Commemorating VE Day 75

Today marks VE Day, commemorating 75 years since the end of World War II. The day had been planned to be a huge coming together as a nation to celebrate the sacrifices of the generations who fought to protect our freedoms, who took the monumental steps towards building the global community we are part of today. Today’s celebrations may not include the pomp, ceremony and fun that we had hoped for, but that does not mean that we are not able to celebrate and give thanks for the scarifies of our grandparents and great-grandparents, and to those of the wider BGS alumnae community.

This current challenging time has given me time to reflect and consider in some ways of what it must have been like living through the immensity of years of war. We can draw some parallels, and we can start to imagine just how incredibly hard it must have been and consider how fortunate we are. Whilst we all are currently adjusting and living in different more challenging ways, we have the power of communication to keep us connected, plentiful delivery services to keep us well fed and a vast array of entertainment tools to occupy the long evenings; we have the power of modern medicine, an incredible global scientific community working together for solutions and vast supply chains aiding recovery programmes. It was the sacrifices of the generations before us that led to the creation of the world that we now enjoy and although we are in an exceptional time of crisis, I believe we must take time to be truly thankful and genuinely reflect on their sacrifices.

I also believe that we have the opportunity to learn from them and now adopt a bit of their spirit, both during lockdown and the challenging times ahead that will come, as lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted. We will need to dig deep, find extra energy to readjust, accept compromise with grace when we realise that life will not return to our expected normality and do all we can to help put the country back on its feet as quickly, and carefully, as we can. As a school community, this will require each of us to continue to commit and engage to the tasks in hand, to try to give your best even when you are distracted and feel disconnected, and to remember that by taking this responsibility seriously  we are collectively helping create a better world, not only for now, but for further generations to come.

Message from our Staff

Like all of you, I am missing the site of Cardington Road in full bloom and full with the buzz of the students and staff in the corridors, but I am hoping that you are all well and safe. We must count each day spent at home, as a day sooner to being together again.

I am receiving such inspiring feedback from teachers, and students, from the first week back to learning. I am in awe of the levels of self-motivation and the incredible number of different strategies that you are using to fully engage in your lessons. I know this takes huge effort and self-discipline and I just want to remind you not to be too hard on yourselves.

We are bombarded through Twitter, Instagram posts and podcasts with a plethora of top tips from home hair styles to perfect meal prep, exercise routines and how to handle remote learning. Most of the advice is very well intended, some is very helpful, but it can also make us feel a little out of control, and that we are underachieving. We are not getting super fit, taking on a huge new project or reorganising our bedrooms. I want to just ask you to stop and breathe.

Now is not a time to be hard on yourselves, now is a time to focus on the small successes and to celebrate the little achievements at different points in your day. Don’t worry if a glitch in technology means you miss a bit of lesson or you can’t complete all of the Maths questions. We are still here to help you with that. But please do celebrate the fact you finally understood the chemistry equation that has eluded you for so long, or that you made dinner for your family and walked the dog in beautiful sunshine. Just celebrate that you are coping with each day and recognise that some will be easier than others. At each step of the way, you are learning new skills and most importantly learning about yourself. When this is over we will build a new normality together and all that we have learnt on this journey will help shift and shape our community. Just embrace where you are today, I am so very proud of you all and look forward to keeping in touch with you as the next few weeks unfold.

A message to our students

By Miss MacKenzie (Headmistress) and Mrs Howe (Head of Junior School)

We want to say how proud we are of you all. We know that these are uncertain and anxious times and that we are asking all of you to step far out of your comfort zones.

You have reacted to these challenge with extraordinary calmness, maturity and a sense of responsibility. We could not be more impressed.

Your teachers have been working behind the scenes for weeks to prepare for this situation; we hoped that we would not have to implement these programmes, but we all knew it is better to be well prepared. As of Monday, your teaching will look different, but it will be engaging and challenging. You are expected to follow your set timetables, but be reassured that your teachers will still be with you every step of the way to support you.

You all have the technical skills to handle the remote learning tools and the flexibility and creativity to work in different ways. You will be building knowledge and skills, and by the end will feel a huge sense of pride in what you have achieved, but there will be hiccups and moments that you will struggle. You will need to be determined and resilient.

By staying at home and being a responsible independent learner, you are helping to limit the spread of COVID-19; you are playing a critical role in helping the Government’s effort and it is important that you take that responsibility seriously and follow all the guidelines.

We will continue to open school only for students whose parents are key workers in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. We need to support these students too, they will be having a different experience to many of you at home and as a community we must support each other.

