithfull, found it difficult to step into her shoes. In fact, Miss Faithfull had mixed feelings about the post. "I confess," she wrote, "that I shared the somewhat common view that Cheltenham had a very good opinion of itself, and adopted a supercilious attitude to other schools."

As for the pupils - their views, too, have always been ambivalent. A commissioned history such as this is not in the business of lingering over its subject's imperfections, but the children's literary historian Gillian Avery nevertheless paints a picture of gloomy, maze-like buildings, harsh and petty discipline, and a near-obsession with team games.

At the same time, a stirring picture emerges of fine academic teaching, high aims and strong moral values. Former pupils talk movingly about what they learned about self-discipline, concentration and duty to others, and many have gone on to make their mark around the world. They include pioneering headmistresses, medical consultants and academics as well as instantly recognisable names such as the painter Bridget Riley, fashion designers Katharine Hamnett and Amanda Wakeley, and former Fleet Street editor Rosie Boycott.

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