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[Opinion] Former Habs Girl - I would not send my kids to Haberdashers' Aske's, Elstree. Here's why.

(85 Posts)
formerhabsgirl Tue 20-Aug-19 15:11:03

Hi everyone

I've been thinking things over and feel this is the best place I can give this opinion, so that any parents thinking about sending their child to Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls in Elstree can see it from the eyes of someone who went there, and not just a school prospectus.

I went to Habs Girls from the age of 11 to 18 and left relatively recently. I went on to Oxford and graduated with a first. Last week, a friend's Mum asked my opinion on Habs, as a colleague was thinking about sending their daughter there. The opinions I give below are my own and in no way affiliated with the school’s.

My experience of Habs Girls was that it was awful for pastoral support. I went from a straight A* student to barely being able to hand in essays. A teacher in a senior position asked me to come to her office and proceeded to tell me that if her friends, who she told me were barristers/lawyers etc, could function and go to work, even though they had previously been suicidal, then I could finish my essays. I also am pretty sure (from diary entries and my own memory) that another kept a girl in the school, who had an eating disorder at the time, waiting outside her office for the whole day while there were school-wide celebrations occurring (I can't go into much more detail here, otherwise I might reveal more than I want to). She felt so ashamed and unhappy (the girl, not the teacher). In my memory (and I kept several diaries detailing the events, which I have since checked over to refresh things) she never asked me how I could have gone from a student with top grades to a student barely being able to function. All I remember is blame, blame, blame, and criticism when I tried to explain myself. Another teacher made fun of the fact that I used to apologise all the time for handing in work late, without asking me why this had suddenly started happening.

I had never a 'problem student.' In fact, I was made a prefect before I started being ill. However, when I experienced difficulties that not my fault, I was shouted at by one teacher in front of a year 8 class when I asked for a day-long essay extension due to illness. While I completely understand that everything is subjective, I clearly remember events like these happening and, from the perspective of someone in their twenties, who has gone through the system, I struggle to think how this could have been anything other than being… well, really bad at an aspect of one’s job.

I went to Oxford and achieved a first class degree. Those who know I went to Habs Girls (relatives etc.) have since asked me how I would credit Habs Girls in my overall success. My overwhelming memory of Habs Girls was how critical it was when it came to grades. My mother confirmed a memory I am about to share, as we both went along to a parent's evening in year 9 to talk about GCSE options - she remembered being as shocked as I was. The headmistress gave a speech, during which she was talking about whether to take 9 or 10 GCSEs. She said – and my mother remembers this too – “remember, it is far better to get 9 A*s rather than 9 A*s and 1 A.”

I believe that Habs Girls limits its students by promoting perfectionism. I cannot overstate this enough. There is such a pervading atmosphere of perfectionism in that place. I feel like a lot of parents act like it’s wonderful when students get straight A*s in GCSEs and A-Levels. They forget or choose to overlook the fact there is often a great deal of fear that is instilled in students about NOT getting those top grades. I have been around girls who have had panic attacks about the possibility of getting a B. There were girls in tears because they ‘only’ got 8 A*s and 1A during GCSE day. Girls who think they’re not good enough.

Why am I saying this now? Why did I not complain? Because I wasn’t old enough to realise that the teacher(s) I’ve mentioned had committed a gross error and had been (again, in my opinion) terrible at their jobs. I didn’t stand up to myself because mental health awareness was not present at Habs, and was not made a priority. I was a teenage girl, up against people who never asked me what was wrong, but instead told me off for not achieving. When I was at school, I believed that everything was my fault. I used to cry and cry and wonder how everything had gone so wrong. Having been to the place where ‘everyone wanted to go to’ – ie Oxbridge - and having had a great time there, I can now say wholeheartedly that the problem was not mine. They did not do enough to help me, and to help other girls who had similar or very different problems. Even when I was at freakin’ OXFORD, it was less of a perfectionist place than Habs Girls, in my experience.

