Planting freedom in sleepy hollow

19th August 2005 at 01:00
A head who showed girls there's a lot more to life than making gingerbread is preparing to retire. Adi Bloom reports.

London in the early 1970s was a place of excitement and change. The sexual revolution was taking place, women were burning their bras, and protesters against the Vietnam war were being arrested in the streets. At every level, authority was being challenged.

But at Lady Margaret comprehensive, near Fulham, west London, girls politely stood up to welcome their new headteacher into class.

Joan Olivier, arriving at the school in 1973, was astounded by what she saw.

"I had been working at Camden school for girls," she said. "It was pulsating. It was at the cutting edge of London chic. When I came to Lady Margaret, it was so sleepy. Girls talked about 'going up to London'. I said, 'Excuse me. You're 20 minutes from Sloane Square.'

"This was the 1970s. Huge changes were happening for girls. Erica Jong and Germaine Greer were having a huge impact. But it hadn't hit Lady Margaret.

These girls wanted to get married, have two kids and bake gingerbread."

Mrs Olivier realised that if the seeds of feminist revolution were to take root at Lady Margaret, they would have to be planted from above. She invited in female doctors, lawyers and high-achievers, and suggested that a career gave a woman independence: "If they want to marry young and have babies, that's fine. But don't come back when you're 40 and say, 'I could have been a doctor'. Then the 1970s became the 1980s, and the girls didn't want to get married at 19 any more. They were sleeping with half of London."

They were also focusing increasingly on school work. Lady Margaret is now one of the top-ranking state schools in the country. Last year, 97 per cent of pupils at the Church of England school achieved five A*-C grades at GCSE. There were 704 applications for 90 places, with 97 appeals against rejection.

Successful past pupils include Julia Donaldson, author of bestselling children's book, The Gruffalo.

Joan Olivier looks an unlikely member of the feminist vanguard. Everything around the 64-year-old dwarfs her. Her office is enormous: high-ceilinged, with huge windows overlooking spacious grounds. Behind her vast desk, she peers over large glasses. She is tiny. With her Scottish accent, neat grey bob and emphasis on girls' achievement, she has the air of Jean Brodie.

One of her overriding messages to her girls is: good grades lead to a good job, leads to a good income. The value she places on financial independence stems from an impoverished youth. Her "decayed upper-middle-class" family was forced to sell everything and move to London to escape debtors. While she and her stockbroker husband are now comfortably off, she still buys her clothes in second-hand shops.

"Why the hell should I buy expensive clothes?" she says. "I'm dumpy and I have wrinkles."

Even now, her proudest achievements involve pupils from the wrong side of the leafy Parson's Green tracks. When a pupil fell over drunk in church, she refused to expel her. "What for?" she said. "What a sensible place to pass out. If she'd been at a party and passed out in front of a boy, she'd have much more to regret."

Parent Josa Young says Mrs Olivier's attitude was the reason she sent her daughter, Maud, to Lady Margaret.

"All the other schools acted as if they were doing us a favour," she said.

"When we accepted the place at Lady Margaret, Mrs Olivier telephoned and said, 'I'm so glad. We've never had a Maud before.' I felt welcome.

"She says, you can't expect a man to keep you. Some people find it off-putting that she's so blunt. But generations of women have better lives because of her."

John Thurley, of the London Diocesan Board for Schools, also welcomed her forthrightness. "If Joan says it, you know she means it," he said. "We have all benefited from having someone who saw things clearly and said them.

"We always said if anyone did anything to upset that school, everybody would be out forming a protest, on Saturday, Sunday or at midnight. They were that devoted to her."

Mrs Olivier leaves Lady Margaret at the end of next year. At the moment, she is slightly uncertain how she will fill her retirement.

"I haven't developed things outside school," she said.

"If I were a stick of rock, I'd say 'Lady Margaret' right through. I don't play golf, and I don't play bridge. Maybe I'll learn to make gingerbread."


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