Welcome to St Paul's School for Girls
St Paul's is a unique school. It was founded in 1908 by the Sisters of Charity of St Paul the Apostle and 110 years later still retains the same sense of community and excellence built on faith and tradition. Our conscientious, determined and expert staff are still highly committed to the words of Mother Genevieve Dupuis: "do your very best for the children". In their vocation as teachers they do their very best for the children, fostering high standards of teaching and learning, nurturing pastoral care and spiritual and moral guidance of the girls.
Catholic Life permeates all aspects of the school, from the fabric of the building to every lesson and activity that takes place. The school is firmly grounded in the mission and heritage of the trustees of the Sisters of Charity of St Paul the Apostle, and the mission of Mother Genevieve Dupuis, ‘Do your very best for the children’.
This is a school with very high expectations of pupils and staff. It also provides impressive pastoral care and high-quality support for all who need it.
I am so happy that I chose St Paul's. It is such a privilege to go to such a wonderful school.
In 1908, what was happening then? The Queen Mother was a little girl of eight, growing up in a castle in Scotland. The country was at peace, with King Edward VII on the throne. Only very rich people had cars. To get around Birmingham you had to go in a horse-drawn omnibus. Many children still left school at the age of 12 and it was very rare for girls to go to university. So, it was a really special day for girls on October 07 1908 when the brand new St Paul’s School was officially opened. Bishop Ilsley was there with various members of the clergy, sisters, local celebrities, and the Old Hall – the only hall then – was filled with plants and flowers. The opening ceremony included two musical items by the pupils, and the band of St Paul’s at Coleshill played. What was it like to be a pupil on that day? Here is a memory of one of them: “As the opening hour drew near, there were in Vernon Road, one or two motor cars, but numerous cabs, carriages and victorias. His Lordship, the Bishop, and the other guests passed into the hall. As Form 2 opened off the Hall we were not allowed in there, so as soon as we had sung a hymn and our presence was no longer required we were sent to the Science lecture room, now the Library, without a teacher and told to be very quiet. No child spoke or left her seat. I shall always remember that dead silence, such self-control. There were no books to read. Maybe the silence lasted for an hour, but the memory of that silence has lasted for fifty years.” And so began the journey of St Paul’s through nine decades. Great success came in the first decade. Prizes were won. The school was inspected and was declared to be providing excellent education. There was fun, too. On special feast days Mother Emilia used to wrap and throw caramels from the balcony to the pupils in the Old Hall. The more agile the pupils, the more caramels they scooped up. Perhaps we might ask for this custom to be revived.
Six years after our grand opening, in 1914, war broke out between Britain and Germany and involved the whole of Europe. The men going to war sang such jolly songs as ‘Pack up your troubles’ to keep up their morale. But almost exactly ten years after the opening of St Paul’s, in November 1918, came a great day. Sister Perpetua had started a class in the new subject of Domestic Science. A pupil remembers: “The class’s interest was unflagging – till 11 November 1918. At 11 o’clock the Armistice was signed and Mother Emilia, greatly excited, rang, not one bell, but two bells, one in each hand, long and furiously. The students ran out of their practical Cookery lesson – such was the jubilation and relief that the war was over.” After the war there was a new feeling of freedom for women. St Paul’s girls could look forward now to having the vote. Hair and skirts suddenly grew shorter, even at St. Paul’s, as recollected by Evelyn Newberry, a pupil from 1918 to 1924. “We wore a panama hat in the summer, and a blazer, and in winter we had navy coats, and felt hats, scarves and woolly gloves. Our gym slips were ‘just below the knee’ – a great concession, - and so that we were ‘quite respectable’, we were tested individually by one of the sisters by kneeling down so that the bottom of gymslip touched the floor.” The pupils may have worn gymslips in the 1920s, but there was no gym. They had a lesson called ‘Drill’, which consisted of ‘Arms stretch, knees bend, etc’. They also had a long bench with a strip of wood along the top. They walked along this and jumped off at the end, remembering to bend their knees as they jumped.
The Thirties! And by 1933 St Paul’s was celebrating its Silver Jubilee. The House system was well established, the four houses being Loreto, St Joan’s, St Agne’s and St Teresa’s. As well as sports, they competed for trophies like the Study Trophy, the Neatness Trophy and the Order Trophy. The school diary shows that House Meetings were held every month, and on the Feast Days of the various Houses there were parties, even fancy dress parties. At this time there were some boarders at the school. The Convent next door had not yet been built, and the Sisters and the boarders lived at No. 16 and No. 18 Vernon Road. It is recorded that the boarders had midnight feasts and that one of the priests from the Oratory came round and told them ghost stories. Edith Spooner, writing in the School Magazine in 1933, was pretty dismissive about the school stories, which were being written at that time. She writes, “There are no bullies in modern schools who twist the arms of younger girls and blackmail them, and also, there are no sneaks. Such girls went out of fashion long ago.” The boarders especially looked forward to the feast of Corpus Christi. “Resplendent in cotton dresses,” one wrote, “we were transported by taxi to Selly Park Convent. There we changed into our white dresses and joined in the Mass and procession round the beautiful gardens. After that we changed back into our cotton dresses. We were escorted to a tram and let off at the terminus in Rednal. The time was then about 2 o’clock and we were given a bag of sandwiches and a shilling piece. From then on until half past five we were truly free – no sisters to watch, or guide, or scold. They must have been as glad of the break as we were! We inevitably gathered at Collins’ fair and spent our shilling on merry-go-round rides or hoop-la’s. The sisters always knew where to find us for our tram ride back to the city, with our noses and arms burning from the sun: it is strange, but in all those years I cannot recall one feast day being rainy.”
