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 ( 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.

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.