Flourishing Moments

This week, Mrs Axford (Assistant Head) guest writes on the Headmistress blog about the word ‘flourish’ and what it actually means when you hear this all-encompassing word.

Recently, I was drawn to a post on the Independent Schools Council website about what it means to ‘flourish’. I have always loved the word ‘flourish’ because to me it is a real ‘doing’ word.  We often talk about children reaching their potential. The flourishing part is the bit along the way, where the growth is happening, and one can see the smile and sparkle in the process.

The Human Flourishing Programme at Harvard has developed a way to measure human flourishing. VanderWeele 2017 defines flourishing as ‘complete human wellbeing’ based around five themes: happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships. 

It is our role at BGS to help your daughters to flourish. Participation in co-curricular activities plays such an important part in facilitating the ‘flourishing process’.  Involvement in music, community volunteering, in drama events, sporting endeavours, dancing, debating and so on may not seem as key to a student’s development as a maths exam or an English essay. But co-curricular activities provide snapshots in time, where you can see students actively growing, developing the soft skills so vital to young adults fulfilling the five central themes stated by Vanderweele above. 

As Assistant Head of Co-curricular and Experiential Learning, I see a plethora of ‘flourishing moments’, whether it is cadets leading their teams at CCF, students preparing for drama productions or music concerts, or students volunteering in local primary schools.

On International Women’s Day last week, I was saddened, although not surprised, to read that the charity ‘Women in Sport’ has found that over 43% of girls who self-describe as ‘sporty’ lose interest in exercise after they leave primary school, with 68% saying that a fear of being judged stopped them from joining in.  A lack of self-belief and body image concerns were also cited among reasons putting teenage girls off sport.  

It made me reflect on my experience very early in my career when I started a new job as Head of Girls’ PE at an 11-16 co-educational state school. In my first week, a couple of things really hit home. I noticed at lunchtime the fields and courts were exclusively dominated by boys. And quite staggeringly, only three of my GCSE PE classes of sixty students were girls.  

In these two contexts, girls had been pushed to the periphery of the physical space, and were marginalised in a GCSE subject which should be for all.  To address this, we decided to introduce single sex PE lessons, and to offer sporting clubs for girls before school, at lunchtimes and after school.  Gradually, over two years, the girls’ physical literacy developed, and they began to have self- belief in their own ability.  They loved being part of teams, and making new friends, and the girls began to realise that sport and physical activity was fun, and was for them.

Because they had grown in confidence and because many more girls were taking part, they were less worried about being judged by others.  Quite simply the girls had begun to “flourish” in the physical domain. Within two years, the GCSE PE intake moved to a 50:50 split between girls and boys. 

It was a simple recipe, and it worked. Today, twenty years on, the landscape and challenges have changed.  The impact of social media and of the pandemic on activity levels for many should not be understated.  However, I firmly believe here at BGS that the single sex environment allows students the space to flourish not only in sport, but across a full range of diverse and stimulating co-curricular clubs and activities.  I scrolled through the sports section of a broadsheet this weekend, and was exasperated to find that 17 out of 18 pages were devoted to men and boys. Role models matter. I consoled myself with the thought that the girls at BGS can reference outstanding role models from within the student community. The new Girls’ Leadership Group (GLG) and their prefect teams announced this week are testament to this. “Complete human wellbeing” – the type of flourishing described by VanderWeele – may sound an unreachable goal, but co-curricular activities provide concrete ways to work on the five themes he lays out: building happiness, health and a sense of purpose, and nurturing relationships that will last a lifetime. May BGS flourish.

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