We want to reassure you that we and all of your teachers are here to help you. You might not see us in person but we are here, and you can contact us if you need to. The world is going to seem very strange for a little while but when we are in uncertain times, we can all support each other and reach out to support those in our wider communities who will need help and kindness.

We know you can rise to these challenges, we know that you will take your responsibilities seriously.

Good luck, stay safe and we look forward to hearing how you are all getting on.

Why being kind matters

I have always believed that a community should be kind towards one another. When mistakes have been made, we have to acknowledge our mistakes and instead of being punished for them, look to see how we can make it better.

I was therefore saddened to read in the paper last weekend that kindness appears to be in decline. Analysis of annual surveys of American college students showed a substantial drop from 1979 to 2009 in empathy, and the ability to imagine the perspectives of others. Its not just that people care less, they seem to be helping less too. Achievement and happiness of individuals seem to be more important drivers than concern and care for others. Being kind in a fiercely competitive world can be seen as a source of weakness.

Overemphasising individual achievements may breed competitiveness, with a resulting decline in compassion. But I don’t think focusing on one obfuscates the other. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests generous people earn higher incomes than that of their less generous peers. This may be because the meaning they find in helping others helps to broader learning, deeper relationships and ultimately to greater creativity and productivity.

Neuroscientists have found that generosity activates rewards centres in our brains. Being kind to others improves our mental well-being. It stops our obsession with ourselves as we are encouraged to look outwards rather than inward. Evolutionary biologists observe that we are wired to help others, indeed Darwin wrote that a tribe of people who “Were always ready to aid one another would be victorious over most other tribes and this would be natural selection”.

Of course, we should be encouraging pupils in schools to do their best and to take pride in their work, but kindness doesn’t require sacrificing these aims. To me the real test of a good school is not what the pupils achieve in a set of examination results, but who they become and how they treat others. By emphasising the importance of kindness and the joy of its reciprocity, we are not just setting up our girls for success, we are also setting up success for the people around them.

The Inspector Called

Every six years an inspector calls. The phone call on a Monday morning, whilst often expected, still sends a nervous ripple throughout the school community. For all good schools, that nervousness stems from a concern that the inspector’s report may not reflect accurately the true spirit of a school, it may not capture the ethos of the school, and it may not understand or appreciate the educational philosophy of the school.

No school is perfect. We all have blemishes and imperfections and it is these blemishes, alongside its outstanding features that help shape the school. What you hope for is that the inspector sees past the blemishes and captures the energy, the dynamism, the joy that takes place in the classrooms and the corridors. It sees past the not quite perfect display board and sees the skill, the hard work and the care all staff show, not just the teachers towards the pupils.

What you hope for is the inspector, like an excellent teacher, brings out the best in the school. The inspector by treating the staff, parents and pupils with kindness and respect encourages us to share excitedly what we do well. The inspector in asking intelligent questions draws out the informative answers that help build a picture of the school. An excellent inspector has the skill to get under the skin of the school, to appreciate it for what it is and to capture the essence of this in its report.

This January we had such a team of inspectors. From the moment they walked through the door, they showed warmth and friendliness towards us all, they were genuinely interested in what we were doing, they asked taxing questions and gave us the opportunity to show them all the things of which we were proud. They demanded the best from us and we gave it. It was a privilege to be in such a community and in return, we have a report that captures the magic of BGS.

The World Described

Every so often in a school you find a bequeathed work that, for some reason, has remained out of sight for decades before being rediscovered. This happened to us a few months ago when we found Herman Moll’s The World Described Atlas. It had been stored away in a cupboard, forgotten. As a geographer, I was blown away by the discovery of this amazing atlas. To see first-hand the exquisite work of Moll’s cartography, and glimpse the world Herman Moll occupied during the early 18th century has been a privilege. The atlas signified to me, how the world moves forward, and made me consider how we respond and adapt to these changes. It also made me think about our responsibility in owning such a significant and historically important piece of work.

Over these last few months I have thought long and hard about this responsibility. Selfishly, I would love to keep the Atlas in school, but I know we don’t have the facilities to look after it properly. Under our care, I know this magnificent piece of work would deteriorate, and with this thought, we met with book and map experts to consider our options. With each meeting I came back to the original sentiment behind the bequest.

