Give me the girl until she is eleven and I will give you the woman...
Neither Camilla nor I are that keen on religious schooling, but I had suggested before, only half in jest, that a good Jesuit-run school would be an attractive option. And now I've seen the closest thing I'm likely to see to this for girls, in an Open Day visit to one of Oxford's private preparatory schools. Its "Christian foundations" are Church of England rather than Catholic, but it combines the pursuit of academic excellence with a high level of pastoral care. (There doesn't seem to be that much actual religious instruction, but there is a school chaplain, shared with the high school.)
First of all, there were none of the negative vibes we got at the other private girls prep school: no "damn the torpedoes" attitude to single-sex schooling, no denial that bullying could be a problem, and no attempt to sell education like a financial investment. The facilities are excellent: a recently refurbished modern building with well-equipped rooms, surrounded by large gardens. (Perhaps the most attractive part of my visit was, while drinking coffee on arrival, watching a group of reception(?) children in the distance, happily running around the garden despite the miserable weather, possibly in an early recess or in some kind of lesson.) The students I saw all seemed happy and involved and the staff all engaged. Two year six children showed me around, and in the course of the tour I chatted to two temporary teachers, there for just one year.
The school seemed quite pushy academically, for my taste perhaps too much so. The Early Years teacher was proud about having a three year old who could read (they have a nursery and pre-school as well), the year five and six maths classes are streamed, the older children have forty minutes a day of homework, and so forth. (They were a bit apologetic about the homework situation but said they had to prepare the children for what the high school would expect of them.) There is specialist French, music, and science teaching, but the school also offers swimming, drama, dance, and a vast array of sports — if she went here we'd never need to take Helen to another swimming lesson or dance class. And there's a range of after school clubs. (They support 7.30am drop-off and, with some extra fees, 6pm pick-up, and even take boarders in years five and six.)
There was no mention of Oxbridge entry or alumni networks, and they did mention collaborating with the local state elementary school for concerts and performances, so it seemed a bit less insular. But there's a relatively small student body (240), which seems to have been moulded into a tight-knit community, using "families" to create vertical relationships cutting across age classes. So the first response to my question about bullying was not that parents would be involved but that that the whole school would be involved. And the response to questions by other parents about the selection criteria for entry into later years suggested to me that the school genuinely wasn't going to test for narrow academic performance (as they said, "gaps can be filled in"), but for suitability for integration into the school community. This would obviously include predisposition for an academic education, but also broader considerations — I can see how a ten year old who already had a non-conformist streak might have problems in this kind of environment, no matter how academically inclined they were.
I'm not convinced that this is what I want for Helen, but it remains an option if other alternatives don't work out.