I wonder, if anyone reads this, if I’ll get the response ‘it’s not for everyone: some people can hack it, and some people can’t.’ To this I would say: I got straight A*s and a first from Oxford. I never had any problem with Oxford whatsoever – compared to Habs Girls, it was honestly a lot easier to cope with, mentally. So I don’t really think the argument that ‘oh it was okay for her at uni because she had only one subject to concentrate on’ holds much weight, because I did well when I was doing a range of subjects. When I was at school (on paper only haha) I was arguably ‘the ideal Habs Girl’ – sporty, A* grades across the board, Oxbridge – and yet I was treated really badly when I needed support and empathy. If I could hack Oxford and flourish in it, but me and several other girls had mental breakdowns/pulled all-nighters in part because of fear over not being ‘good enough…’ then I don’t think the fault really lies with my personality or how I handle things.

I want to give a shout out to the nice teachers who did go there – because there were some. There were some lovely and kind teachers who only wanted to help. They’re not being paid enough! But I’m afraid that several nice teachers do not reverse the really bad atmosphere that pervades the school. Even though I am sure some of the not-so-great teachers might have left, I would be very worried about sending anyone there, because of the ruthless perfectionism. If I have children of my own, then I would much rather prioritise students’ happiness than their grades. Habs Girls, in my opinion, is not worth the money. I am now considering going to counselling because I still have awful memories from that time. Sorry to be blunt, but I wish my parents had been able to see something like this before they'd decided to send me there.

Love

A Former Habs Girl sad

OP’s posts: |
herculepoirot2 Wed 21-Aug-19 07:08:23

Sorry you had such a difficult time. The school is overtly focused on academics, so people who send their children there will know that the pursuit of academic perfection is the goal, just as it is their goal for their children.

amidaiwas Wed 21-Aug-19 07:59:48

I think it's typical of a lot of the high performing all girls schools. I also think schools are changing and becoming more aware of the importance of good mental health.
Remember these teachers are also under huge pressure to get the A* results - they know their students are clever, parents are paying well over £100k for 7 years and have high expectations from the school with anything but A* blamed on the teaching.

Soontobe60 Wed 21-Aug-19 08:08:39

It's interesting that despite all you criticise the teachers about here, you were still successful enough to get a place at Oxford and achieve a first class degree. So they must have been doing something right?
I loathed my secondary school years but I can accept that the experience made me who I am today. I believe it's pointless looking back especially if all you remember is the negatives. It's mentally unhealthy. That school, and those teachers, played a big part in what you have achieved now.

TitianaTitsling Wed 21-Aug-19 08:20:37

mentioned had committed a gross error and had been (again, in my opinion) terrible at their jobs. Does that not depend on what their employers deem their job to be? Push pupils through exams and get these A*? Then yes they did well by your own words given that you got a First from Oxford. Why did your parents not change schools if at year 9 you and your mother were so concerned about the strive for perfection?

FanDabbyFloozy Wed 21-Aug-19 09:50:50

I do question what we are doing to the mental health of our kids. Remember that the schools wouldn't exist of we parents didn't want them. One parent told me WITH PRIDE that their year 11 daughter was up studying for mocks until 2am, such was her drive for top marks. She was also bring tutored (no joke). But she got lots of A*/As to show for the stress so that's okay hmm

I discounted this school for my own children when a lovely teacher told me that almost no-one does art or creative subjects at 3rd level as they're mostly focused on law and medicine. Is that their ambitions or their parents?

But this school isn't unique. I could name many other schools in London/Herts.

NataliaOsipova Wed 21-Aug-19 09:59:30

Genuine question for the OP - where would you prefer to have gone to school? Did you have somewhere else in mind at the time, or is there somewhere that, with hindsight, you think would have been better?

formerhabsgirl Wed 21-Aug-19 10:13:50

Hi everyone, thank you for your comments - it's really interesting to hear the feedback from you all - thank you for taking the time to reply.

Firstly, I'd agree in that I think it's almost impossible to separate the school from the university degree - would I have got into Oxford, or received a first, etc. if I hadn't gone there? To this, I can say - I have no idea, but I think I would have been happier, far less hard on myself and would have probably done well academically, in any case. In my cohort at university, the people who did best were usually from state schools who'd had private tutors... just putting that out there. From my own experience, in some cases, the teaching was, in my humble opinion, really not worth the extra money. We had a lovely teacher, for example, for one of my classes but we also learned the wrong case study for months during a crucial year - it was only towards the end that we were told this was the case, and we all had to cram to read the correct one and learn it enough to do well in our final-year exam. We were also encouraged in hindsight not to make this a big deal, whereas it actually really was!

