Physics in Schools

Earlier this week I met with a group of Physics teachers from a range of schools to discuss how we can encourage more pupils, particularly girls, to study Physics beyond GCSE. It led to the inevitable question of what factors influence subject choice?  Is it the accessibility of the subject? Is it the passion of the teacher? Is it the relevance of the subject or the joy of understanding the subject matter?

The discussion was part of a joint initiative with the GSA and Institute of Physics called Physics Partners. Physics Partners is an educational charity that gives free expert hands on support to Physics teachers in the state sector. It was set up in recognition that there is a huge shortage of qualified Physics teachers and as a result Physics teaching is, far too often, left to newly qualified or non-specialist teachers who may not have the in depth knowledge or skills to teach Physics successfully.

The charity deploys expert Physics teachers to go into schools to help train non- specialists to give them the confidence to inspire a demotivated class, regain their interest and provide future physicists who, in turn, will be inspired to return to the classroom. We are proud to be part of this charity and over the next year we will be working collaboratively with other schools supporting non- specialists with their delivery of Physics.

There is no doubt that an inspirational teacher is key and the group of Physics teachers we met had this quality in abundance. Yet they all noted the number of girls studying Physics beyond GCSE was small.

Whilst not wanting to appear smug BGS has a very healthy uptake of girls studying Physics, but what became apparent from our discussion is the unconscious bias that exists in the delivery of Physics. This bias is one of many factors which stops girls studying Physics.  The unconscious bias was most noticeable in textbooks where the images used are primarily of men. Men in racing cars, men playing sport, men working machines. The images of women in the text books are largely of women on phones, their long hair affected by static. The application of Physics focused on areas that would traditionally interest boys, the famous physicists all being men.

We all need role models. If we can see these images in text books, we unconsciously feel it is not suitable for us. If a subject is dominated by male images then girls feel excluded, and vice versa. In an all girls’ school we can counter this bias. In lessons, Physics can be applied to areas that interest the range of girls we teach, female focused material can be used, we have female role models, younger girls see older girls studying Physics and our alumnae return to discuss the plethora of interesting careers linked to the study of Physics.

Physics Partners is trying to break down these stereotypes and make Physics more accessible to all. We are excited to be part of this programme, our experiences and materials in the classrooms can be shared and I hope, it inspires a growth in both men and women studying Physics beyond school to be role models future generations of students.

Falling Forwards

Last Friday I attended the farewell dinner for the 2017 cohort of Upper Sixth IB students. It was a joint occasion for the IB boys at Bedford School and the IB girls at BGS.

The evening marked the beginning of a number of events where we reflect upon the achievements of our pupils as they make the transition from one stage of their education to another.

As a Head, these occasions cause you to think what message should the different cohorts hear to help them make a difference to the next stage of life they are moving onto. What advice can we as adults give to them to help them mature into the much needed, balanced citizens of the 21st century. On YouTube there are numerous clips of valedictory speeches and guests of honour sharing with audiences what they have learned on their much travelled routes to adult hood.

Denzel Washington, in his valedictory speech to graduates of University of Pennsylvania, urges students to fall forwards. Everyone at some point in their life will fail, at some point in their life will lose or embarrass themselves but with every failed attempt, he argues, you are one step closer to success. By making mistakes, embracing failure and not quitting, not falling back but falling forwards, will bring you greater success in the future. Everyone has the talent to succeed but do they have the strength to fail?

In schools we focus on success but we also need to recognise failure. Coping with failure is as important as striving for success. Resilience and perseverance are skills that need teaching and encouraging and it is only through failure that these skills can be learned. My pride in this IB cohort is that in their two years they each have experienced their own disappointments, their own personal setbacks. Their resilience has been tested but they have fallen forwards not backwards, they have picked themselves up and become stronger.

As Aldous Huxley said: “Experience is not what happens to you: it’s what you do with what happens to you”. The 2017 IB cohort have certainly learned from their educational experience, they have been tested and come through. On Friday night they were rightly proud of their achievements and appreciative of what they had learned in the process. I could not ask for more.

It’s a Marathon not a Sprint

This weekend I watched, in Cambridge, the start of the race called Wings of Life. The race is run simultaneously in 23 countries raising money for people with spinal injuries. At midday GMT runners across the world set off on a run and keep running until the chase car overtakes them. It means you can run at a casual jog or at an ultra-marathon pace and all be part of the event.

