All Rise: An Interview with Louise Ansdell

17 November 2019

Chair of the OHS Board of Governors, Louise Ansdell (1988) is a barrister specialising in family law with twenty-five years’ experience as a school governor. Last term, she joined Savannah Culpepper and Jasmine Willans (Year 11), and Viola Fordham and Jemma Davies (Year 13) for a chat.

What does a governor do and why did you want to become one?

The usual phrase for it is that a governor is a critical friend. This means you’re on the side of the school and you provide a sounding board for the senior leaders to say we’ve got this idea or this situation, can you take a look? And usually we find that they are all or most of the way there, so what we do is – are you familiar with phrase ‘kick the tyres’? That’s what we do: we check that everything is sound, asking the questions which will guarantee that, to follow the analogy, the new ‘car’ is safe to drive. The other thing governors do is act as ambassadors for the school, which we’re all able to do in different ways as we all come from different backgrounds and know the school in different ways. My background is as a lawyer, dealing with financial settlements on divorce cases and children in care, so I understand and can advise on both the business side of the school and the welfare side.

What has changed about OHS since you came here?

What I think is the same are the friendships and the teaching. There are still the same little groups you always get – the sociable ones, the quiet ones, the cool ones – but the emphasis at OHS seems to be on recognising each other as people, which is why you end up forming a relationship with most people in your year. The other thing is the teaching, which basically says you’re intelligent and you want to apply that, and we’ll help you do it. That was certainly my experience. I wasn’t at OHS all the way through and I hadn’t been very happy before then. I knew I was clever and I knew I was odd, and the oddness got in the way, but when I came here it was, ‘Well, you’re a person,’ and then it was, ‘Well, you’re a person who’s really bright and we think you should try for Oxbridge.’ And that worked. It was like coming out into the sunshine. And the friends I made here – we’re all still friends. As for the negative aspects, we didn’t ever think anything we did was naughty. We thought it was self-expression or self-determination. The important part is having the self-knowledge of knowing when to stop, to look around and say, ‘Do you know what? Yours is the best point, I’ll back down.’

How was the pastoral care at OHS during your time at school?

It’s not like it is now. But nobody talked about pastoral issues like we do at that time. In the 1980s, you went to school and you got on with it. Bullying wasn’t ever really named as such. You just managed it somehow. A great deal more is known now about pastoral care, about how pastoral care works, specifically for girls. And every member of staff, irrespective of gender or role, knows that, as do you yourselves – and, of course, with knowledge comes power. The flipside of that is the more you know about these pastoral issues, the more you think about them, which can actually give you more to worry about. I mean, you girls have got so much more to think about. You know the mark schemes, you know what grades you’ve got to hit, so there are vast amounts of information, which is helpful, but then it’s how do I test myself on that, where do I fit? You know a lot more and you’ve got to manage a lot more, and we didn’t have that and we governors admire and support you on that.

How did you decide upon a career in law?

I read Classics and English. So reading and analysis came into it. But also, because I love literature, there was something about family law which appealed to me – the leap of imagination you need to make in order to understand people’s motives and psychology. And being a lawyer is a really useful set of skills that you can take into lots of different situations. It’s a bit like being a historian. You have to acquire vast amounts of information, know how to analyse it, know how to order it and then know how to present it.

Another big factor in me choosing law – and I must add that this is not my recommendation for how you should choose a career, is that I was being bloody-minded. I wanted to do something difficult (which might itself be a bit of an Oxford High School characteristic!), I wanted to do something that was practical and I wanted to do something my parents didn’t know the least thing about. Since my father was in the City and my mother is a writer, law represented something that could be mine. Interestingly, to show how things come full circle, one of the other things I do now is chair the Trustees of a heritage literary house in Hampshire associated with Jane Austen, which has a wonderful library of women’s writing in a beautiful Elizabethan manor house in eighteenth century parkland. I got involved because It needed to change from one sort of institution to another sort of institution – and guess what? It’s books and it’s business, the two things my parents knew about, and it’s took me until I was forty-seven to think, actually, shall I just accept my genetic heritage?

What are some of the difficult cases you’ve worked on?

Most cases involving children are difficult, because any court case involving a child means something has gone wrong, something is unhappy or harmful. To get through that, you have to put on a sort of emotional mac, in order to keep going, because without it you’re no use to the people you’re trying to help. And I’d say that there’s about one case a year when a set of circumstances arise and you think, ‘I’m really going to have to hold this together.’ The hardest ones are where you’ve got a child with many disadvantages, disadvantages that nobody here could imagine, when a child has started life with no resources, no education, insecure housing, parents who’ve had a tough time themselves and so role-modelling isn’t there – so this child is really falling through all the cracks. And you get a case into court, and they say this family is not going to be able to provide a long-term home, this child needs to move and they need to be adopted – and that is such a fundamental issue, a child leaving their family, whatever family means – it could be same-sex parents, single parents, grandparents, whatever that family unit – moving a child out of that . The fight about whether that’s the right thing to do, that is the real challenge, and I’ve done both, where you have representing social services and you absolutely know this child cannot go home, this child cannot be exposed to this level of harm and manipulation. Then there are other ones where the case is, no way, this child is not going to be adopted, we have to show how the family is good enough. Those are the ones that you never forget, where you’ve got the forces of honourable, hard working child protection officials saying it can’t be done, it’s too risky, and you’re saying ‘what’s wrong with this grandmother, or what’s wrong with this great-aunt?’ Those ones, where you keep a child with their own family even if not with its birth parents, those ones are the big ones.