Secondly, I meant my first post to illustrate the fact that I really do think that Habs - like a lot of Herts/North London private girls schools - places too much emphasis on the 'pursuit of perfection.' It's not just grades, it's everything else - you have to look good, be sporty on top of this, and god forbid if you ever need a chance to breathe or collect yourself from all the stress you're under! I agree that this is not just a 'Habs' thing, however.

I genuinely think I would have done better elsewhere. I also wasn't really 'coached' at all when I applied to Oxford, though I think other people applying for different degrees had more help. In fact, I was discouraged from a) studying my subject and b) applying to Oxford by a couple of teachers, which made me doubt myself a great deal.

My opinion is: a) it's not worth the money, b) it can be incredibly damaging to mental health in the long-run and c) you're far better off sending your child to a good state school and, if you really want to, tutoring them privately.

You can take it or leave my thoughts, but I didn't leave all that long ago and, talking to the people I know/sisters of friends who are still going there, I personally believe that things haven't changed much since I left!

To end this, all I'll say is: yes, of course I have some bad memories from my time there. But I'm not intending this as a rant - I want prospective parents/their daughters to read this and to hear an alternative opinion rather than 'if she's bright enough, she'll flourish.' I'm bright, and so are many other girls who went through the system and came out with a crushed sense of confidence that is taking years to rebuild.

OP’s posts: |
formerhabsgirl Wed 21-Aug-19 10:17:20

@NataliaOsipova great question - I think I would have preferred to go to a state school with a good Ofsted rating. I'm aware that many are oversubscribed, but that's what I'd recommend first. If your child is struggling in a particular subject, I'd use the money that would have been spent on Habs to privately tutor them in that subject. I'd use some of the rest of the money saved to pay off their university loans. Again, just my opinion - not trying to attack Habs in particular, but I think there's a narrative of 'send your children here and they will succeed' and 'it's worth the money' that needs to be questioned, even if you decide to send your child there after all.

OP’s posts: |
formerhabsgirl Wed 21-Aug-19 10:29:57

(I'd also use the rest of the money, after tutoring/paying off university loans to give them a deposit on a house - in my opinion, you'd be setting them up far better for life).

OP’s posts: |
BogglesGoggles Wed 21-Aug-19 10:37:32

This is a very girls school thing to have happen. I’m sorry it affected you that much. I think that schools need to teach their students to be realistic. No one actually cares if you get 1 A in GCSEs. Schools that prioritise their own statistics above teaching students the invaluable skill of doing just enough to meet requirements are best avoided. I had something similar happen at school. They dumbed down the curriculum to boost our grades. It was the top performing school in the state (where I come from each that has a separate education system) but the quality of education wasn’t all that.

Herocomplex Wed 21-Aug-19 10:38:01

It’s interesting that you blame the school, but don’t question why your parents didn’t intervene when they could see how very unhappy you were.
You say it’s not worth the money, but you got exactly what was paid for whether you like it or not.
The school do what they do, it’s what people choose. Your experience was dreadful, you sound really unhappy about it, and that’s an awful outcome.

BogglesGoggles Wed 21-Aug-19 10:40:00

@formerhabsgirl I have to disagreeeoth you send them to a state school point though. Most people who I know that went to oxbridge from a state school were actively discouraged from applying and recieved no hrlpnin their application. I think you may be talking from a position of privilege here and not understand just how much harder state school pupils have to work to achieve what you did.

changedMyUsernameToPostThis Wed 21-Aug-19 10:45:09

I think that it is sad that you feel it right to post this kind of comment online - I appreciate that you will have had your own personal experience with the school - but equally I doubt that it is a common experience, so you need to be careful to not present it as a failed school / something which will be the same for all other pupils...

I was at the schools a number of years ago - and more recently was a school governor there for 5 years - your experience while possible was certainly not the experience of the vast majority of pupils.