At the end of August 1939 we were called back to school where Sr Veronica, the headmistress, told us that those pupils whose parents wished, were to be evacuated within 24 hours to a secret destination, which turned out to be Hereford. We were issued with gas masks and instructions to carry them with us wherever we went. The welcoming Hereford householders took us into their homes and war was declared the following Sunday. However, battle did not commence immediately so after the winter we returned to Vernon Road to a school with reinforced walls on the corridors and adhesive paper darkening the window as a protection from shattering glass. Soon the Battle of Britain began in earnest with lessons being interrupted by the air raid warning signal – not always unwelcome to those who had not done their homework. “The real horror of war came home to me with the quiet sobbing of a friend in class who had heard that morning that her only brother had been killed in action.” said a pupil remembering those days. She recalls: After a few months of picking our way to school through a bomb scarred city we were evacuated to Shropshire and there we stayed till 1942 when the tide of war changed and it was safe to return. Back home a Girls’ Training Corps was formed and a handsome cadet officer gave us drill practice. We helped gather in the harvest near Coventry, and as Sixth Formers we were allowed to fire watch at school. Many a night I spent asleep on a bunk bed in what is now Miss Allan’s office after having made the required patrol of the premises checking that no doodle bugs or fire bombs had been dropped on the building – a very responsible job which yielded 10 shillings, now 50p, a night in payment.
The 1950s was a time of expansion at St Paul’s. There were about 450 girls at the school by now. The first day of each term was a little different from the way term begins now. At 9:30 the whole school would walk up to Mass at the Oratory on the Hagley Road. Miss Jordan, a teacher from those days, remembers: “The return to school along Hagley Road involved a cat and mouse act to prevent stragglers descending on the sweet shops. There was a leisurely break time – then tutors met their new forms. Girls had not been told beforehand who their new tutors would be. Cheering was heard from some rooms as an acceptable member of staff arrived.” The building was really much too small with no specialist Music or Art rooms. There was no changing room for PE. Also the playing field at that time sloped towards the reservoir – this had one advantage in that it made life difficult for visiting hockey teams unused to playing at an angle! Long before the 1950s, pupils from St Paul’s had been travelling abroad. During this time Mrs Hogg, the Head of Modern Languages, took parties to Brittany. One former pupil recalls that the holiday was packed with interest: “We watched the parade of Breton costumes through the streets of Quimper, swam in the sea in the rain, and climbed up to the Abbey on the top of Mont St. Michel. Although I have been to Brittany several times since, that first visit has always been special among my memories and sowed the seed of my great love for travelling.” In the 1950s all girls wore hats. Indeed the School Council got approval for straw boaters to be worn in the Summer for the Third Year upwards. These were considered very stylish, but were not very comfortable. They also gave the St Philip’s boys travelling to town by bus, great opportunities for tipping the hat over the wearer’s eyes! If the wearing of hats sounds very old-fashioned to us now, the school was moving with the times in other directions. The Hall, which in the 1950s meant the Old Hall, was used for lunch-time Rock ‘n’ Roll sessions. This apparently meant that many of the dancers were exhausted as afternoon school began!
By the beginning of the 70s the school had expanded considerably. There were new Art Rooms, Science Labs and a Sixth Form Common Room, as well as the New Hall and the Gym. Sadly, though, the Common Room and a number of classrooms were destroyed by fire in November 1973. This memory is from one of the present teachers, then a pupil: “I think I was in Year 8 when, coming down Montague Road one morning, I saw a wisp of smoke rising up behind the trees. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny’, I thought, ‘if school burnt down?’ It had – and it wasn’t funny! Sixth formers were walking up and down corridors crying because all their work had been destroyed; teachers were in a panic and there was scary excitement everywhere. I remember the calming, solemn influence of Sr Josephine as we squeezed into the Old Hall, said a prayer and made arrangements to go home. The smell of smoke in U4 lingered for years.” A year later one of the greater events in the school’s history took place – a visit from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, on 12 September 1974. All the girls were packed into the Old Hall, with the Sixth Form looking down from the windows on the top corridor. This is what one of Mother Teresa’s co-workers wrote: “We made our way to St. Paul’s Convent, Birmingham for lunch, followed by a visit to the attached Grammar School where Mother made a tremendous impact. One moment the hundreds of girls were chattering like magpies, the next moment, when they realised Mother was there you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Then came the applause and the smiles. Flowers were presented, in fact Mother’s path seemed to be strewn with flowers that day, each gift being placed on an altar to the honour and glory of God.” She spoke to the girls in a gentle, quiet voice but every word could be heard and there was a sense of stillness in the Hall that had never been there before and never quite been achieved since. Two months later, on Remembrance Day, 11 November 1974, the school had its very own trumpeter to play the Last Post for a special Remembrance Day Assembly. Once again the windows on the top corridor were opened and the sound of the trumpet came down to the Hall below.
