Education and Expectations

Did the schools aim high for their pupils?

Image accompanying MP3 audio clip: Factory fodder? - Evelyn Rice (née Dyer) remembers ( KB)

Factory fodder? - Evelyn Rice (née Dyer) remembers

Photo: Keith Thomas

A good background

Edith Rann MBE remembers

St. Helier was a working-class estate and, in general, the schools seem to have expected that their pupils would follow in their parents' footsteps.  Quite a number of our interviewees have spoken of achieving grammar school places and some children from St. Helier achieved great things in their professional lives, but manual work seems to have been the expectation for most pupils. Although this worked well for many who went on to experience job satisfaction and success in their chosen work, was potential in other fields sometimes wasted?

In 1935, the Sutton and District Advisory Committee for Juvenile Employment was set up.  It endorsed a system of interviews by the head teacher of the school with the child, its parents and a representative of the Committee present to give advice about suitable employment.  A newspaper report from 1936 headlined the 'acute shortage of girls for domestic work'.  In this area, there were plenty of other choices for girls and it was felt that the prospect of working alone in a small 'labour-saving' house was not tempting.*

War, of course, caused much disruption - shattering the apprenticeship system and pushing people into war work, often with little choice of what they should do.

*Wallington and Carshalton Times, 12 March 1936

Factory visits

As we came nearer to leaving we were all taken at various times to the factory estate down between Morden and Wimbledon. The first place that we went round to before looking for employment was Lines toy factory. It was a huge toy factory and, bearing in mind this was the days before battery toys and electric toys, they used to make everything. (Fred Yule)

Something you could do

It wasn't expected that you would do anything useful in life.

I went to The Willows. I was just in the basic class there. I forget what they called it now.  Because you weren't academic it was considered that you needed to learn to wash and iron and cook. Later on, after I'd left that group, they were taught to look after babies and things like that because it wasn't expected that you would do anything useful in life. But they did teach you typing and shorthand because they obviously thought if you weren't academic that was something you could do. (Rosemary Turner)

This page was added by Cheryl Bailey on 19/08/2010.
Comments about this page

Couldn't agree with you more. I went to school on the estate and my experience was that if you managed to learn anything it was despite the school. I went through my entire schooling in the bottom stream and left school with no skill other than the ability to read which I had honed by using the small library in Wrythe Lane on my own initiative. I eventually educated myself to a level to enable me to enter University and I obtained a BA without any trouble and a BSc Honours straight after that. I was advised to not take a Masters degree, which I had contemplated, but instead to apply to work for my Ph D and was at the point of commencing my seeking a placement having had this advice reinforced by Birbeck College London when I decided I had studied enough and felt it was time I spent less time studying and more time with my family. My only reason for mentioning this potted history is to demonstrate how poorly the children were served education wise on the St. Helier estate with no stimulation of expectations and the terrible limitations that must have been placed on the life of so many of them. I was fortunate, I was of a rebellious nature so didn't spend my life working in a dead end job in a factory on South Wimbledon factory estate as so many did. But never outside of my University did I receive any encouragement. I was just a grubby little lad from the Council Estate with ideas above my station. Once at university I found I was accepted as one of the group and my origins were of minor interest to some and my education history seen as a disgrace and a terrible disservice by many but I belonged and was made to feel it. I diplomatically choose to not name my particular school because from my conversations with others I learned they were all pretty much the same as some comments on this site endorse.

By nib west
On 22/06/2012

It was so good to read nib west comment. I was brought up on the council estate and went to Winchcombe Road School and I grew up thinking it must be me. I must be thick as we were only offered factory work and were not considered worthy of being tutored in anything worth while. So I left school at 15 and went into computers and have done quite well in my life no thanks to the education system in those days.

