Why Girls Study Physics at Girls’ Schools

This week I attended the GSA Heads’ Conference in Oxford, appropriately titled Take on the World.

On so many levels it was a deeply satisfying conference. First to catch up with all of our BGS alumnae currently studying and thriving at Oxford University, second attending lectures and receptions in extraordinary beautiful buildings such as the Ashmolian Museum, Rhodes House and the Natural History Museum, and finally to be reminded why all girls’ schools are so important to the next generation of women, providing them with skills and attributes to take on the world and, in my mind, make a difference.

One fascinating lecture was by Simon Oakes – titled Why do girls not study Physics? He suggested that gender stereotyping began at an early age and whilst education did much to moderate it, inherent bias prevailed. The teaching pedagogy in mixed schools favours the learning preferences of boys. Boys sprint through mathematical sums, they see it as a competitive game and race through the exercises, seeing who finishes it first. Girls, on the other hand, want to move through the exercises more slowly. They want to know why, they want a deeper understanding of the concepts, they want to discuss it before moving on. When taught at a sprint their confidence dwindles, which results in girls not wanting to study it beyond GCSE, and to me, even worse, girls labelling themselves as being not good at Physics or Maths.

In single sex schools, girls are taught to their learning preferences. Girls are given time to spend on mathematical problems. Time to ask questions and time to consolidate their knowledge. In teaching this way, they develop their confidence and a secure understanding and therefore thrive in Maths and Physics lessons. They love the challenge and want to continue with them beyond GCSE. By the time they reach university they are secure in their knowledge.

In fact, Oakes argued their knowledge and understanding was in fact deeper than boys because they had taken their time to understand challenging concepts. This is evidenced by the number of alumnae who are thriving in the male dominated subjects at university. They are confident in their knowledge, they see themselves as equal and challenge the bias when they encounter it for the first time.

Girls’ schools have become one of the main providers of women in STEM subjects. At girls’ schools we can challenge preconceived ideas about occupations and careers. By teaching to the girls’ preferences we give them the confidence and self-belief to thrive in these much sought after careers.

The conference reminded me why girls do study physics at girls’ schools.



Resilience in Changing Times

24 hours gives you time to evaluate, time to reflect upon the momentous results of the USA presidential election.

From initial disbelief, that a person with no previous experience of elected responsibility, whose electoral platform was often littered with racist and misogynist ideals, had connected with a large swathe of Americans to become the 45th President of the United States of America – confounding once again all the experts of the existing political order. To where I am now, 24 hours later, reflecting on the post-election analysis, listening to politicians across the globe trying to make sense of the result as they contemplate the new political order.

Many of our A Level Politics students sat up all night in school and watched the election results unfold on television. They were bewildered. Unsurprisingly, in a girls’ school, they had voted overwhelming for Hillary Clinton and found it difficult to understand how a person who had belittled women so publically could win. I shared their concerns but also feel strongly that as educators, we need to stop our pupils from catastrophizing, stop them from being fearful of the future and instead, to emphasise the need to respect the values of democracy, to understand what these values mean and the need to continue to fight for them.

Democracy is about hearing the voice of the people, but it is also about respecting the views of each and every one of its citizens, regardless of their colour, creed or sex.  And it is this latter aspect of democracy we should be educating our pupils to fight for, in order to make a better, safer world.

In times of change we need our pupils to be resilient, to stand up for what they believe in and as educators instil in them this self-belief that they can make a difference. Instead of retreating and fearing the new order, they should be reaching out and connecting with others across the globe. Never before has the voice of the global citizen been so important and as Hillary Clinton graciously said in her defeat, we should continue to educate our girls to “Never stop believing that fighting for what is right is worth it.” It is our role as educators to give them the confidence to do so.

As Mahatma Ghandi said: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Fundraising To Make A Difference

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of accompanying a Sixth Form pupil to the Long Room at Lord’s for a fundraising dinner for Afghan Connection.

The Sixth Former was a guest of the English Cricket Board, invited for her services not just to women’s cricket (she is captain of the U17 Buckinghamshire Girls’ team) but also for her sterling effort in raising nearly £2000 for Afghan Connection.

It was a splendid evening. For me, an avid cricket fan, it was a chance to meet my sporting heroes but for the Sixth Former it was an opportunity to understand how fundraising works and how, by using contacts and having a passionate belief, you can change the lives of thousands.

The stories the charity tells are sobering. The lives of women in Afghanistan are still deeply unsettling where, according to The New Statesman, the fledgling Afghan women’s cricket squad have been labelled “prostitutes and preached against by imams”.

Despite this, brave women emerge such as Diana Barakzai, captain of the Afghan women’s cricket team, who learnt to play cricket when her family fled to Pakistan as refugees from the Taliban.

Since returning to Kabul in 2009 she has tried, against significant opposition, to encourage other women to take up cricket. As she says “playing cricket for a girl was no less than suicide, but my spirit and the strong support of my family encouraged me not to stop my activities”.

Despite the difficulties, the potential of women’s cricket to galvanise wider female progress in Afghan societies has been increasingly recognised. Afghan Connection has led the way, building cricket pitches as well as schools for girls, giving them an education and a voice. In a war weary nation where half the population is under the age of 18, cricket provides a vital tool in the fight for equality.

It was a pleasure to be part of a charity that was making a significant difference.

I was very proud watching one of our Sixth Formers speak confidently to the audience at Lord’s, describing what she had done to raise money for this charity. There is no doubt that sport brings people together and can change lives.

