Virginia Barton

The best and worst of British youth


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Catholic Herald, 13 May 1989


May arrived with a blast of hot weather and, as the poet has it, “fair daffodils we weep to see you haste away so soon”. A sentiment that was not, I fancy, uppermost in the mind of the six year-old marching through a host of these golden trumpets. With a well-aimed kick which Bobby Charlton would envy, he systematically beheaded every single flower.

A well-aimed kick of my own directed at the young varmint’s posterior was arrested by the arrival of the diminutive Attila’s parents. Naturally I assumed they would administer justice. Not a hit of it; all three ambled off through the field of slaughter, Attila scuffing a few heads with his boot as he went.

Speechless, I watched them leave. Should I have, would you have, made a scene? Reluctant to be cast in the role of interfering busybody, I kept my mouth shut. And now I know exactly what went through the minds of the priest and the Levite when they skirted past the man who fell among thieves.


Terrible teenager

Not long afterwards, the sorry condition of a young sapling on a street corner seemed to indicate that the infant Attila had a big brother called Ivan the Terrible Teenager. The little tree had been attacked with a brick. Despite torn bark and damaged branches, the tree made a pathetic attempt to put on a show of blossom.

Is someone, somewhere, failing to educate the young? Are parents blind to the need to teach at least the rudiments of good behaviour, and is society too chicken to get involved? Today daffodils, tomorrow saplings, next week OAPs?


250px-KingHouseGood behavior

Catholic schools have a reputation for instilling good behaviour and manners into their young charges – one of the reasons why they are popular with non-Catholics. The shadow of the monastery or convent stretches over Catholic education to this day.

This is not to say that the love-thy-neighbour principle (good behaviour, in a nutshell) isn’t practised elsewhere. As the religious orders withdraw from education the reputation of Catholic schools will rest increasingly with lay staff. The “Catholic-ness” of these schools will depend on the “stamp” of the Head, and on the RE department. After all, it is the “religious” input that makes them different from other schools.

On May 2 at Rye St Antony School in Oxford, all 350 girls were on their best behaviour, assembled in the sunlit garden to sing Happy Birthday twice. Miss Ivy King, one of the founders of the school back in 1930, was celebrating her 90th birthday, and her sister Miss Gwen, also closely involved with the school since those early days, her 88th.

Miss Gwen it was who planted the commemorative magnolia, with the present headmistress, Miss Sumpter, directing ops (if that little tree is vandalised I’ll eat my hat). It was an intimate occasion despite the large numbers present. Many of the children are daughters of old girls so there is a sense of continuity.

Every school has its vibes (acute parents sniff them out within seconds) and the atmosphere at Rye St Antony was summed-up for me by Miss Sumpter when she said: “We aim to be an extension of a good Catholic family.”

Add to that concept opportunities for sport, drama, art and music; labs, computers, a lecture theatre and a super library.


School pioneer

Ivy King has devoted the whole of her long life to the school and still lives within the grounds of her creation. She looks at the new buildings, activities and achievements with a self-deprecating modesty, and credits her co-founder Elizabeth Rendall with the successes of the past, and Patsy Sumpter with those of today.

Significantly, the most marked difference she notices between the pupils of today and those of yesteryear is in the use of leisure time. The high-tech generation’s mothers read more, and relied on their own ingenuity for amusement. The relaxing of petty restrictions that followed Vatican II has meant, Miss King believes, a more thoughtful approach to the practice of the faith and a firmer commitment by those who opt in.

The “family” spirit that is typical of the school was born when Rye St Antony was family-sized. Miss King wrote its history when she retired as headmistress, a book of lively anecdotes illustrating the vicissitudes of running such an establishment.

The present site was purchased in 1939, an investment of great foresight for not only is it a place of peace and beauty in a city notoriously cramped and noisy, there was also plenty of room for expansion.

At the heart of the original house is the chapel. The school takes an active part in the local parish, whose priest serves as visiting chaplain.


Core curriculum

As a guest at this joint birthday party I imbibed the happy atmosphere, chatted to staff and girls, ate the cake and did a whistle-stop tour of the school. The range of activities amazed one who remembers the highlight of her own London schooldays being the daily walk to the park.

Forty juniors had just returned from a jaunt to Le Touquet; the field trip in connection with the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme was being planned for the coming weekend; the lower sixth were preparing for a day of recollection at a nearby retreat centre.

A happy mix of the academic and personal fulfilment, through a variety of disciplines, means that the school provides what every parent surely wants for their child: an appreciation of basic values, development of the faith: in other words, an educated, responsible adult school-leaver.

Miss King will, I hope, enjoy many more such birthday parties, occasions for justifiable pride though she would pooh-pooh the suggestion.


Football crazy

My enthusiasm for a good school threatens to edge out an event I hope to attend later this month. Eddie Linden, editor of Aquarius, has brought together the poet Andrew Elliott, born in Co Derry, and the artist from Belfast, Colin McGookin. Will the divisions of the six counties be reflected in the divide between the two art forms, poetry and painting? The exhibition of their work is at the Poetry Society in London, Earls Court Square, until the end of May.

Here’s hoping Attila and Ivan stay away from Wembley on May 20. For the first time ever I am going to a football match! Just hope it’s as exciting as it is on the telly.


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