The school is a very specific type of school which suits a specific type of child - I would expect that there will be regular mis-matches between parental expectations / school's purpose and methods / child's character etc. How the school and parents deal with this jointly is a part of the success / failure of the partnership - but each situation is unique, and the school is only a part of the success / failure of that partnership...

it may be that the school was not suited to you / you to the school - but is that the school's fault / yours / your parents ? I think there is a joint responsibility, certainly between your parents and the school. The school is very suitable for many pupils, as is evidenced by its popularity and the desire to get in... but it won't suit all...

As for slating teachers - every staff-room will have a mixture of abilities and successes, but I remain to this day hugely impressed by the standard of staff across both boys and girls - I have over 35 years experience of the schools and they continue to amaze me with the passion, ability and personal care the staff have - and the service they give to both school and pupils.

I am sorry that you feel that you have not had a successful time at the school - the Habs schools definitely set out to nurture the individual as well as help them progress academically - it would seem that they were extremely successful at the latter, perhaps not so good at the former - however, I would want those reading this to realise that yours is one view, and certainly not indicative of the majority.

formerhabsgirl Wed 21-Aug-19 11:08:08

@BogglesGoggles Hi, thank you for commenting. I agree with you that I'm talking from a position of privilege. There is no doubt about it. However, the area that we are talking about has good/outstanding state schools, which is why I felt I could comment in this way. If we were talking about an underprivileged area, my answer would be different. I hope this helps clarify things.

OP’s posts: |
ourkidmolly Wed 21-Aug-19 11:13:07

You have not addressed whether your parents are to blame? They placed you in a high stakes pressured school and didn't withdraw you when you were unhappy. Why not?
This is going to sound harsh but I think you need a wake up call. You say you'd ideally have preferred to be tutored in a state school. You have zero understanding of the reality of the teaching and learning atmosphere of a big standard state comp in North London like Hendon Comp or Southgate Comp and the dedication level required to gain entry to Oxford from those schools.
You make it sound as if your acceptance into Oxford had nothing to do with your school. That's bullshit and self delusional. Look at the numbers coming from Habs and the numbers coming from the two schools I've mentioned. You have had an immense privilege and I suggest you acknowledge that and stop assuming that your achievements would be the same without it. The children I know would love an Olympic size pool, daily trampolining clubs, etc. You've been pressured to achieve but imagine the pressure of trying to achieve in a B and B temporary accommodation as parents with poor English work endless zero hour contracts and drive Ubers all night to make sure you make it. Unbearable.

RedskyLastNight Wed 21-Aug-19 12:50:46

This rings true of my own experience (though I blame my parents as much or more than the school as they also thought getting a string of top results was the desired end game and it didn't matter what cost).
I also got a place at Oxford.

I can categorically say I would much rather have got less good results and no place at Oxford but been happier. In my case it's taken years for my self esteem and self confidence to rebuild.

Perhaps there needs to be some general thinking about why getting strings of top grades is considered so desirable - how much does it actually affect your subsequent life if you (say) end up with a string of Bs rather than A*s?

Applepieco Wed 21-Aug-19 12:55:26

.

changedMyUsernameToPostThis Wed 21-Aug-19 13:21:23

*This rings true of my own experience (though I blame my parents as much or more than the school as they also thought getting a string of top results was the desired end game and it didn't matter what cost).
I also got a place at Oxford.*

I can categorically say I would much rather have got less good results and no place at Oxford but been happier. In my case it's taken years for my self esteem and self confidence to rebuild.

*Perhaps there needs to be some general thinking about why getting strings of top grades is considered so desirable - how much does it actually affect your subsequent life if you (say) end up with a string of Bs rather than As?

