I spent yesterday afternoon at a programme (I’m working on my Britishisms!) put on by the fifth form girls, 10 year olds, at a fairly posh but not absolutely first-rate British public school for girls, aged 3 to 18. I’ve learned that is called public because anyone who pays tuition can get in, but in the US, we would call this private. The school is girls only–their brothers generally attend an all-boys prep school about four blocks away. Most schools here, and about all tuition-paying schools, are sex segregated.
As is also the case with nearly every school in the UK, the students wear uniforms. For this school, the youngest girls wear loose-fitting checked lavender and white dresses. They have lavender jumpers (those are “sweaters” to the uninitiated), lavender blazers with the school crest embroidered on them, black maryjane style shoes and white knee socks. The fifth form girls who put on this program had graduated to lavender and white checked button-down shirts, navy a-line skirts hitting several inches above the knee, and the same jumper, blazer, shoes and socks as the younger girls. For sports (i.e., PE, with their favorite sport being “rounders,” similar to softball, I think), they put on navy shorts. All have identical bags in which to carry their books and other school needs.
The girls’ hair is done in ponytails, long braids or quickly french-braided. A few have short, easy-care haircuts. Those with nappy hair have it done in simple styles appropriate for their hair type or culture. Because swimming is part of their weekly sports programme, hair is all easy care.
Katie, the ten-year-old cousin of my two grandsons, and whom I’ve just adopted as one of my own and who is also carefully teaching me proper British English, hand-delivered an invitation for me several days ago to attend the performance.
I walked into the hall just a few moments before the performance was to begin. I was immediately greeted by several of the girls, who had no idea who I was, but who knew it was important to show hospitality, and offered tea, coffee and biscuits (cookies, you Americans!). They showed me where I could be seated comfortably and watch the show.
The hall was small, perhaps 25’X40’, with tables and chairs set up on one side for the visitors, and the girls seated closely together on the concrete floor on the other side. No air conditioning, and the day was warm, but windows were opened for ventilation.
The students put on an old-fashioned talent show, with individual and small group acts interspersed with group songs where they invited the audience to sing with them. We were treated to poetry, originally written drama, duets and trios singing current hit tunes, modern dance, clarinet and violin solos and a lovely piece (Pomp and Circumstance in honor of the Queen’s Jubilee) with eight recorders supplemented with the clarinet. One girl, who was a dead ringer for Angela Cartwright when she starred in the original Sound of Music, sang a solo with the voice of an angel.
It was beautifully done with only minor technology glitches and presented with much poise. They had put this together in less than two weeks.
There was no giggling, silliness, shoving, or undue restlessness, especially considering the girls were sitting on that hard concrete floor.
And they all (about 50 of them) looked like ten year old girls. Really. No pimp-inspired clothing although several were in costume appropriate for their parts. No bare bellies, short shorts, adult make-up, artificially colored hair, or any other pretensions to puberty or young-adulthood.
They just looked like girls. Because of their uniforms, their faces were unusually distinct and easy to distinguish from one another. When the programme was over, Katie immediately came to my seat and offered to fetch me another cup of tea (“not white, please” — I don’t like milk in my tea which is how it is usually served here). Several others passed the biscuits again. All the girls came over and talked to adults they didn’t know–somewhat shyly, but very sweetly.
Later, when riding home with Katie and her seven year old sister, Grace, I asked them further about uniforms and makeup issues. They love the uniforms–no worries about what to wear. They delightedly told me that no make up was permitted until 11th form, when uniforms are discarded and more facial adornment is OK.
They could just be little girls, playing sports, going swimming, moving freely (even in skirts–all girls do wear skirts to school here), keeping their hair back and out of their eyes to free their concentration, concentrating on their studies, and slowly growing up.
They are also sheltered from multi-media. Eleven year olds who want to get into a good-quality private secondary school (OK, it’s really public because there is no tuition, but it is called private because enrollment is highly selective) must take a set of exams and score quite well on them to qualify. If they don’t make the cut, they can stay at their current school where their parents will continue to pay tuition, or venture into the low quality normal schools for the rest of their required education.
Because of those exams, the fifth-formers are employing tutors and are spending longer hours in homework and preparation. This is serious, and they know it. They are not going to waste time on TV. As a result, fewer of their values are being formed by the media, and more in the schools. Most of these types of schools are Christian-based, although many of the students are Muslim. The children learn their prayers, basic Christian theology (non-Christian parents have no expectations that their own faith traditions will be taught or observed), good manners and responsibility to the larger community.
One major result: little girls get to be little girls here for much longer than they do in the US. With all the challenges of living here, and there are many, the Brits may have this one up on us.
We hurt our children by over exposure TV and video. Our children lose innocence too soon and also see their creative impulses disrupted by too much pre-packaged entertainment. I doubt that my voice will change anything here, but I did need to say this. We in the US are going to pay dearly for letting sex and violence saturated media rear the next generation.