Antonia Beary, headmistress of Mayfield School, talks about the importance of role models & installing confidence in today’s young women


To get to Mayfield School by car one must wind one’s way down single track roads, up and down hills, and past fields of ponies, before high on the hill, just before the entrance to the extremely charming Mayfield village, is the funny rural combination of astroturf and ancient buildings that denotes a school is in sight. Mayfield, in East Sussex, was founded in 1863 by Mother Cornelia Connelly, admitting girls aged 11-18, day and boarding. They stride purposefully from building to building in their checked kilts and navy jumpers, chattering away with that teenage urgency.

Mayfield’s headmistress, Antonia Beary, emerges from her office, a welcome smile spreading across her face. An English teacher by trade – her favourite is Shakespeare, and specifically Hamlet – next year, she’ll have been at Mayfield ten years, first as deputy head and now as headmistress. After reading English at Trinity College Cambridge, she taught at The Leys in Cambridge, and then Ampleforth, where she worked during its transition from boys only to co-ed. But now it’s girls, girls, girls. “Girls can do, and do do better, in an all girls environment,” she says briskly. “Girls education doesn’t have to be pink and fluffy – you can be rigorous, you can be challenging, and it gives the girls greater confidence to be making more informed decisions.”

What I don’t want is boring. We don’t do boring. It’s a cardinal sin to be boring

Whether you agree with this or not, it certainly seems true of 17-year-old Amanda and Chelsea, who show me round. Between them, they do everything at Mayfield – and there’s a lot to do. The art department is especially impressive, currently full of sixth form girls’ work, as they prepare for art school interviews. The works sitting on shelves in the art department look very much like they could be sold at Sotheby’s. Apart from art, there’s sport in spades: netball, tennis, dance, and swimming, on top of a traditional gym, a purpose built equestrian centre, opportunities to train as a lifeguard (and be paid for it too), plus Zumba classes, fencing and badminton. The music department runs chapel choirs who perform in cathedrals across the country, orchestra and string groups; inside the thriving drama department girls can opt for Speech & Drama lessons via LAMDA. Head girl Chelsea works within the chaplaincy, too.

Ah yes, the Catholic element. This is “really important” to Miss Beary. “We’re a Catholic school and it is important. All are the girls Catholic? No. Are all the staff Catholic? No. Do we beat them over the head with bibles? No!” She laughs. Mayfield is not super churchy, even for a Catholic school. There’s whole school mass on Sundays, morning prayers in tutor groups, and year groups meet for liturgies during the week. Some schools choose to focus on mindfulness; this, Miss Beary says, is “secular religion. There’s a great value to it, but the drawback is when it encourages you to become completely self-absorbed. What’s important is that sense of looking beyond yourself, and I think there is a tendency for teenagers to be focused on themselves.” 

Mayfield School

Making a difference

Running a girls’ school comes with a huge amount of responsibility, in this day and age. Education is about far more than academia, and, increasingly, about feminism. I wonder how Miss Beary dealt with the recent #MeToo debate. “We are educating girls to go out and make a difference, to go out and be confident in themselves, and if we’re not preparing them to deal with men and boys, and even women in the workplace socially then we’re not doing our job properly,” she says. Her duty is to give them “the confidence to not be precious, to accept people as they are, and not accept behaviour that is disrespectful of anybody. I hope they would have the confidence to say that [something] is not acceptable, and raise it at the time. I hope they would have the confidence to support other people.” It all comes down to respect – “for yourself, for other people, engaging with people on a one to one level, saying ‘I’m not happy with this’.” The key to it is confidence: “I hope that’s what we are instilling in them – not just to jump on a bandwagon.”

The school has 400 or so girls, with about a half and half split day/boarding. Increasingly, parents are coming from London with their daughters, says Miss Beary. “We’ve got parents who didn’t board themselves, and hadn’t thought about boarding before coming to look around. Because we’re flexible with boarding, it’s not as frightening as they think it’s going to be.” Not all girls are west London expats, far from it – “we have boarders who live in Mayfield itself, and an international element which is really important, of 20/30 different nationalities.” Diversity is key, she says. “There are a lot of schools in this area where it’s just white middle-class girls and boys. They’re good schools, but have no range. I think it’s really important for the girls to go out and perform on a global stage, to see the sense of different perspectives, different political environments, culture. The world we live in is struggling [because] too many people spend too much time with people like them, and are not confident in building bridges. We’ve got girls who are princesses, and girls on 100 per cent bursaries, there’s a whole cross section.”


Some ponies clip-clop past, in front of the astro-turf, where girls are playing hockey before lunch. It wouldn’t be a rural girls’ boarding school without an equestrian centre. The one at Mayfield has tailor-made livery packages, an indoor and outdoor menage, a cross-country course, and opportunities for girls to compete if they wish. “People make assumptions,” says Miss Beary. “Oh, they’ve got horses so they must be nice girls who just did riding. Yes, they ride, but they also do maths and chemistry and ceramics. It’s one part of the whole school experience. There is nobody who just does riding. If all you can talk about is horse then you’re really boring.” 

Mayfield School

What the two girls that show me round have in spades in confidence – that priceless key element that comes with independent school education, but is so often difficult to pinpoint. “It’s a balance,” muses Miss Beary. “We need to be really wary of a sense of entitlement. I think some people presume that an independent education can lead to arrogance, and to ignorance in some ways.” This manifests itself in particular ways in girls’ schools. “For girls, there is that worry… you can do it but you may not be able to do everything at once. That sense of feeling like you’ve failed if you’re not the perfect mother, and the perfect boss, and the perfect wife. You can be those things, but you might not necessarily be able to be all off them at once. There is no shame in saying, ‘I’m going to focus on this now.’”

Mayfield girls have an inspirational headmistress. She smiles, looking out of her office window at the girls filing past before lunch. “What I don’t want is boring. We don’t do boring. It’s a cardinal sin to be boring. There are too many things happening here for you to be boring, it’s not allowed.