Degree Speeches
Summer 2002

Julien E L Harvatt

Public Orator, Professor John Feather, presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Congregation held on the morning of Friday 12 July 2002.


Education is fundamental to the well-being of society. Its purpose is not only to prepare young people for earning a living, but to prepare everyone for every aspect of life. From playschool to PhD a good system of education will help children and adults alike to discover and exploit their talents; it will, to revert to the root meaning of word, lead people out by equipping them with the tools with which they can explore themselves and the world around them. Education, however, is about more than the development of individuals. It is about gaining an understanding of how people relate to the society of which they are part; learning how to work together both in cooperation and in competition; and learning how to function in a multi-faceted community in which there are necessarily many conflicting interests. What we learn is important, but learning how to learn and learning how to appreciate and use what has been learned is just as important.

Schools lie at the heart of this critical process. They are the only part of the educational system which is experienced by everyone. On their success rests the success of all of us. Schools may fail for many reasons, but they succeed for one reason only – the quality of the work of those who teach in them. This University is honoured to honour a distinguished teacher.

Julien Harvatt was born in Sheffield, where her father was the Head Master of City Grammar School. She herself was educated at Sheffield High School where she was Head Girl. She then went to Westfield College, a college of London University which existed to promote the education of women. She read for a degree in German; it is alleged that she chose that language rather than French because French was too easy! Her choice of career was never in doubt; she returned to Sheffield to take a Diploma in Education at the university there. Her first post was there too, but after a short time she moved across the Pennines to Bolton School where she taught in what was then called the ‘Girls Division’ of that foundation. It would be wrong, however, to think of Julien Harvatt as someone whose life revolved only around German irregular verbs. She was an enthusiastic and skilful tennis player, and had already developed two other interests which were to remain with her for the rest of her life – travel and music. Indeed her musical and linguistic interests came together in a life-long passion for Wagner.

By her early 30s, Julien Harvatt was well established in her career, and a headship was in her sights. But the headship which came to her was an astonishing testimony both to her achievements and potential and – perhaps more surprisingly – to the vision of those who appointed her. At the age of 34, she became Head Mistress of Loughborough High School, a place with a firm claim to a pioneering role in the education of women, for it is the oldest girls’ grammar school in England. She was to remain there for the rest of her career.

She did not come to Loughborough at an easy time. The High School, like Loughborough Grammar which is the boys school in the same foundation, had just taken the bold decision to become independent following the end of the direct grant system. The decision was controversial in the town, and confronted the new Head with many issues not faced by her predecessor. The school she found was largely staffed by teachers considerably older than she was. But she won their support, not least because it soon became obvious that the new Head Mistress was a remarkable woman. Her energy and enthusiasm were boundless; her commitment without limits. The school was her first and sometimes it seemed her only concern. It was said of her that she had a ‘tendency to speak her mind’; the understatement belies the passion with which she promoted what she believed to be necessary, defended what she believed to be right, and opposed what she considered to be wrong. Yet beneath the sometimes stern exterior there was always a woman to whom pupils were not mere examinees; they were people not numbers. ‘Does Miss Harvatt never forget a name?’ one of them once asked. No – she does not.

The physical transformation of the High School was one of the outward symbols of her time there. The corridors when she arrived retained much of their Victorian appearance – a few years later they would probably have had a preservation order slapped on them. Miss Harvatt swept away green wall tiles and red floor tiles; paint, wallpaper and carpets made an unprecedented appearance. But standards did not slip in the face of such softness. Indeed, they did the exact opposite. Julien Harvatt arrived in a school which was facing an uncertain future both educationally and financially. She tackled the first with gusto, believing that the solutions to the second would follow. A school which many girls left after GCSE – as O-level was just becoming – was within a decade to be one in which virtually every entrant went on to university, and which was consistently in the top handful of schools in the league tables which she despised but could quite never forbear to quote. The success of the school led to an increase in pupil numbers, and further physical transformations. As one building project succeeded another Miss Harvatt added to her skills those of an adept Clerk of Works whom contractors were ill-advised to treat lightly.

Providing a good environment in which to learn was however only one part of the enterprise. It is typical of her that as a member of the Council of this University, her concerns focused on student services. At the heart of her work there was always a passion for the education of her pupils. Her own contribution to this never ceased – she continued to teach German to the end of her time at the school. What happened in the classroom was of course at the centre of things, but life beyond the classroom door – and indeed the school grounds – was never neglected. Music, drama and art flourished with her support and encouragement. Sporting achievements – not least in tennis – were outstanding. And girls from the High School are always to be found supporting good causes in the town and far beyond. Indeed, her sadness at the inevitable end of boarding at the School reflected her concern that there would be some loss of the sense of community. That there was not is another tribute to her leadership.

Indeed she is a natural leader in all that she does. On holiday in Egypt with her widowed mother and a friend, the party decided that they must visit St Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai. Air-conditioned minibuses were not an option. The three mounted their camels with other tourists, each beast led cautiously by a male guide. Or – to be precise – each beast except Julien Harvatt’s. She rode through the biblical wilderness and up the mountain not merely with no guide to lead her camel, but at the head of the procession. No girl who has passed through Loughborough High School would be remotely surprised to hear that story.

But the greatest tribute to her lies in the thousands of women of distinction in the professions, in business, in the arts and in the public service for whom their years under Julien Harvatt’s firm but benevolent guidance laid the foundations for their careers and their lives. In the end, for any teacher, that is what really matters.

Therefore, Chancellor, I present to you and to the whole University, Julien Elisabeth Lindsey Harvatt for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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