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Remembering those terrifying interviews 17 years ago as Olaf’s Prep school headmistress ticks me off

Tom Winnifrith
Saturday 13 March 2021

If you have not tried to get your kid into one of those horribly competitive North London prep schools where everyone wants their brats to be educated, you have no idea just how competitive and nerve-wracking it all is. I am reminded of this as Olaf’s old HM from The Village School, an occasional reader of this website, ticks me off for my poor grammar.

The process involves interviews for the kids and the parents. Yes, three year olds really are interviewed. Olaf’s pal Julius, like her now almost twenty, was asked to identify a series of pictures. One he identified as a man. That was correct but the wrong answer, he was a clown. Julius failed to secure a place at that school.

At the first place we went for an interview, Olaf behaved beautifully but then myself and her mother Big Nose were asked to have a chat with the rather smug and snobbish woman who clearly did not expect to be challenged. We talk of this and that and, having been given strict instructions by Big Nose not to say anything controversial, I nodded politely and let Big Nose do most of the talking which she liked to do anyway. But then the HM strayed onto the subject of the teaching of history and starting yakking on about how it was important to put things in context of how society used to operate and how folks used to live, blah, blah, blah.

At that point I piped up with the idea that I thought teaching history should involve dates and important events as a skeleton on which our understanding of everything else could rest. I got one of those withering looks that folks who love modernity and despise the old ways give when meeting a dinosaur and the conversation moved on to some other matter. I stopped listening as I knew Olaf’s fate was sealed. And it was. I had failed her interview.

Next up was The Village School. I had very high hopes here because Olaf was, at that point, a charming and intelligent young lady, always polite to her parents and so a model candidate. More importantly, the headmistress, Mrs P, was the ex wife of my Godfather who was one of my father’s oldest friends, having taught with him at Eton. Notwithstanding her divorce from the man known affectionately as Vicious, she was very fond of my father. And thus, for two reasons, I thought that there was no way Olaf could fail.

As an added bonus, Mrs P’s views on the world are, as you might gather by her reading of this site, very sensible. For her, history no doubt includes 1066, 1588, 1688 and 1815 and is not all about how poor people were exploited by rich people who were all bastards. And so the interview was a walk in the park. Big Nose did her best to blow it by asking if the school followed the National Curriculum. I slumped in my chair showing disapproval as Mrs P explained that she used National Curriculum course work for 8 year olds on her 5 year olds but usually they found it too easy. For once, Big Nose decided it was better that I take the lead and so we went back to proper subjects such as my Father’s days teaching at Eton with Vicious and how wonderful Olaf was.

Natch Olaf was accepted and has never looked back academically. Which brings us to my ticking off. Mrs P comments on the article I wrote the other day about my family history HERE which she says, very kindly, was very interesting and something I should write up BUT….

Exceptional material, and with a few exceptions, well in this case one, (see below) you write rather well.
(One final revelation which might shock you is about Anna Lee. My grandfather was very fond of his sister but she was very different to him,

I can’t,  as Olaf’s HM and Head of English, refrain from reminding you that, grammatically, it can only be ‘different FROM’ never ‘different TO…’

We well-educated 50ies children were taught that the test, if in doubt, is to check the result when you change your construction to:

‘Differ TO’..   

 in the above case, it would become the surely unacceptable:

she greatly differed to him…)

Try extrapolating with some examples of your own, and see…

The fact that you read the solecism every day, including w/ends, in the Times & the Torygraph, is no mitigation. On the contrary…


I stand corrected.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
[email protected]
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