By Pamela Laflin was Tyler
On 28/04/2013

Had these technical secondary schools' received adequate funding then many more would have gone on to university, but sometimes university was just beyond the grasp of many teenagers but it didn't necessarily mean an end to their career. In the 60's, 70's there were plenty of opportunities to pursue your academic aspirations, and employers were also willing to give you part time day release. This was the route taken by Alec Baldwin, Ray Hobday, Ken Gunn and myself. First we had to do our Ordinary National Certificate, that took two years. Then two years for Higher National Certificate. Then the four of us went on to study Part 1 Grad RIC ( Royal Institute of Chemistry as it was in those days), and that took another year. Then we all embarked on Part 2 Grad RIC ( equivalent to a B. Sc Honours) and that took two years . In order to satisfy the Regs of the RIC we also had to take an A level in Pure Maths and in Physics. But five months before our finals we were stunned when the RIC announced that we all were deficient in not having an A level in a non scientific subject. Fortunately we had a Phys Chem lecturer who had come across this problem and he gave us a valuable tip. Do an A level in British Constitution, use one textbook Harvey & Bather's text on the Constitution, get hold of some past papers and since you had a choice of doing four questions out of nine options, you could afford to take a chance and leave out sections on the history of Parliament, the Law and Local Government. We all passed with a C's od D's . We were now ready to take our final exams; the practical exams were quite gruelling, taking five days to complete. I shall always remember the organic practical. I was doing an ether separation and being a hot day temperatures were rising and ether vapour was evident. The lady next to me suddenly ignited her microburner and a sheet of flame swept towards me. She lost her eye lashes but fortunately we were able to carry on and complete the exam. Having separated the mixture, we went on to identify the components. The organic exam lasted three days, and the inorganic two days, but at the end of it all we were Graduates of the RIC. What a journey, especially when you are married with three children and a full time job! So there were options it was up to the individual. Of the four of us, Michael Baldwin ended up as a professor of Molecular Spectroscopy at UCLA San Francisco while I ended up as a senior research officer at IC- I should have taken Mike's advice and emigrated to the US of A! But who knows .

By John Tipple
On 16/05/2013

From Glastonbury Road School I got a really good job in a bank in the City - from there had several jobs always going up a level...worked as a Legal Secretary for some Solicitors in The Strand and often had to go to the Old Bailey to relieve others. Did really well due to the classes I had in that lovely school - I remember Miss Milestone - shorthand and French I think...I still use the shorthand to take notes from our Pastor on Sundays.

By Maureen Hurt
On 10/09/2013

I read the above comment by Pamela Tyler with interest as I was in the same class as Pamela. We had the option of taking shorthand and typing and staying until 16 to take the commercial course which I did. I followed a long enjoyable career as a medical secretary starting at St. Helier Hospital and I consider it was the most interesting work I could have done with the education that I received. Even so I would have liked the opportunity to have gone to a grammar school.

By Linda Bryan
On 20/10/2013

I went to the Willows in Morden after passing the 11 plus in 1956. I hated the bald opera singing headmistress Miriam Benham. I live in the suburbs of Chicago and still have my bible from the school. I only got two GCE's and left to work in Woolworths then Continental Telephone Exchange London and British Embassy, Paris as a French speaking telephone operator. I did not learn typing or shorthand but liked French. I worked at the British Consulate General in Chicago. I have a University degree and was a network engineer before I retired. I still have family in Carshalton area. I was born in Thornton road and lived in Middleton and Woburn. I loved reading and we would line up at the library waiting for the Enid Blyton's etc. We were mostly bright children and quite self sufficient. The ones I know of made a good life for themselves despite some of that council estate stigma and lack of encouragement. I have really enjoyed reminiscing here with you all.

By Irene Fawsitt
On 31/12/2013

I had the misfortune to attend Sutton Common Girls School (the girls half of Glastonbury Boys School), back in the 60's. The first week we arrived at that school we were informed that the bright students had gone to grammar school and, in not so many words, we were the non achievers. As girls, sciences were not on the menu. We could do short hand and typing and get an RSA qualification - that was the only qualification we were invited to achieve. There was one teacher that saved me from just giving up on education - Geoffrey Dunn the art teacher, due to him I moved to another school, ended up with a degree etc. As a dyslexic I was given a really hard time by the rest of the teachers, I still have occasional nightmares about that school - urghh!

