Journal Volume 4 2004
Lead, Kindly Light? Education and the La Touche Family (continued/8)
By the time Brannockstown School first opened its doors, the structure of the National School system and employment conditions for National School teachers had improved overall from the early days. Salary scales were being provided, together with contracts of employment. Teachers had also achieved pension rights and teacher-training facilities.
It was a different picture on the Secondary School scene. Reports in1838 and 1858 urged support for secondary education, on the basis of an extension of the mixed denominational schooling principle in the National School system. But the various churches were opposed to it (e.g. Catholic diocesan schools were seen as formative for future clergy). So schools just continued on a private basis until the State agreed to fund denominational second-level education. That did not happen until 1878, with the passing of the Intermediate Education Act. The Act permitted the State to give indirect funding to denominational secondary schools by establishing an examination board which disbursed funds to school managers on the basis of success rates of their students at public examinations (Coolahan).
Teaching at secondary level, however, remained a largely amateur and unattractive occupation for most of the nineteenth century. There were neither regulations concerning teacher qualifications nor formal training availability. There was no inspection system, no structured salary scale, and no security of tenure or pension rights. Education was not seen as a means of achieving social equality and anyway, secondary schooling was considered very much the preserve of the professional and merchant classes. For most people, the main concerns were still about survival. All in all, the situation reflected a general lack of concern about secondary education in Ireland. This, then, was the scenario when, in 1880, the Council of Alexandra College, Dublin, appointed Miss Louisa La Touche as Principal.
Alexandra College, Dublin
In 1880, when women's role in society was considered very much to be that of wife and mother, Louisa Digges La Touche was appointed Lady Principal of Alexandra College. She was the daughter of William Digges and Louisa L'Estrange-Carlton and granddaughter of James of Sans Souci. Louisa Digges was the first to hold the position of Lady Principal, for which she was chosen from among thirty-nine applicants, eight of whom had been selected for interview. She succeeded the Lady Superintendent, Ann Jellicoe, who had been given the task of remedying “defects in the existing education of women, and to afford an education more sound and solid ... and better tested, than is at present easily to be obtained by women of the middle and upper classes in this country”. Sound principles from the College Council, but Louisa inherited a College that was deeply in debt and losing money on its university courses, one of the main reasons for Alexandra's existence in the first place. By 1884, a very successful year in terms of examination results, there was a deficit of £438 11s 8d. Miss La Touche explained one of the problems in her evidence before the Educational Endowment (Ireland) Commission two years later. An agricultural depression had meant fewer pupils from the country. Parents were telling her, that with money running low, they had to educate the boys and had no money left for the girls whom they had to take away from the College.
Given the serious financial constraints, Louisa's term of office was considered a remarkable time in the history of the school, according to the school's historians, O'Connor and Parkes. Certainly the list of developments achieved during her time at Alexandra (1880 - 1890) was impressive, including playing a major role in establishing university education for girls in Ireland, first-class academic results at both intermediate and university level and, at the other end of the scale, in 1889, a Frobel-inspired kindergarten class for the very young which admitted boys. Louisa was also responsible for the first Students Day and starting up the Shakespeare, Choral, Art, History and Music societies. She introduced cookery courses and even a Callisthenics class in 1886. O'Connor and Parkes acknowledge that she recognised the handicaps and difficulties faced by girls seeking to prepare themselves for a changing world and left no stone unturned to enable them to obtain equality of opportunity.
Miss La Touche was one of the founder members and Vice-President of the Central Association of Irish School Mistresses. Seventy ladies, representing most of the Protestant schools for girls, attended the first meeting in 1882, held in the Provost's house at Trinity College, Dublin. The Association was set up to improve communication and standards and to promote the interests of girls regarding the intermediate and university examinations.
Louisa's leadership has been described as “quiet, determined and supportive”, possibly a reflection on her own character. She was, like her grandfather, full of religious and missionary zeal, once encouraging her pupils to contribute towards the education of a local child attending a mission school in Zanzibar. £5 was raised and the child renamed Alexandra in gratitude. This was the start of the Missionary Society at Alexandra College. And when Miss La Touche had completed ten years as Lady Principal, for which she had received an annual salary of £150, she left Ireland to work at the Delhi Mission in India. After a few years there she was taken ill and returned to Ireland.