Victorian values

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I can still remember the time as if it were yesterday – although, in reality so many days and years have passed, it was indeed a very long time ago.

It was the time when I was 13, a good catholic girl, going to a good catholic school. I cannot remember the pressure that our children seem to go through today, however I am sure it was there and, if I think hard enough, I know it was there. The time when we had to choose our ‘options’ and a time when it was CSE’s and O’levels not GCSE’s as it is today.

My form class was 3M and our form teacher was Mr McMillian – a tall dark-haired chap with shoulder-length hair and a large black moustache, which I seem to recall was very much the ‘look’ back in the late 1970’s.  

On this particular day, we all sat at our desks in the form classroom at the beginning of the school day. The desks were set out in a u-shape with Mr McMillians’ desk placed in the centre at the top, with 13-year-old boys on the right and 13-year-old girls on the left. Not that it was designated to be that way – just the way it was – girls wanted to sit together and so did the boys!

As Mr McMillian came in and sat down, a hush settled upon the room, he turned to face the desks on the right where all the boys sat and his voice loud and clear as he addressed the boys only. The school had decided to trial a new subject which the boys could attend if they wished – ‘car engineering’. It was to be the first class on a Tuesday and Thursday morning and the boys would be allowed to go straight to the local technical college in order to be able to access vehicles and equipment in order to complete the course. Part of the class was very practical and ‘hands-on’, and the other part was theory. At the end of the class and during break time at the school, they could then travel back to the school in readiness for the rest of the school day. At the end of the two years this would result in an exam and, if passed, a CSE.

Being a girl in a household of 2 girls and 2 boys plus mum and dad – I was used to the differences between how boys were treated and how girls were treated. I think of my late father as very much a ‘Victorian Dad’. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my father very much and even now I miss him AND although he was born in 1925, definitely missing the Victorian era, his attitude was something that I would associate with the values of someone who had lived within that era. I can even remember him saying on an occasion when I was complaining about wanting to do my school homework, that girls only need to get married and have children whilst my brothers were encouraged to get a ‘career’. My sister and I undertook the cooking and cleaning each evening, as my mum was working, however, my brothers were always absent when chores needed to be done.

As Mr McMillian informed all the boys of this new opportunity, I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t very fair for the girls to miss out, to be so excluded and not even given a chance. Without another thought I felt my hand reaching above my head and waving slightly to get ‘Sirs’ attention. My question was clear “Sir why can’t the girls go to this if they want to?” he stopped, went quiet and looked at me, then replied “well, the girls won’t want to go!”. Obviously, I had only one come-back “well I do!”

If I’m totally honest I wasn’t really sure why I did, the thought of trekking to the technical college back and forth twice a day on a Tuesday and Thursday for the best part of 2 whole years and in all weathers – was not what I thought of as fun! I was sure I never wanted to be a car mechanic in any way shape or form, however, I reasoned to myself that one day I hoped to be the proud owner of a car and maybe I could even learn to change a tyre or at least know different car parts if and when I needed to have work done.

It wasn’t until sometime later that I was informed that I was able to go on the course if I wished, as Mr McMillian had to go away and get approval for girls to attend. Not surprisingly, I was the only girl out of the whole year who expressed an interest in attending. The careers advice was very ‘defined’ in those days – jobs for girls and jobs for boys. Our careers day suggestions for girls were to become a nun or become factory workers, shop workers, hairdressers, secretaries/office workers, or if more intelligent, nurses and teachers. 

The nuns often came to the school and on one occasion had something of an open day with numerous nuns visiting, looking for converts to join them! In fact, I can still remember my classmate Deirdre seriously considering it.

I am afraid my options were limited – I didn’t want to be a nun. I did work in a local superstore for 3 months upon leaving school at 16 and really enjoyed it, until I was able to find work in an office; this environment I have stayed within ever since. I was extremely lucky as I have loved my career for the past however many years and continue to do so. I have worked for numerous companies both in the public and private sector. At one time I changed jobs every 3 years to ‘climb the ladder’ and learn new and exciting things. I have been surprised at the professions that exist that I had never even heard off as a 13-year-old girl and have been delighted to see both men and women in these roles as the years have passed. I cannot lie that I am still sometimes surprised (and really pleased) to see men within a secretarial role as in all my years of working I have only twice worked alongside a man as a secretary/PA. I will continue to challenge both the way I think due to my upbringing and I hope, the workplace I work in.

Today I also encourage my own 14-year-old daughter to be whatever she wants to be, to never sit back and not put up her hand. We all deserve to be included in the opportunities that are out there and undertake any career we choose.  

I am also the proud owner of a CSE in car engineering….

Written by Wendy Walker, Positive Actions Programmes Inclusion Coordinator

Midlands Leadership and Lifelong Learning

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