Elaine Dunford (née Robertson) was a headmistress at the Central Foundation School for Girls in the 1960s and 70s in Spitalfields, East London. The school had approximately 500 pupils, 30% of which were Jewish, the rest were notionally Christian.
As a teacher she was mesmeric and she insisted on teaching every class at least once a year, despite a heavy work load as Head, in an attempt to connect with every pupil. She was also a humanist and our assemblies were not the dry as dust events suffered by our non-CFGS friends.
It wasn’t that a concept of a god wasn’t mentioned, but presented in a different manner. She read us C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, The Diary of Anne Frank, Ruth First, and a host of other writing at the heart of which was always a moral message based on fairness and caring for others. We had jazz assemblies, we had poetry assemblies, sometimes philosophy ones.
Her humanist tenet was to live without theism or any other supernatural belief, in short: a life based on personal responsibility in which she aspired to the greater good. As far as one can see, she fulfilled that aspiration, certainly as far as her work at CFGS is concerned.
After her death in 2015 many personal tales of her time at the school emerged.
If pupils’ family situations were particularly difficult, or violent, she had them live with her for periods of time. Something that I found astonishing, and would have doubted the truth of, had I not met women for whom this had been the case. She also supported the families of girls who were having emotional or financial problems. All of this was done discretely and without fuss. Her friendships with some pupils extended long after they had left school and some were still in contact at the time of her death.
I often think that it must have been a hard path that she chose, to be openly humanist at that time. She never made any bones about it. She did of course have to attend church services – we were a school in the City of London, supported by a Worshipful Company with centuries of tradition behind us.
At a memorial that was held for her in 2016, a former pupil wrote the following. I think it says all that needs saying:
In person your elegance and poise gave us an example that we could aspire to and the intellect you imparted to us allowed us to move forward in the world in a way many of us would never have imagined.
You were caring when we were in trouble and in a world which often seemed to have an attitude that children were by nature ‘bad’ and needed that ‘badness’ worked or even beaten out of them, you believed that children were basically good. It is that caring, above all else, that has given you such a firm and important place in all our hearts.
In a world that, for most of us, had at least some dark places, you, as teacher, as Headmistress, but above all, simply as yourself, were a beacon of light. And for that, we thank you with all our hearts.