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.

Seeing Alternative Perspectives

As I sit and write this blog, the summer break seems a long time ago. I relish the summer for the time it allows me to unwind, read books, newspapers, listen to the radio; to reflect and indeed breathe deeply and calmly.

But this summer I found it more difficult to unwind as my sources of calm were anything but! All forms of media seemed to highlight the increasingly entrenched positions people were beginning to take on every issue. People seem more divided than ever, more polarised and less willing to consider the opposing view – it was as if their way, was the right way, their view was the right view, their knowledge was the truth, and an opposing view was fake news. Whether it was Brexit, climate change, Trump or even Taratino’s new movie, the response seems to be so binary – you are either for it or against it – there is nothing in between. There is no room for ambivalence, no time to ponder, no real attempt to see or more importantly understand alternative perspectives.

Too often we think we have to have a view, we have to have an opinion; and that it has to be right because it is ours.

I put this to the girls at our first whole school assembly. I believe that actually not knowing something, being uncertain about an issue, not immediately knowing the answer, or being aware that in many things there is no right answer was a good thing. It leads to very productive questioning. It leads us to be open, to listen to alternative perspectives, to look at the evidence, to investigate the assumptions and not jump to holding an entrenched position.

I feel strongly that if we can’t see alternative perspectives there is no common ground and without common ground conversations cannot take place. Being ambivalent and seeing different perspectives, allows us to walk in someone else’s zone in order to learn more. Seeing different perspectives provides the bridge between two sides, it enables us to meet in the middle – it is what allows a democracy to flourish and a dictatorship to fail.  Instead of that childlike split of good vs bad, love vs hate, right vs wrong – we move to one that recognises that an idea can have good and bad points, we can love and hate someone at the same time, and in doing so we can tolerate people, accept and celebrate differences.

I gave them the example of Nelson Mandela who spent many years negotiating with people who had imprisoned him for 28 years, trying to understand their fears, being open and seeing their perspectives and in doing so was able to break down the forced segregation of whites and blacks, leading to the first democratic election in South Africa.

In this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, mastering this learner attribute has never been more important. Our girls need to be open-minded and not have entrenched views; they need to build that bridge across common ground and in doing so become modern democratic human beings.

As I looked across the Assembly Hall I reminded them that this is where it starts…