As I watched the participants who had prepared for the event I was reminded of our pupils lining up for the start of the examination season. Preparing for exams, to me, is no different to preparing for a marathon. Both events are long, and for both events you need a positive mind set when obstacles come your way. In the case of marathons, it is the inevitable wall, in exams the difficult question you were not anticipating. However, with both, it is the preparation and training before the event that gets you through. It is the time invested in the earlier months, to building up the fitness, the stamina, the perseverance, that makes the race easier. As Oprah Winfrey says “running is a great metaphor for life – you get out of it what you put into it”. The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.

On race day itself, with the training behind you, it is the cheering and support from the crowds that helps to pick you up when you are feeling jaded. It is the applause, the encouragement, the taking on of fluids and nutrients that see you through. During the exam season, the family plays a vital role in cheering on their daughters, picking them up when they think a paper was a disaster, feeding them nourishing food and encouraging them to keep to their work plan. Like the marathon, exams are a team event and that is why the finishing line for both is a moment of great pride and joy. All the hard work and all the training paid off.

As I watched families supporting their wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons at the start line of Wings of Life I wanted to cheer on all our pupils lined up on the metaphorical start line of examinations at BGS. I know they have prepared thoroughly and prepared well. Their training and continued positive mind set will see them through.

I also thought how much I wanted to be on the start line once again and would encourage any member of the BGS community out there to join me for the next Wings of Life race in May 2018.

Celebrating Kindness

Last week I read a blog by Linda Stade on Girls and their Frenemies. It considered the potential destructional influence of friendship groups on adolescent girls’ behaviour.  Psychologists call it “relational aggression” and it may include exclusion, gossip, the silent treatment, belittling or conditional friendship. The need for wanting to be included in a group, to fit in, even if it means adopting a mean manner, can make some lovely pupils behave really badly.

I have seen this played out in countless generations, including my own, where part of being an adolescent is trying to find your place in a social network. Impressing and belonging are very important. Boys traditionally use physical strength and humour, girls use communication and interpersonal skills.

It is important to remember that meanness fundamentally comes from a place of fear, a fear of not belonging or not being good enough. As they go through puberty not all adolescents have the language, confidence and emotional intelligence to reflect and stop it. However, it is learned behaviour and learned behaviour can be unlearned; adolescents need role models who are modelling appropriate behaviour.

Linda Stade recommends that we make friendship “cool” by talking about the great qualities of our friends, verbally celebrating their greatness rather than niggling about their weaknesses.  We need to be good role models, we must teach kindness, compassion and empathy and we should teach children to be up standers, and supporters of each other.

The very next day, after reading Linda’s blog, I listened to our Sixth Form Leadership Group’s final assembly, led by our Head Girl, Anna Hunt, where the girls did just that. They celebrated the achievements of the School and their peers. They recognised and applauded individual girls in the community who they felt deserved praise. From the lacrosse team, to the individual who encouraged the Sixth Form to bake cakes, to the girls who took part in House Glee or the girl who stood up in the Sixth Form assembly, and encouraged her fellow sixth formers to get involved with a fundraising campaign.

The Leadership Group celebrated not just each other, but others in the school community. These role models made it “cool” to say kind things to one another and when the School left the assembly so many more girls left standing prouder than before.

Being kind to one another is fundamental to a successful community and it made me proud that our school community understand the value of this principle.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. In an all girls’ school, free from gender stereotyping and unconscious bias, our pupils find it difficult to imagine what it is like to be discriminated against because of their sex.

In our school, they can be who they want to be, they can tread their own path, seek out their own identity and be free from sexual harassment in the school playground. Most of all, they are not judged because they are women, and they believe they are entitled to success if they work hard.

By the age of 18 they are empowered and when they encounter unconscious bias for the first time at university or in the work place, they are indignant and stand up to fight for their rights. They do not shrug their shoulders and accept the discrimination, because they have not experienced it countless times at school. One alumna, a Maths student at Imperial College, tells the story of being the only woman in her Maths class. She noticed, in her first year, that the boys checked her sums, no one else’s, it was assumed that because she was a woman she would make mistakes. She gave short shrift to these boys and went on to get a first in Maths.

Another alumna noticed in her Politics tutorial, boys kept interrupting her when she spoke, or tutted at her comments. She was taken aback and instead of allowing their behaviour to condition her to become passive, she continued to be a voice and went on to represent students at the student union.