By Hazel Weeks
On 09/03/2014

I attended Willows Girls School in around 1970. I was left traumatised by my time there. I had to wear that stupid blue skull cap with the bright orange tassle. Miss Benham scared the life out of me. My sisters went there too.

By Carol Prince
On 07/07/2014

Extraordinary!!  So I wasn't the only girl to be deeply traumatised and put off education by Miriam Benham at The Willows (1955-60). It took years to overcome my fear and return to study, and like others on this page, I have gone on to excel in academia. In fact, this coming September at the age of 70, I am about to start another degree course in Fine Art!  If Miss Benham was teaching today, she would find herself in very deep trouble for bullying pupils and staff alike.


By Jane Howard
On 30/08/2014

I went to the Willows Girls school. How long was Miriam Benham at the school? I left in about 1970 and she was still there. It was not a bad place, can not say I enjoyed school but I learned more when I left as you do in life.

By Janette Gillmore
On 05/09/2015

I went to the Willows, left in 1953. Miss Benham had no time for us ordinary girls, all her attention was for the grammar stream girls. It did not stop me getting an office job and eventually I became a florist.

By Sylvia Browne nee Hill
On 13/10/2015

I went to the Willows after passing the 11 plus in 1957. I loved it and yes, even the velour skull hat with the orange tassel. Miss Benham was rather scary but I made sure I never had any reason to be called to her office. The other members of staff were also rather scary. I suppose it made sure that I behaved and did homework on time. I ended up becoming the credit manager for Hewlett Packard U.K. and Ireland. I put a lot of that achievement down to my education. Happy days.

By Mary Cooksey (nee Taylor)
On 03/02/2016

I was at the Willows 1955/59, Miriam Benham was a monster of a woman, she seemed embittered and jealous, scaring staff and girls alike.  We were bright girls but we were never encouraged to think about further education.  Most of my friends from those days, including myself, went on to get degrees in later life, no thanks to the Willows.  Does anyone remember Ms Puttock, Ms Hogg?  I still have dreams about me leaving school after lunch, going down the long drive, waiting to be caught.  I never was found out.  I used to write my own 'she had to go to the dentist' notes, week after week.

By Sue Reid
On 17/08/2016

I went to the Willows High school from 1955 to 1959. Miss Benjamin did  run the school with a rod of iron but I would not say bullying. I enjoyed my time there. Nowadays everything is too easy going.

By Elizabeth Adams nee Mcbride
On 19/02/2017

I went to the Willows in 1956 and was in the same class as Irene Fawsitt, see above. Miss Benham was really scary and had us singing really awful songs. The hats were the bane of our existence and the boys from other local school used to throw them around the bus on the way home. I lived in Thornton Road when first at the school and we moved to Tadworth but I still attended the school as there was no school there at the time. I do remember Miss Hogg, hockey and other sports were her subject and she was very strict, as were most of the other teachers. I have lived in Norfolk for over 30 years and was a legal secretary for most of my working life.  I have 2 children and 2 grandchildren.

By Joyce Rhodes
On 06/03/2017

I also attended The Willows from 1955 to 1960 and have some of the same memories already shared here.  Miriam Benham was definitely a forbidding character and I carry with me to this day her calling us "slovenly girls" if we had as much as a small run in our lisle stockings.  She wrote on my final report that I was gifted and could have accomplished so much more than I did during my years there.  And this was so very true.  In fact, I didn't apply myself one bit and came to regret it later.  However, I went on to college and have had a varied career since then.  I consequently held positions in central London, with NATO in Norway and several here in the United States where I have lived for the past 40 odd years.  I became a social worker later in life, placing troubled youth in therapeutic care which I found very rewarding.  I have been the Executive Director of several associations and continue to volunteer on community Boards. So yes, regardless of the shortcomings of our earlier education, we can go on to lead productive, successful lives and achieve personal satisfaction. 

