See the Bigger Picture

We encourage our girls to lead campaigns. They are the voice of the next generation and we help them understand how they can get their voice effectively heard. Since the formation of Bedford Girls’ School we have had a wide range of campaigns in which we have encouraged girls to get behind their student leaders to make a difference to the wider community in which they live.

Every Easter brings a change in Sixth Form leadership and the incoming Lower Sixth Girls’ Leadership Group leaders deliberate on how they would like their voice to be heard.

This year the campaign is titled Seeing the Bigger Picture. It is a bold campaign; the GLG want to encourage the school to think about others, to be considerate and recognise the strength of working in a community where human rights are respected and valued. The GLG understand that in having human rights they also have responsibility. They want, therefore, our school community to take these rights seriously. They want to educate the younger generations to understand their importance and what role the students can play in ensuring they are embraced across the globe.

Their #BGSseethebiggerpicture was launched in assembly last week. The girls were reminded that on a daily basis they were exercising their human rights. From the freedom of going on holiday, being able to climb into bed at night for well-deserved sleep, having  food on the table,  to most importantly being able to go to school where they will be not just safe but able to express their thoughts, conscience and religious belief. By being in school they were exercising a human right that countless of women across the globe do not have.

The GLG wants the girls to understand that we are linked to parts of the world in a multitude of ways. Individuals in the school have their own stories that link us to far flung places, and being part of an IB school, we are interconnected to people across the globe. It is this international mindedness of IB that encourages our pupils to think of people beyond the classroom. The GLG want to install an interactive world map in the school corridor with these links highlighted by string – a reminder that our influence is extended beyond the school gate.

It is important to see the bigger picture. Too often we are cocooned in our daily lives that we forget. I fully support the GLG’s campaign and look forward to the year ahead as it gains momentum.

Three Things That Matter

Last Friday (29th April) we held our biennial Performing Arts Awards Evening where we celebrated the success of our many performers.

Our guest speaker was Kay Michael, an alumna of Bedford Girls’ School. After obtaining a first in English and Theatre Studies at Warwick University, Kay has gone on to perform and direct a wealth of award winning plays around the country, most recently as Assistant Director at the Globe Theatre.

Kay spoke eloquently and put her success down to three things; hard work, being on time and being kind to people.  Hard work, I think, goes without saying. I have, in many of my blogs, extolled the virtues of hard work and the importance of developing a work ethic in our students of today. The other two factors were perhaps more surprising but on reflection I understood why Kay spoke about them.

Punctuality is an under-rated attribute. To me being on time is good manners. It’s about being respectful of others, not wasting their time as they wait round for you. It shows you are organised, thoughtful and lead a balanced life. People are often late because they try to fit too much into one day. As a Head it is something I am acutely aware of and, with each year, I’m trying to model a balanced life and not over-estimate what I can achieve successfully in one day.

And her last attribute – kindness. It costs nothing to be kind and yet its worth to people’s self- esteem is immeasurable. Girls at BGS work hard to create a culture of kindness. It is important to them. Every day we see random acts of kindness across the community, the girls know that one day they may be the beneficiary of that kindness. People matter, being kind to people is the cornerstone of a civilised society.

Three simple things that reminded the girls that talent alone is not enough. Three things that I think are relevant for all walks of life; they are not reserved for just the Performing Arts.


The Need for Sleep

Sleep. Often underrated and often the lack of it is used as a badge of honour for the amount of work people do.

When I used to teach, girls boast to me that they had stayed up all night completing their coursework, they wanted recognition for their effort and felt proud that they had given up the one vital thing needed for the brain to operate effectively, sleep. My response was not what they wanted. Instead of recognition or admiration they were admonished. To me it reflected poor work habits.  They had left the work so late that a heroic effort was needed to maximise the use of their limited time. It was poor learning.

In my role as Head, however, I have been aware of how I have worked very long hours and worn that heroic badge, particularly around report writing time. But as I worked into the small hours, the efficiency with which I worked deteriorated each hour. I took longer to read, longer to write and needed longer to stay up. Hence my interest in a Radio 4 programme, The joy of 9 to 5, where they looked at the impact of working long hours and how ineffective we become once we work beyond 50 hours a week.

For every hour past that time, the efficiency declined to such a significant extent that the hours were ill spent. They argued convincingly that it would be better to go to bed and get some sleep and do the work in the morning. You were wasting time staying awake.