We have come a long way. When I was their age at school in the 1970s it was still legal for husbands to have unconsented sex with their wife, it was accepted as being fair that a woman should earn a third less for doing the same job as a man, and it was not unusual for women to be barred from clubs, not to be served drinks at bars, or not be allowed to play at golf courses. It was also accepted as good practice that women could only get a mortgage if they had a male guarantor or be sacked if they were pregnant.

But there is still not equality in opportunity or in rights. At the recent Oscars ceremony, they were “celebrating” that women were the lead in 23% of Hollywood movies, in Parliament only 22% of women are MPs, 16% of women are high court judges, 12% are council leaders and 95% of editors of national papers are male. I am proud that we have a woman prime minister but very anxious that we have a male president who has legitimised sexist comments, denigrating women for their looks, calling women pigs, dogs, slobs, disgusting animals.

He is the worst sort of role model for young men on how women should be treated and how women then expect men to treat them. In a recent UK Girls’ Guide Attitudes Survey of girls, aged 11-21, the following was discovered:

70% said sexism is so widespread it affects most of their lives

61% had experienced people criticising their bodies

61% felt that when women are portrayed as “sex objects” it makes girls feel disempowered

This is why International Women’s day is so important. It holds up a light to the discrimination that is still taking place and I hope it encourages the strong minded, intelligent women we teach to continue, to argue for the rights for all women to be treated fairly, equally and to live their lives with dignity.

Community Living

At half term I went on the School’s first ski trip.

As a geographer I have run countless trips to some spectacularly beautiful places, trekking up to Machu Picchu, cruising down the River Nile, camping out in the Masai Mara, travelling at dawn to see the wonder of the Taj Mahal. Each trip has brought a unique set of memories that I still reflect upon wistfully. However, it was this latest trip to the snow-capped mountains of the Dolomites where I really appreciated the true value of school trips.

Yes, they provide the girls with lifelong memories and learning opportunities, yes, they offer a week of adventure and fun with their friends and yes, it is often the girls’ first experience of being away from home for longer than a few days. But what struck me most was that a school trip provides the opportunity to live as an extended family where you all have to work together and make compromises and adjustments. You cannot put yourself first, or do just as you please; how you behave and react affects the whole group.

For many girls the week in the Dolomites was the first time they have lived and shared with so many people. This very process required them to adapt, to listen, to work together and move outside of their comfort zones. To me the real success of a school trip is when the group become a community, looking after and caring for each other, putting others first and responding to their needs, not just their own.

Our ski trip brought out the best in each person. Girls looked after each other on the ski slope, at dinner time or in the hotel. Girls made people feel included and celebrated individual successes, and when we returned there were knowing smiles between girls and teachers as they meet in the corridor, reflecting the feeling that new bond had been forged and a special experience had been shared.

I share this feeling and in a world which is increasingly becoming a “me” culture, the value of the school trip becomes even more important, ensuring we embrace the importance of community at it’s very best.

Winning isn’t Everything

In many of my blogs I have extolled the value of sport; the skills, the attributes and the values that it instils in our girls.

Watching the Senior School girls play lacrosse at Cople Fields and the Junior School girls playing netball at Cardington Road, I am often reminded how sport teaches the girls resilience. When they fall over, they quickly get up, when they are losing, they dig in more and when it is bitterly cold, they move more quickly. It teaches them that the strength of the team is more important than the talent of individuals, and I was reminded that self-belief instilled by both teachers and parents drives them to greater heights.

We have had a super start to super to sport at BGS in 2017. Ranking third in the country for our sporting successes in all girls’ schools and 11th nationally, for all independent schools, is an astonishing achievement and rightly reflects the work, effort and motivation of our sporting staff. Equally one of our pupils winning the national U18 Hockey Writers’ Club Higgins group junior player of the year, won in the past by many of the hockey Olympians at Rio, is a much deserved and personal triumph. And whilst I am incredibly proud of the girls’ achievement, the email I received from a parent of an opposing team crystallised what sport can do in developing the character of our girls.

This particular parent had travelled from Marlborough to watch his daughter play hockey against our U14 team, the winner of the match would play in the National Schools’ final. It was fiercely fought, BGS did not give up, but on the day Marlborough were stronger. Our girls were despondent, losing is not easy, but what made them stand out in this parent’s eyes was their generosity in their congratulations and their grace in defeat. Sportsmanship is not always modelled for them in the professional arena, but it is in the School.

The girls picked themselves up, learned much from the game and were gracious in defeat. It is these values that sport teaches and why losing at sport is as important as winning.