Queen Elizabeth I: a supporter of girls’ schools?

Toward the end of last month, in my capacity as President of the Girls’ Schools Association, I hosted a dinner for around 50 guests at the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn in London. It was a super evening: present were Heads of a number of great girls’ schools, and Heads of a number of great prep schools, together with some invited guests. Professor A C Grayling spoke inspiringly about the landscape of Higher Education and what universities should be doing for their charges, and he had a receptive audience when he spoke about excellence and aspiration, coupled with the need to direct young people to enable them to focus on the future, not simply drift into the world of work.

When it came to the Royal Toast – a Gray’s Inn tradition – I drew attention to the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which hangs in the Dining Hall beneath our dining room. Up to the age of 11, Elizabeth shared the tutors of her half-brother Edward, but she was a bright girl with an appetite for learning, and in 1544, when she was 11, she had appointed to her a personal tutor, William Grindal. By this time she could write English, Latin, and Italian, but under the talented and skilful Grindal she also progressed in French and Greek, and is reputed to have spoken Cornish. After Grindal sadly died of the plague in 1548, Elizabeth continued her education under Roger Ascham, a teacher who believed that learning should be active, engaging and a positive experience, and after whom the great girls’ school in Sydney, Ascham, is named. Roger Ascham wrote a treatise on educational method, The Scholemaster, which was published posthumously in 1570, and he was generally credited with directing the young Elizabeth to an extremely high level in her studies.

By the time her formal education ended in 1550, Elizabeth was the best educated woman of her generation, and undoubtedly an advocate of education for its own sake. As I said to the accumulated body of Heads at my President’s dinner, I think it is not too far a step from this to imagine that Queen Elizabeth I would have been an enthusiastic advocate of education for girls in the 21st century, and for girls’ schools in general, had she been alive now. How wonderful to have royal approval!

A study of history is a marvellous thing …

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