By Margaret Lee
On 15/04/2017

I began my education at The Willows School nursery age four in 1960 and progressed through the primary and junior schools to what became the Comprehensive Girls School in 1967 eventually leaving in 1974 by which time the formidable Miriam Benham had retired. She perhaps mellowed in her later years and she stopped wearing wigs so you could clearly see her bald head in assembly. However, we still thought of her as strict and scary and her successor, I think Miss Elkin? seemed in comparison, rather soft. One thing I secretly admired about Miss Benham was her passion for singing, she would bring the whole school back at the end of the day if we were not singing the daily hymn to her satisfaction, and we would have to chant musically, "Fee Fi Fo Fum," does anyone remember that? I was always in what was considered The Grammar Stream, even though the school was Comprehensive but even as late as 1974 there were not high expectations for us, and the upper sixth had only 13 girls. I was inspired by a Willows teacher, Shirley Forrest, to train as a PE teacher, and my working class parents, though initially upset that I didn't just want to have a 'nice' office job, were very proud of their clever daughter who was the first person in the family to go to college. I now teach Internationally in Singapore and Hong Kong and have recently achieved a Masters Degree in Education from Bath University UK. Yesterday I looked up The Willows and was shocked to find it has been demolished and a new housing estate built in its place. I wonder if the old Willow Tree still stands in the grounds? I played conkers and marbles and read books under that tree. Feels a little sad that the place has gone. 

By Miriam Clark (Cooper)
On 08/05/2017

I went to Willows from 1953 - 1957 my name was Doreen Rayner, my best friends were Marion Salmon,Yvonne Hunter and Catherine Schooling who's father had a Tailors.    "'  Miss Benham scared me too. Does anyone remember having to repeat" sweet red roses" in assembly to promote small sweet mouths? also standing up in assembly on Fridays if you had been given a black point and how angry she got if you said you got it "off of" instead of from. I have never said "of off" since 

By Doreen Inggall
On 23/08/2017

I went to willows school in the 1960.s along with my other sisters. I used to be scared of Miss Benham but I don’t remember her being really nasty to me. I enjoyed all sports and became interested in lots different things. I too remember folding that silly hat up in my pocket until you saw Miss Benham in doorway. I went onto working in Ladonna as a typist and never looked back

By Wendy Kemp
On 07/11/2017

I attended Willows school until we moved to Australia in 1956. My friends were Ann Barratt, Theresa Flegg, I lived in Canterbury road, just a minutes walk, my time there was happy I don't recall the English teachers name,was it Miss Willsmore? She wore a black tie boot lace, I was scared of her, but made English my great passion in life. I've lived in Oz  all these years, am now 75.

By vera jeffs nee fisher
On 27/01/2019

I went to Sutton Common High for Girls as did most of the girls on the St. Helier estate. I hated school from day 1 and at the end of my education I threw my uniform including shoes text books school bag into a black bag then the bin. Because I had a stammer I was bullied through junior and senior school. I never had the courage  to speak out so i became very nervous and totally lost. Just before leaving the head asked what I would like to do , I said become a nurse, she just laughed at me. This made me so angry that i did indeed train as a SEN then did my SRN training and went all over the world with my nursing qualifications.  My answer is if you want something  bad enough and with the correct support you can do anything. Sutton Common was a okay school but I made sure all my 4 children had the support they needed and thankfully they have done very well 

By Joy Howe
On 07/01/2020

Joy Howe, like you I had a speech impediment,  which would render me unable to speak when stressed, ie reading round the class was a nightmare and I lived my secondary school days in a state of dread, guilt and inadequacy.  I made sure I kept my head down, which did nothing to grow my confidence and I never told my parents of the problems.  Nobody took me on one side at school to help and one day the headmistress told the whole school that I was rude because I refused to tell a teacher my name in class.  This wasn't due to rudeness, but I just couldn't get a sound out. I should have gone straight to the head to explain but in those days you  didn't.  You seem to have done well since leaving school,  60 years later I have certainly grown in confidence,  no thanks to Green Wrythe.

By Christine Gawthorpe
On 17/02/2020

I also attended Sutton Common County Secondary School for girls.   I quite enjoyed my time there but like Joy Howe, when asked what I wanted to do when I left I said I wanted to be an occupational therapist, I was laughed at. Although I eventually qualified as a lawyer, I have always regretted not pursuing my original ambition.