Very valid points - but more of a challenge for our education system generally - rather than a school specifically...

there will always be those (parents) who want a school to deliver results at any cost, so the concept of a school delivering results is not in itself a bad thing...

whether it works for individual pupils is another issue - and ultimately the responsibility of the parents - not the school - trying to pass that responsibility onto the school is inappropriate - the parents hold responsibility for ensuring that their children go to a school appropriate for them...

for this school specifically though I think we need to be cautious not to label the school because of how it has not been a perfect match for a specific student(s) - the school in question has a wide programme of looking after the mental health of students - to imply otherwise is perhaps an inaccurate perspective...

changedmynameto Wed 21-Aug-19 13:26:34

I am sorry but the OP's points are absolutely valid. It seems that some posters are just hellbent on serving their own agenda and protecting the lie school image. This

changedmynameto Wed 21-Aug-19 13:29:58

This is not about just the school not being a fit - this is about how the school handled things when the student needed support. I am very familiar with this school other high achieving schools in the area - my own children attend some of these. They are tryjng to do more for mental health now but it wasn't always there and probably wasn't when OP was at school. My experience is that these high achieving schools do create pressure and stress for the children even without intending to. And I am sorry it is not good enough to say that if the child can't cope this is the wrong school for them. Schools do have a responsibility for ensuring support for especially high achieving students who feel like they can't admit when they are having p

changedmynameto Wed 21-Aug-19 13:33:01

Oh for goodness sake.

And admit when they are having problems. And that's how it continues until somebody has a breakdown.

I am not an outsider looking in. Am very much part of this community and I can tell you that whilst they are trying they have been late to the game and it still isn't enough.

It is shocking how other posters have chosen to vilify the OP's experience rather than understand her experience. Not enough is shared about these experiences because it is taboo too talk about issues in high achieving prestigious schools. It all needs to be hushed up. And yes it is not about just this school - a lot of schools have this issue.

EssentialHummus Wed 21-Aug-19 13:37:27

I cannot understand why anyone in their right mind would send their daughter to a school like this, when everything about the environment screams mental health issues and eating disorders. Sorry to be dramatic - I see how it reads. You don’t take a high-achieving teenage girl and chuck her into an environment with other high-achieving teenage girls which is gamed to be competitive and almost singularly focused on academic results. It cannot be to the good of that child.

ourkidmolly Wed 21-Aug-19 14:20:44

@changedmynameto

But if you know this, why send your children to this type of school? confused

changedMyUsernameToPostThis Wed 21-Aug-19 14:23:20

They are tryjng to do more for mental health now but it wasn't always there and probably wasn't when OP was at school

I suspect it was wink - however, providing mental health support and it be accessed by individuals etc. is not the same thing... It is vital that any pupil at any school is supported by parents / school / peers / themselves / etc. - let's not make assumptions about a specific individual when they have posted one perspective...

It is shocking how other posters have chosen to vilify the OP's experience rather than understand her experience. Not enough is shared about these experiences because it is taboo too talk about issues in high achieving prestigious schools. It all needs to be hushed up. And yes it is not about just this school - a lot of schools have this issue.

I am not seeing anyone vilify the OP - far from it, I am sure that the OP writes accurately from their perspective - however, a balanced view might acknowledge that certain schools work for certain pupils, some thrive, some don't. As has been noted above, there is a certain innocence about the OP's post in terms of coming out of Oxbridge with a first, but not approving of the system that set her up for that...

you are right that there is a more general discussion to be had about society's emphasis on grades / measurement / etc. and the educational environment it is building - however that is most certainly not exclusive to this school, nor indeed to the private sector...

I cannot understand why anyone in their right mind would send their daughter to a school like this, when everything about the environment screams mental health issues and eating disorders. Sorry to be dramatic - I see how it reads. You don’t take a high-achieving teenage girl and chuck her into an environment with other high-achieving teenage girls which is gamed to be competitive and almost singularly focused on academic results. It cannot be to the good of that child.

Because they are phenomenal schools - where you get a rich and rounded education, where there is huge emphasis on the whole person, where the sports and music, drama and eduction all play important roles and are run at a fantastically high level.

Because they are schools with fantastic resources - buildings / equipment / teachers / opportunities / extra-curricular / etc. on a fantastic campus...

Because the schools no longer operate in the 1950s or 1980s - awareness of mental health issues / stress / easting disorders is extremely high and picked up on quickly...

Because there are children for whom this environment makes them... (equally there are those for whom it is not suitable - but that is a decision equally the responsibility of the parents)...

Because the vast majority of children going through the schools are happy before, happy during and happy after...

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