Afghan Connection has enabled our Sixth Former to make a difference, to be a wonderful role model for all BGS pupils and, in doing so, to help girls Afghanistan have access to an education that will change their lives.

It was an evening that both of us will remember!

Raising the Visibility of Women in Sport

Next week is Women’s Sport Week (#WSW16), a national campaign to raise awareness and increase the profile of women’s sport across the UK.

As Head of a large all girls’ school, I appreciate the enormous advantage girls have in playing sport. I see the benefits to their health, their well-being and most importantly their character. They learn the value of teamwork to secure a victory, resilience when the going gets tough and most importantly the recognition that failure can lead to success next time. Sport to me is all about the growth mindset.

Yet as Chair of the GSA Sports Committee I read with despair that girls across the UK are becoming steadily less and less active than boys. It begins at about age 8 and then, by the time they’re 14, just 1 in 10 girls meet the official guidelines for physical activity. The reasons are many but I do think the lack of visibility of women’s sport, in media and in everyday life, is a large contributing factor.

Much has been written about the lack of commercial investment and media coverage of women’s sport. Women’s sport sponsorship accounted for only 0.4% of total sports sponsorship between 2011 and 2013. Media coverage of women’s sport shows similar level of disparity – accounting for only 7% of total sports coverage. On any day, except during the Olympics, you can flick through the sports pages to be reminded that women’s sport is in the minority.

There is also a substantial gender disparity when we look at the number of women working in sport. For almost half (49%) of publicly funded national governing bodies, less than a quarter of their Board are women. Women make up only 18% of qualified coaches and 9% of senior coaches. Less than 10% of women volunteer in sport compared to over 15% of men.

For most young boys however, sport exists as something exciting, aspirational and absolutely for them. At GSA schools we are working hard and alongside Women in Sport to “inspire people to play their part at every level and make sport normal for women and girls”. This week we have seen 12-14 year olds compete in a national GSA netball tournament organised by Master tours, where they were coached and inspired by young women from England’s netball team. The girls loved it and were so excited at playing alongside women who represented their country. You could see the impact these visible role models had on our girls.

Tomorrow is our annual GSA Sports conference, Girls Go Gold, held for aspiring athletes, where they can listen to lectures on psychology and mental toughness, nutrition for sport, performance analysis as well as meeting their sporting heroes. Role models such as Alex Danson, a former GSA pupil, will be there, whose visibility notably increased after GB Women’s Hockey triumph in Rio this year. She is an inspirational speaker and I know will encourage the girls to believe that they too can aspire to such great heights.

It is events such as these that provide our pupils with inspiration and role models. It is events such as Women’s Sport Week that raise the profile of women’s sport and makes girls think that sport is normal for females, inspiring them to continue to play their part after their school days are over. I applaud and support their efforts.

See The Bigger Picture

There are moments in a Head’s life that stand out, moments when you feel an overwhelming sense of pride of your Girls’ Leadership Team (GLG). These are the girls who we have put our trust in to lead the student community.  They set the tone, the values and the standards to which other pupils aspire.

This year is no exception as I listened to the new GLG, in assembly, talk about their “See The Bigger Picture” campaign. To them, their campaign is about taking a step back, reflect, being less focused on themselves and engage more in the world around them. Each one of the speakers revealed personal truths about their teenage years, how they were self-absorbed and worried about how they looked or came across to others. They encouraged the girls in the audience not to think about how others see you but to be proud of who you are and what you can do.

They referred to the Dove campaign for Real Beauty (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DdM-4siaQw) which asks you to choose the door you think best reflects yourself – the door labelled average or the door labelled beautiful. Too many women see being beautiful as an external expression of how you look, and choose the average door. The GLG were urging the girls to see beauty as something within and to walk through the beautiful door. If you see your own inner beauty and let your own light shine, you unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

Playing small, worrying what others see, does not serve the world. Instead, embrace who you are, be proud and see the bigger picture.

Powerful messages that the School community talked about for the rest of the day. The GLG shone their light and in doing so liberated others. No wonder I felt proud.

Growth Mindsets

The warmth of our current September evenings has brought back memories of the summer and in particular the success of Team GB at the Olympics.

For me, the enjoyment of the Olympics comes from hearing the stories the athletes tell – when interviewed they highlight the work, the dedication and their training but perhaps the one thing that stands out in their stories is the resilience they show in the face of adversity. The athletes talk about the failures they have encountered, their disappointments in being rejected from teams, the injuries they had overcome yet through it all they had a self-belief – a mindset that through hard work, continued effort and determination they would succeed. They did not give up, they did not see their failures as a failure of themselves, instead they took each set-back as an opportunity to learn, to develop and to use their failure to succeed next time.

There is a tradition in psychology that shows the power of our beliefs – they affect what we want and whether we succeed in getting what we want. I think is perfectly summed up by a quote from Henry Ford who said “If you think you can and if you think you can’t, you are right”. It is your mindset that helps you to succeed.

This week at our staff INSET we have been discussing mindsets, looking closely at Carol Dweck’s work and trying to instil in our pupils a “growth mindset”. This is a belief that the basic qualities you were born with are only a starting point, they are not fixed and different attributes can be cultivated through hard work and effort.

A growth mindset is not discouraged by failing, they don’t see themselves as failures or having reached a ceiling in their ability, instead they see failure as an opportunity to grow and develop. The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it even (or perhaps especially) when it is not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.

It is this mindset that allows people to thrive during the most challenging times in their lives. It is the mindset of our Olympians and I hope it will become the mindset of our pupils.

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.