By Carol Falconer nee Baker
On 22/06/2020

I was a pupil at The Willows 1949-1954, in the grammar stream.  Miss Dighton retired as Headmistress 1950, Miriam Benham taking over.  She hadn't established any 'scariness' by the time I left with 7 'O' Levels, maximum offered at the school.  I have no complaints about any of the teachers, remembering one or two with affection: Miss Messenger, Art, Miss Taylor, PE (kinder than Miss Hogg), Mrs Clarke, English (unforgettably reading 'Jane Eyre' to us week by week), Mrs Vyse (nee West) who tried so hard - along with Miss Benham - to get me into Music College, my dearest ambition.  Sadly, for reasons out of my and their control, this didn't happen, but I am eternally grateful to them both for the encouragement and support they gave me. I took 2 'A' Levels in my forties, then BA degree (English/History) 1993-96.  My best friend at The Willows, Joan Harvey (m.Over), sadly died in 2008, and I learned last week of the sad passing of Janet Lanegan (m.Roles).  The most memorable visitor to the School was ex-pupil Amy Shuard, who had gone on to become a world-class soprano.  She came and sang to us twice - wow!  Mrs Denis, who had originally 'discovered' her, accompanying on the piano.  Amy Shuard doesn't deserve to be forgotten.  Mrs Denis sadly died in 1952, Miss West (m.Vyse) replacing her.  Fellow pupil June Day and I were only able to join the School trip to Bruges in 1954 because teachers (we weren't told who) paid for us - that speaks for itself. Nobody has mentioned the wonderful meals provided in The Willows canteen.  After the appalling offerings at Glastonbury canteen (where staff had a separate menu!), I truly appreciated being provided with more than edible fare that was shared with the staff - not home cooking but certainly next best thing.  I only attended Glastonbury for a year after coming to Morden from elsewhere - I remember Glastonbury's kindly Headmistress Mrs Allen, Mrs Bickler our class teacher, Mr Lambert (I can still sing Marselleise from memory!), Miss Levens and Mr Heybittle who, I believe, eventually married.  I remember how the staff secretly rehearsed a panto Aladdin for us all Christmas 1948, a much appreciated surprise.

By Jacqueline Dench (nee Allinson)
On 05/04/2021

I went to Willows about 1958 as a 13+ student.  Yes I remember the skull caps designed in Paris!  Also Miss Hogg and hockey.  As a fairly serious student felt much time wasted by teachers telling students to be quiet. Miss Clark, Geography, was a stickler but thanks to her got grade 2 at O Level.   Maths we seemed to have a different teacher each term and only got a good one in my last year leading up to O level - too late unfortunately.  Got 3 x 0 levels in the end.  Lived in Raynes Park and cycled to school most days.  Joined the school choir and then Wimbledon Girls Choir, so did lots of shows around London, some TV and tour to Norway.

By Patricia Pillings ne Fuller
On 11/10/2021

Hi to you all.

My mother and her two younger sisters attended the Willows School back in the 60's and 70's.Their surnames were Galloway and they lived in Buckfast Road, Morden. 

My mother asked me to join this amazing online group, so she can read and hear all the wonderful narratives and memories of its members.

My mother does have one question to ask you all.

'Are the Willows School, school gardens still in situ since the demolition of the school buildings, or are they lost forever under the foundations of the new housing development?'

Many thanks for taking the time to read my post and question.

By Paul Railton
On 11/10/2021

I didn't go to Willows but at Merton Park County Primary School Miriam Benham was a wonderful gentle headmistress, leading a fine team of women plus one man who beat me and wrote in his final report 'A messy little boy who not only wastes his own time but everyone else's'.  In our final year she read us 'The Sword in the Stone' and introduced us to Latin - ambulo - I walk -

ambulance. Lived in a little cottage in Stony Lane nearby. Had cancer treatment 'I'm proud they are trying a new drug on me'. Sorry to hear how she developed...RIP

By Professor Edward Black
On 01/11/2021

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