Arianna Huffington is leading a sleep campaign. She regularly worked an 18 hour day to be successful, yet she was not thriving. Sleep deprivation, she says, is affecting our creativity, our productivity and most of all our decision making. Yet despite the evidence highlighting the physical and cognitive need for sleep, lack of sleep has become our symbol of success.

In today’s work culture we measure, mistakenly, success by the amount of time rather than the quality of time we put into our work. The longer the hours you work, the longer you stay at the office and work all night, the more dedicated you must be and therefore a better employee. What is not considered is the quality of work that results. I do sometimes worry that some of the treaties and trade agreements that are agreed late into the night would have been more effective if they had been considered after a good night’s sleep.

Increasingly at school we are considering well-being. I know I am better at my job and feel less strained if I have had a good night’s sleep. My well-being significantly improves. Listening to the debates on sleep I am now more ruthless with myself. I have stopped working at a set time to get the proper hours of sleep my body needs. In order to get the work done I am more focused and procrastinate less. I have found with more sleep this has become easier. We need to ensure the girls understand the advantages of taking this disciplined approach.

As Huffington says: “Too many of us think of our sleep as the flexible item in our schedule that can be endlessly moved around to accommodate our fixed and top priority of work.”

I am beginning to realise sleep has to become my top priority in order to do my job well. I have signed up to Huffington’s campaign and am now encouraging the girls to do the same. Sleep deprivation, especially around examination revision time, can only impede their progress. A good night’s rest will enhance their cognitive performance and I am all for that!”


Effortless Perfectionism

Effortless perfectionism is damaging young girls and young women. In trying to be the best in society’s eyes they are effectively burning themselves out. At a recent conference in New York Rachel Simmons described effortless perfectionism as being “the need to be smart, maintain good grades whilst remaining well rounded, pretty, desirable and well liked and accomplish all of this without any visible effort”. Beyonce’s song Flawless sums it up.

The definition of a successful woman has not evolved, it has just been added to. Be successful in work, be a good wife, a helpful mother, look good, be fit, be at the gym at 5am, be gluten free…the list goes on and on. Young girls today have an additional conflict – how they should appear at day is different to how they should appear at night. The girl she has to become at night repudiates the girl she is during the day. She feels she has to put away the high achieving girl to make men like her at night. She transforms sensible for vamp; it is little wonder she struggles with her identity and self-worth.

The toxic message of Effortless Perfectionism is the belief that there is somewhere out there better than you. Girls live in a constant sense of deficit, developing a core of self-criticism. Unfortunately in the development of girls’ adolescent brains they see negative feedback as being something wrong with them, whilst the boys see the negative feedback as being something wrong with the system, or the person giving the feedback. Boys dismiss failure more easily and therefore take more risks, girls will ruminate over failure and avoid taking risks.

So as Heads educating young women what can we do? We need to name it and ban “Miss Perfect”. We need to model to the girls failure. Let them know that we have failed in various different ways, we are not perfectly curated narratives. Success is attainable but the pathway to it is often very messy. Most of all we need them to seek out support, to ask for help. The more perfectionist they feel they have to be, the less likely they are to ask for help. If they understand that failure is good, indeed necessary, the less they will fear it and the more they will be able to bounce back.

My list of failures are large. I have a top ten list but I have learned from them. I know I am what I am today because of them. The more girls understand and learn from their failure, the more confident they will be in who they are, and I hope the more they will allow their authentic voice to be heard.

Making a Difference

It is rare to attend a lecture where you are both inspired and shocked by the words that you hear.

But this is what happened to me at the recent NCGS conference where I heard Dr Kakenya Ntaiya speak about her experiences of growing up in a Masai village in Kenya. She told her story, simply but honestly. I was humbled by what she has done and inspired to do all I can to support her cause.

At the age of five Dr Ntalya was engaged to be married. She was prepared to be a wife from the age of eight. At the age of 13 she was prepared in all sense of the word to become a woman. In her village it was a rite of passage, one she had witnessed many times. A celebration where her clitoris was cut – we call it female genital mutilation. As a Masai woman she was not allowed to cry, to show pain and the wound had to be allowed to heal naturally. A wound that many women die from because infection takes hold.