When Mrs Norma Wilkinson, a Dame Alice Harpur School Geography teacher, sadly died in 1968 the Atlas was given to the school by her husband, so that her memory and love of the subject could be cherished and imparted to future generations of students. Sadly, the book is very fragile, we cannot allow the girls to touch it nor can we let light damage it, the book would continue to be locked away for few to see. In doing so, we are not being true to Norma’s memory. By putting the proceeds from today’s sale towards the Geography department, and investing in a high-tech weather station and reproducing the maps for our walls, we can remember Norma, as she would have wished, through the study of the subject she adored.

As the hammer went down this morning, although I felt a moment of sadness to think I would not to have another glimpse of those exquisite original pages, I know for Norma and the study of Geography at BGS, we have made the right decision.

Remembrance through words

27th January is Holocaust Memorial Day. A day marked in the calendar to remember the six million Jewish, Roma, gay and disabled people who were sent to concentration camps by the Nazis, to be either gassed to death or to work in work camps where their life expectancy was less than six months.

This year, 2020, marks the liberation of the largest of these concentration camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, 75 years ago. The footage of its liberation by the Russian soldiers is still as horrifying today as it was when the soldiers first entered the camp.

Yet genocides continue, with equally horrific examples from Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Genocides don’t just happen. They start with divisive language, they continue with divisive political rhetoric which is amplified in the media and these days targeted on social media. Our role as educators is to challenge these prejudices, to call out the inflammatory language and get the students to reflect on what happens when humans are dehumanised by others.

This week, at BGS, as the Holocaust Memorial Day approaches we have taken time to reflect. All the girls in the senior school watched a short film produced by the Holocaust Memorial Trust. They were then given images and a moment to reflect, to collect their thoughts and come up with five words that represented their feelings. These words were given to a group of Sixth Formers who used them to create visually the thoughts of the community.

The resulting artwork is simple, it is compelling, it is stirring. Words in Times New Roman font cut out onto a white column with light shining through the words. A collaborative effort and work of Art, reminding all of us of the pain and cruelty we can inflict on others, reminding us of the importance of kindness in a community and reminding us of the power of words for both good and evil.

The art work will now be displayed at the Higgins Gallery in Bedford, and I hope in time we can translate the paper structure into aluminium and have a permanent sculpture in the school signposting to the girls the importance of respect, individuality and kindness.

The Power of Advocacy

This week I attended our seventh Giving Forward final. It is an advocacy project set up in the school, by our Charities coordinator, Miss Heather Dawson (Biology Teacher, CAS & Service Coordinator). Girls in Year 10 have to make a pitch to a panel explaining why their local Bedfordshire charity should be given £1000.  In the time that the project has been running over £10,000 has been donated to 20 different local charities in Bedford and the surrounding local community, helping to support a diverse range of social issues.

For me, the beauty of this project is that it encourages our students to engage with a local social issue that they feel passionate about and in doing so inspiring them to make a difference to their community. It also offered them the opportunity to develop skills which can be applied across the curriculum, in higher education and the work place, such as research, leadership, collaboration and public speaking.

Miss Dawson introduced the event and spoke movingly about the power of the student voice. A year ago, she gave a whole school assembly, which began with a photo of Greta Thunberg.  Not many in the assembly hall could identify Greta but a year on, after Greta spent three weeks protesting outside the Swedish parliament, demanding that the government undertake a radical response to climate change, she has become a household name. She now has over 2.9 million Twitter followers and has become a global star, speaking to the media, the UN and numerous governments and empowering and inspiring a generation about Climate Change, but at her heart she is a teenager who is passionate about an issue.

Miss Dawson reminded the girls about Amika George, the teenage student who founded the #FreePeriods organisation. Amika was at the forefront of persuading our government to fund sanitary protection for school age girls to avoid them missing education. Last year, this inspired one of the Lower Sixth Campaign Challenge groups to highlight period poverty and donate sanitary products to The Red Box, who worked with Amika in launching her campaign.

Miss Dawson ended her introduction by saying “The media is intent on showing that the young people of today are self-obsessed, that they are not accepting of the differences of others and are not willing to give their time and energy to support those who are less fortunate than themselves. At every step of the Giving Forward process, I have seen the exact opposite, and by the end of this evening I hope you will feel as proud as I am of the passionate and caring young women here this evening”.

As a member of the panel I was just that. Incredibly proud of the girls’ passion for their charity, incredibly proud of their commitment and incredibly proud of their conviction. They fought for their cause to be awarded the money; they realised the power their charity had in changing lives. As a school we want  our girls to be bold, we want them to stand up for what they believe in, we want them to have the self-belief that they can make a difference to other people’s lives. On Monday night, the girls certainly did that.