Are you always on the side of the case you agree with?

No, you’re on the side of the case you’re instructed to do. That’s what I mean about the emotional mac. You do also have a responsibility to advise, so if you’re briefed by Social Services, you can say to them, you might want to move this child away from their family and put them in foster care, but I have to advise you the evidence simply isn’t there.

Sometimes you have to perform in an argument you don’t entirely believe in. Your job is to do the best for your client. That’s where all this comes back to governing – because if something difficult needs saying, then you have to say it. Here, where the quality of people involved is so high, there is generally a very good answer to that question Honesty, openness and principle are so vital.

Are there many kids that come themselves and ask for help?

Very rarely, because usually we get involved when children are very young. I’ve been doing this job for twenty-six years and there’s one case which I can think of where that happened. It was a teenage girl who couldn’t settle to homework at home because it was so chaotic, so she used to collect her little sister from school and they would go to her friend’s house, so she could do homework, because she loved school and she was brilliant. It was a result of that the information got out about how bad things were at home, and then the battle in that case was because of systems and processes, which would have separated the two sisters. So we weren’t defending the right to stay at home, but to find a foster placement where the sisters could be together because obviously, as sisters, they were each other’s most important relationship, because the relationship with the parents was very fractured.. We all think that our upbringing and our parents and our family relationships, they’re the things that are going to propel us out into the world best, but a combination of my own experience and my professional experience, education is quite as important and in some circumstances more important than your family. Education matters so much, whatever that education is.

Could we set up schemes to help children in care?

That’s a brilliant suggestion. I don’t think I can answer that now. There are forms of outreach and communication this school does already.

Do you love your job?

No, I don’t absolutely love it. I like it a lot. It’s satisfying andI really like a good outcome. But of course I look at how many jobs there are now, jobs that just didn’t exist twenty-five years ago and you can’t help but think how interesting they look.

Would you ever considering changing career?

Yes. I don’t think I’d ever abandon what I do because it’s practical and it’s my profession. Alongside loving or at least enjoying what you do, there is the practical need to earn a living. It would be very easy to say I’d love to be a poet, to go to the Outer Hebrides and write, but I couldn’t do that right now. However, I also think that the more effort you put in, the more opportunities come to you and often they are the kinds of thing you really want. For example, ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted a shop. All the photographs of me as a four-year-old are of me behind a shop-front my dad built for me, a counter with shelves on the sides, and I played with that endlessly, I adored it. Then I got involved with the literary heritage house, and suddenly there it is: a gift shop. It was my sister who noticed it. She said this is your dream come true! You’re working with women’s writing in an Elizabethan manor house and you get to manage a shop. It’s a wonderful place to work. For example, the team might go round the house and identify a beautiful Delft tile from a fireplace centuries ago, and it is appealing. There is one showing an Annunciation, with a rather stout Virgin Mary looking like a prosperous merchant’s daughter and a rather bossy Angel Gabriel who looks like the good Burgher of a Dutch city and then the team might think about that for a Christmas card. The core thing is, I think, is you have to do what you love, or work towards what you love. That might not seem to make sense in terms of what I said about having chosen my career for reactive reasons, but I have loved parts of it and I have been supremely satisfied by it. You also just have to trust to the fact that, if you’re open to things and you work hard enough, then you will find a way.

What has surprised you about your career which you wouldn’t have predicted when you were our age?

One is directly related to my time at OHS, which is my experience of resistance and discrimination, because leaving here I felt, well, of course I’ll be able to do anything I want. And that’s because here the message was, you do what you want and your gender is irrelevant. But of course, once you leave, you do come up against bits of resistance, even now – for example ‘You’re young so we’re not taking you seriously’ – and that surprised me. When I first came to the Bar, women weren’t allowed to wear trousers to court. To do so, was political; you were making a statement about challenging the rules and some encountered active discrimination for it. Even after the rule changed, there was a prejudice against it, which I experienced myself at Lincoln County Court when the usher warned me beforehand, ‘This judge does not like female barristers in trousers.’ But this usher was great, because he said, there’s a work-around; yours is the second case on, so I’ll take the judge out for a cup of coffee, get you into court, and then the judge can come back in. So the judge didn’t even see the trousers because, of course, the Bar comes up to your waist. Now, the fact that my wearing trousers might have affected the outcome of the case is a travesty, but if it had been a choice between making a political statement and getting my case heard fairly, I would have changed my clothes, because the trousers ultimately mattered less to me than the outcome I was pursuing and the person I was representing. It’s easy to feel one’s principles mustn’t be compromised, but one thing I’d like to pass on is that t’s OK to deviate from the golden mean of ‘these are my principles’, if you can create a greater good by doing so.

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