This might seem like a somewhat random choice of subject, but bear with me! The reason why it’s come to mind is because of a petition that popped in to my Facebook feed the other day, part of a campaign to make Notre Dame School co-educational instead of single sex. If you’ve been reading previous posts, you’ll realise that I’m talking here about my Alma Mater – both myself and my sisters attended Notre Dame in the 1960’s and 70’s. It was our local school – as long as you could pass the entrance examination, and pay some token fees.
I have to confess to an initial “oh no, don’t mess with my old school” reaction to the current proposal. But you know, that IS just a knee jerk reaction, a sort of automatic response to the idea of change. If I’m honest, I have often thought over the years that it might have been better for me, coming from a family of six girls, if I HAD attended a mixed school where boys were just a normal part of everyday life. And I know I’d not have been happy if my own boys had been prevented from attending school alongside their sisters. But by that time, we’d moved away from Glasgow and had different challenges.
Maybe all that sounds as if I spent my school days wishing I was in a mixed school, but that revelation only came with hindsight. I might just as easily have wished for a school where you didn’t feel uncomfortable if your father wasn’t a lawyer or a doctor, or where you could mingle with followers of religions other than Catholicism.
But I had no such radical views when I was a teenager and instead largely enjoyed those somewhat sheltered schooldays: I am certainly grateful for the education they gave me. I used to love singing in the choir and even made it to the school magazine one year, when we, the Junior Choir, won two trophies in that year’s Glasgow Schools Music festival. Here we are with our choir mistress, Miss Ennis (to the left) and accompanist, Mrs Morrow (right). That’s me in the front row, fifth from the left.
It’s been many a year since a nun walked the corridors of Notre Dame, but in those days they were a part of our everyday life, as you can see from this picture of the staff from June 1966.
I suppose we were approaching the end of the era of the nun by then, and indeed the Sisters relinquished control of Notre Dame in 1979, ending their long association with the school – an association which they could trace back to 1894 when four Notre Dame Sisters arrived in Glasgow charged with the pioneering task of founding the first Catholic Teaching College in Scotland. The associated “practicing school” opened its doors in 1897 and evolved into the High School which is still going strong today, albeit the subject of the current controversy.
Notre Dame has faced many trials over the decades, not the least of which were two World Wars, and times of social unrest such as the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the Winter of Discontent in 1978. More locally, it held out against initial resistance from Dowanhill residents, who did not want to see a Convent or a Day School disturbing their peace; not to mention proposals by Glasgow Corporation to run tramlines through the neighbourhood, an idea which was opposed by Sisters and residents alike.
It also survived various changes in education policy, always moving with the times and striving to keep one step ahead of the endless demands of the inspectorate. In 1973, not without a degree of suspicion and resistance, the first year intake became fully comprehensive and the school had to start catering for the full range of educational abilities as well as a wider curriculum. Predictions of doom and gloom proved entirely unfounded. Then in 1987 the school saw off a grievous existential threat when there was a consultation proposing the closure of Notre Dame and amalgamation with St Thomas Aquinas (co-ed) Secondary School.
Fifty-odd years ago when I was at school, the big debate was all about the second Vatican Council which had taken place between 1962-1965, a period of spiritual renewal and reform for the Catholic Church. We take it for granted now, but it seemed very progressive to us to start hearing Holy Mass in English rather than Latin, and see the nuns we knew, especially the younger ones, start to adopt a more modern habit of dress in preference to the traditional full skirts and constricting wimples we were used to. How revolutionary for them to show their ankles and their hair!
I well remember Sister Anne Consuela as being a somewhat dignified, even regal, headmistress who had that ability to make you feel guilty by casting a glance in your direction. But in fact she was a wise and cultivated woman with a wry sense of humour, which would come to the fore in the speeches she gave every year at prizegiving. Here’s just one of her many anecdotes, concerning the occasion of Glasgow Celtic reaching the final of the European (soccer) Cup on 25 May 1967:
The Sisters, for once in their lives, sat all during the game with their eyes glued to the television. Sisters who never watch television were there and Sisters who wouldn’t know football from cricket. At half-time, with Inter-Milan leading by one goal to nil, the temperature at the Convent had dropped to zero. Finally my Deputy Head, Sister John Bosco, who could endure the situation no longer, got up and declared that she was going to spend the second half of the game in Chapel. Going out of the door, she turned to the assembled sisters and said despairingly, “To whom shall I pray?” The Sisters suggested her patron, St John Bosco, who was himself a keen footballer. “Oh no” said Sister firmly, “I’m not praying to him. He was an Italien. He would be all for Inter-Milan!” Anyway, as the result showed, Sister’s time was well spent in Chapel and the School celebrated the victory appropriately the following day.”
When the school celebrated its Centenary in 1997, the ND Centenary Book Project was born, a – possibly mad – scheme initiated by yours truly and fellow former pupil, Maggie Fulton. I was a somewhat unlikely co-conspirator as I’ve never really been one to keep looking back to my schooldays but prefer, like my mother I suppose, looking to the future than wallowing in the past. It may not surprise you to learn that what attracted me was the idea of collating people’s school memories into a book.
But Maggie had bigger ideas, and, fueled by the unending enthusiasm of former pupils eager to indulge in a bit of harmless nostalgia, the project, like Topsy, grew and grew. It eventually encompassed a huge reunion dinner attended by over 900 guests, as well as various other events, large and small, which sprang up to mark the year. We even had some merchandise; a calendar, a china mug, a miniature bear. I have to mention the magnificent cake pictured below. It consisted of 14 separate 12″ fruit cakes, and the sugar leaves and flowers (61 lilies, 310 roses and hundreds of filler flowers) were all handmade.
By the way, if you are curious to read more about the nuns and their pioneering efforts, as well as myriad personal memories of pupils throughout the years, email me on firstname.lastname@example.org and, if you would cover the postage, I’ll send you a copy of Hill of Doves, I still have a few left.
I suppose one of the things I’ve been trying to touch upon in this post is the idea that Notre Dame school has always had to change with the times, and in doing so has always survived, indeed it has flourished. Today, Notre Dame High School is one of the best performing comprehensive schools in Glasgow and while it retains its Catholic ethos, these days welcomes girls from many different faiths. Surely extending that welcome to members of the opposite sex would not cause the sky to fall; the school is more resilient than that. The nuns would probably just have done what they always did – rolled up their sleeves and got on with it.
To sum up, here’s a case in point, and it’s really why I come down on this side of the argument. These are my niece Katy’s two children; the bond between them is obvious. There are a few years to go before either of them will be ready for secondary school, but as things stand, Amelie can go to the local single sex school, but not the co-educational one, while Finlay will go to the co-ed, but not the single sex one. How is that a fair choice for any parent?
It’s all very well to look back with fondness (or distaste!) at how things were in the past, but we’re in the 21st Century now, perhaps its time for a rethink. We all need a good shake up of our ideas occasionally – how else are we to change and grow?