The Power of Social Media

I am very much aware of the power of words and the power of images. As a Head telling teenagers don’t often means they do. Telling teenagers not to use social media doesn’t stop them and ignores the benefits that social media can bring. So, it was with great interest that I attended a workshop, run by The Female Lead, at the recent GSA Heads’ Conference that addressed this very issue.

The Female Lead commissioned a data science company to analyse the social media accounts of thousands of UK teenagers. They found that the majority of teenage girls’ social media accounts fixate on beauty, a diet of fashion and celebrities, following stars not for what they did but for what they looked like. Amongst this group when asked who they thought were the 50 most influential celebrities, 72% of their names were male.  However, for those girls who followed at least two powerful women on social media, 80% of their top 50 of the most influential celebrities were female. A significant shift in mind-set.

Their research found that if you offered teenagers a diverse range of female role models to follow on social media, it transformed how they engaged across their channels. By following powerful female role models, they began to describe themselves in more positive terms, using words such as ‘aspire’, ‘dream’ and ‘enthusiast’. They began to see social media as a means for education and learning. Their algorithms began to change and started to flag up a greater diversity of content, as they began to link themselves to organisations that resonated with their passions and convictions, reinforcing their self-belief and positivity. Instead of following celebrities that made them depressed, by their focus on impossible looks, they followed role models who shared their passion and aspirations, and offered exposure to new viewpoints and perspectives.

This has made me think, it is time to disrupt the social media feed. As a Head, as teachers, and as parents we should be introducing positive female role models that our girls can follow on Instagram and Twitter, making positive use of the platforms that all teenagers are using. By offering a diverse range of role models, it would help them connect with women who had the potential to inspire, drive their ambition and build self-esteem. It would enable us to have discussions about what these women are saying and doing, allowing our girls to believe that they too could be like them.

I would like to recommend two powerful female voices to follow. Samantha Power former US Ambassador to the UN, academic and human rights advocate: @SamanthaJPower (Twitter), @samanthajpower (Instagram) and Jude Kelly, CBE, theatre director and Founder of the Women of the World Festival: @JudeKelly_ (Twitter).

Role Models

This week Year 5 have been thinking about role models. They have explored the town of Bedford looking for blue plaques and finding out more about local role models. They were particularly delighted to meet the mum of Etienne Stott, 2012 Olympian gold medal canoeist. They struck up a conversation and hope to hear more about his story on becoming an Olympian in future weeks from this chance encounter.

Later that day, in the dining room, a Year 5 student asked me who was my role model. My immediate thought was my mum because she has been the constant voice of reason throughout my life. But I realised that our life is influenced not just by one person but by many. I have been lucky; there are many people who have shaped me, impressed me, people who have I wanted to be like, whose respect I have wanted to earn, whose voice I have listened too and whose ideals have influenced me.

It made me recognise how important it was for each and every generation to have role models. I reflected these thoughts to the Year 9s at their weekly assembly, asking them who were their role models and indeed reminding them that they too were role models for each other and for the younger girls on the hockey pitches, in the school play, in the music performances and in the classrooms.

So it was with sadness that I read a report recently written by Geena Davies, an American actress, who was bemoaning the lack of role models for her young daughters. She has set up a charity If she can see it, she can be it which was in response to watching movies with her young daughter. She was staggered by the woeful depiction of women in family movies. They were often invisible on the screen and their roles were largely to serve and support the male characters without any identity of their own. To illustrate her point she watched the top 100 grossing family films and found that for every female speaking character there were 2.5 – 3 male characters. Women spoke for 36.3% of the time and only 22.5% of the women portrayed on screen had jobs. Of all the speaking characters 30.8% were women and even in crowd screens women were largely invisible making up only 17% of the crowd.

If girls can’t see it, they can’t be it. Damming statistics show the more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in life. When women appear in film as role models the number of women wanting to study that career rapidly increases. ER increased the number of women wanting to work in emergency rooms in hospitals; the Scully Effect saw a dramatic increase of women in forensic science, as a result of the long serving TV drama the X Files.

I was reminded of a recent visit I made to the Science Museum, in London, where I only found one image of a woman in the whole museum. If girls can’t see it, they can’t be it. This is why I believe so strongly in girls’ schools; they are surround by female role models, not just amongst the staff, alumnae and the wider community but also amongst themselves. We believe all of our students are role models, we show them how to believe in themselves and to recognise that their skills and experiences provide positive models to others; as I reflected on my conversation with the Year 5 student I smiled knowing one day she would be a role model to many others.