The school entered the 1980s with Sr. Agnes, only the fourth headmistress in all the years of the school’s history watching over us. This piece of 80s music, Police with Sting ‘I’ll Be Watching You’ makes us think of her as she stood in the corridor doing just that. With Sr Agnes’ support and encouragement the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award became an important activity in the school. One past pupil remembers a day when she was chosen to take part in the Shropshire hills on a very chilly January day in order to have a TV interview with no less than Prince Edward. The details of this adventure make amusing reading, including the description of Prince Edward’s bodyguards who sported two-piece suits and lace-up shoes. But the highlight of the day was when the prince, ‘in true chivalrous style, offered to carry her rucksack’ – and she let him! Not only was the school in the forefront of all the most up-to-date educational developments, its community was widening out considerably to reflect the rich diversity of the community in Birmingham. The Irish and English had always been well represented at St Paul’s, and Polish, Ukrainian and Italian families had joined them. In the 1980s, St Paul’s received great enrichment from girls of the Afro-Caribbean, Vietnamese and Asian communities. In 1984 a Multi-cultural Mass was held, which celebrated this diverse cultural heritage. This is how it is remembered by one of our present teachers, then a pupil: “The practices were like a modern day version of the Tower of Babel, with everyone practising their parts of the Mass in their own languages – French, German, Russian, Polish, Vietnamese, Italian, Urdu, Spanish, etc. How God was going to make any sense of any of this was beyond me! Yet, there was a profound message, that, even though we had different cultures and languages, we all belonged to the one Father, the God of all nations and all peoples. The Mass while it highlighted our diversity, also confirmed our common identity, faith, heritage and tradition that we all shared in this school; and we knew that although we might never be able to speak our friend’s language, or dance with her grace and elegance we would always be united, and take pride in being a ‘St Paul’s Girl.’
On into the 90s and the school’s ninth decade. In 1990 we said ‘Goodbye’ to Sr Agnes – but she began a whole new connection for the school with Romania. A former pupil – another member of staff today – tells us how much the girls loved Sr Agnes, despite her sometimes formidable presence. Her memory is of the staff pantomime, which featured every fairy tale they could think of: “At the end of this pantomime, masked kidnappers appeared at each door of the New Hall and Sr Agnes was stolen away, only to be returned when the ransom demand had been paid. I remember everyone turning out their pockets and doing their bit to make sure Sr. Agnes was safely returned to us. Then we said ‘Hello’ to Sr Thérèse. As far as we know Sister has no connection with any firm of builders or architects but once she came, we certainly got used to a new style of hat around the school. We now have state-of-the-art Science Labs, Drama Rooms and Technology Rooms. We have a wonderful suite of Computer Rooms for Information Technology and Business Studies. I wonder what those girls of 1908, who watched the ladies and gentlemen arriving in their carriages that October morning would think of it all? Yet, in spite of the changes there is one thing we think they would recognise -–the spirit of St Paul that binds the community together. In December 1998, Sr Thérèse left St Paul’s to become the Generalate of St Paul’s community. Miss Mary Holland was Headteacher for one term until Miss Angela Whelan took the reins at Easter 1999. Together with all the staff we have seen the school gain specialist status, a new building, an accolade as an outstanding school and a wonderful celebration of its centenary in 2008. And what is that spirit that, through all the ups and downs of the life of the school, has somehow or other permeated the 90 years of its existence? I think we need to look at our patron, St. Paul, and see what he says. In one of his most famous letters he wrote: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
On 17 December 2007, the Archbishop also blessed a second foundation stone in readiness for the new building which the school has been eagerly anticipating for many years. This building will replace the 30 year old 'prefabs' which were erected as a result of a fire and also as a temporary solution to the expanding school population. The popularity of the school was due to its continued success in preparing and educating young women to take their place in the world. A service of blessing took place in the school chapel to give thanks for all the opportunities that the pupils and staff have been given as members of the school community. It was also to express deep gratitude to the Sisters whose vision and dedication brought this school into existence and who continue to support it today, 100 years later. The service was celebrated in the presence of representatives from the Sisters of Charity of St Paul, including Sister Therese Browne, a previous Headteacher and now the Generate of the order. There were also governors, architects, builders, past and present members of staff, and pupils. The newly formed Centenary Choir gave an uplifting performance of Love Divine. After the service, the Archbishop met with members of the School Council and members of staff.