Interview: Fiona Millar delves into her time at Camden School for Girls

Fiona Millar

Fiona Millar - Credit: Archant

We spoke to writer and education journalist Fiona Millar about her time at Camden School for Girls (1968-1975).

What were your first impressions of Camden School for Girls? How much of a daunting experience was it in your first year?

I started secondary school when I was ten, having been put up a year at primary school. In spite of that fact I don’t remember feeling daunted as I made new friends quickly. My strongest memory is of wearing a very formal, bottle green, school uniform, which I am pleased to say we voted to abolish shortly after!

What was it like to go to a school which, at the time, was a grammar school?

I don’t think Camden School for Girls was a very typical grammar school. It combined a strong academic tradition with a liberal, progressive ethos and a strong sense that young women could do anything. Overall that was a very powerful formative environment in which to be educated. However I also clearly remember feeling the unfairness of a system that rejected many of my primary school friends to what were considered second-class schools. I am very glad my own children could be educated in comprehensive schools in Camden thirty years later. My memories of being educated in the dying days of that old bipartite system, when the majority of children went to secondary moderns, still influences much of my writing and campaigning on education issues today.

Looking back on it, what would you say the style of teaching was like?

All the teachers had great knowledge of their subjects, about which they were passionate and that is probably the most important starting point for fantastic teaching. I don’t remember the teaching being particularly formal or traditional. There was nothing like the often stifling accountability culture that schools must work within now so I think my overwhelming memory is of teaching that encouraged the girls to think and achieve but also to grow and develop as individuals while learning to love individual subjects.

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Which subjects did you most enjoy and which topics or books particularly piqued your interest as a teenager?

I loved history and in particularly the 19th century, which I then went on to study in much more detail at university.

What are your fondest memories of your time at the school? Do you get any pangs of nostalgia upon returning (if you have!)?

As I say I have very powerful memories of some subjects and teachers. I have stayed in touch with one or two and one of my history teachers influenced my decision to become a journalist. But my fondest memories are probably of my friends and my social life, which meant that there were periods when I probably didn’t work as hard as I should. When I go back to the school today I am always struck by how small it seems combined with a memory of just being happy when I was there. Given that adolescence can be a challenging time, that says a lot for the school.

What aspects of your schooling would you say were in stark contrast to the modern world of education in the UK? How much pressure was there on you with regards to exams?

I don’t recall any real pressure and certainly nothing like the league table, compliance culture that exists today, or the levels of parental involvement (and angst) that are the norm now. I am a firm supporter of more accountability to parents, which I think has helped many schools to improve, but I can’t help feeling it has gone too far and that schools have lost something in terms of personal, social and character development which Camden School for Girls in the 1960 and 1970s provided in spades.

What was it like to go to school in Camden at the time?

Growing up in north London in the 1970s was a lot of fun. We grew up fast and were exposed to a lot of influences. By the time I got to university I felt I was over my party days and became quite boring and just wanted to work and get a good degree. As I say I probably didn’t work as hard as I should have done at school, and am not sure whether that would be allowed today, but the influence of Camden School for Girls, which went way beyond simply ensuring a string of good ‘O’ and ‘A’ level results, played a huge part in making me who I am today.