After this experience women were expected to take on their husbands. Dr Ntalya was different. She had seen her mother regularly beaten by her father who returned home once every two years, to establish his authority over his wife. Dr Ntalya did not want this life. She had had some education and wanted to be a teacher. She was fortunate to be offered a scholarship to study in the USA. One cannot underestimate the power of this woman in rationalising with the elders in the village to be the first woman to be allowed to be educated in another country.

She arrived in USA and attended lectures at NYCS. She had never seen snow or heard of many of the foodstuffs Americans eat, but what threw her the most was the lecture where they described what happened to African women – she saw it as a rite of passage, in America they described it as mutilation, a theft of fundamental human rights, an illegal act. Three million women every year cut in this way. She wanted it to stop in her village.

She returned to Kenya and spoke to the mothers to send their daughters to her school. A boarding school – not a day school – because she knew that girls walking to school every day would be in danger of being raped and their mothers blamed. By setting up a boarding school, she could protect the girls and give them an education. She believes in changing lives, one girl, one school, one village, one country can lead to momentous change.

She’s an extraordinary human being. And whose cause of women’s education I will do all I can to support.

Hug The Monster

I first heard JoAnn Deak speak at the GSA Heads conference in London a couple of years ago. She spoke eloquently about the brain and how it changed its wiring through adolescence. It was not surprising then that I was looking forward to hearing her speak at the NYCGS Conference last week. She did not disappoint.

This time JoAnn’s focus was on the seven core characteristics that were crucial to the development of the individual, which gave girls the armour to meet the challenges of the world. The characteristics were not surprising (temperament, grit, resilience, confidence, competence, introvert/extrovert, sympathy/empathy) but the power of her talk was in reminding us that girls hated struggling. When they make mistakes it goes to the embarrassed and shame part of the brain, the left part of the amygdala. She reminded us that our role as educators was to encourage them to make mistakes – it should be prized by the school, because the more mistakes they made the more robust their brains became. We should encourage them to “hug the monster” and do things they do not like, over and over again.

What struck me was the language she used. She said the level of panic the girls felt when asked to do things they were not confident of, was associated with pain, the equivalent pain of being stabbed by a knife. It was not surprising then how girls avoided it at all costs. Despite this, we needed girls to face these challenges early on, and the more we can do it in a safe, all girls’ environment, the better suited the girls will be to the modern world. Grit was the best predictor of success in life and we needed to ensure that girls were given every opportunity to practise it.

JoAnn felt that grit and resilience were developed by girls doing something meaningful outside their own skins. Engaging with community service developed their self-worth and, done properly, was transformational for girls.  Her message was loud and clear, allow girls to fail, do not be judgemental and give the girls the confidence to be leaders of change. Once again I applauded JoAnn Deak’s words of wisdom.

Why Does Sport Matter?

Often in my blogs I have stressed the value of sport to a girl’s education. Sport, to me, has never been an add-on, nor do I view it as a means to coach girls to an elite sporting status. I see it as being fundamental to their learning and health.

This week, in my capacity of Chair of GSA Sports, I attended the Professional Association of Directors of Sport in Independent Schools annual conference, and listened to Nick Bitel, Chairman of Sport England, speak. He re-iterated why independent schools should care about sport, drawing on Public Health England’s research that found that young people’s participation in sport led to an 8% increase in numeracy in junior schools, and in the senior school pupils attained 10-20% higher GCSE scores. Sport promotes positive academic attitudes, better attendance and homework completion rates and improved memory and concentration.

These figures do not surprise me. I know that the girls who engage in sport have to be organised, disciplined with their time, know how to work collaboratively and, importantly, understand that failing leads to resilience and grit and a better learning outcome and performance next time.

What did surprise me, however, was the statistic that 10-year-olds today have a life expectancy five years lower than their parents. They are the first generation to have a falling life expectancy brought about by their sedentary life styles, developed in childhood and sustained into adulthood. This clip highlights the loss:

Never before as educators has it become important to help buck this trend.  If we nurture sport at school it stimulates a long term engagement with sport and physical activity, developing sporting habits for life. If girls see sport as bringing lifelong benefits to their learning, their health and their well-being, then we as educators have done an important job.

Sport is for all, it is essential for all, which is why I am so proud of the sport we offer at BGS. We have over 1,000 fixtures a year for girls of all abilities and ages. Some of our girls have gone on to represent their country but more important to me is seeing them at the gym, running around the park or playing in a team long after they have left school.