A message to our students

By Miss MacKenzie (Headmistress) and Mrs Howe (Head of Junior School)

We want to say how proud we are of you all. We know that these are uncertain and anxious times and that we are asking all of you to step far out of your comfort zones.

You have reacted to these challenge with extraordinary calmness, maturity and a sense of responsibility. We could not be more impressed.

Your teachers have been working behind the scenes for weeks to prepare for this situation; we hoped that we would not have to implement these programmes, but we all knew it is better to be well prepared. As of Monday, your teaching will look different, but it will be engaging and challenging. You are expected to follow your set timetables, but be reassured that your teachers will still be with you every step of the way to support you.

You all have the technical skills to handle the remote learning tools and the flexibility and creativity to work in different ways. You will be building knowledge and skills, and by the end will feel a huge sense of pride in what you have achieved, but there will be hiccups and moments that you will struggle. You will need to be determined and resilient.

By staying at home and being a responsible independent learner, you are helping to limit the spread of COVID-19; you are playing a critical role in helping the Government’s effort and it is important that you take that responsibility seriously and follow all the guidelines.

We will continue to open school only for students whose parents are key workers in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. We need to support these students too, they will be having a different experience to many of you at home and as a community we must support each other.

We want to reassure you that we and all of your teachers are here to help you. You might not see us in person but we are here, and you can contact us if you need to. The world is going to seem very strange for a little while but when we are in uncertain times, we can all support each other and reach out to support those in our wider communities who will need help and kindness.

We know you can rise to these challenges, we know that you will take your responsibilities seriously.

Good luck, stay safe and we look forward to hearing how you are all getting on.

Why being kind matters

I have always believed that a community should be kind towards one another. When mistakes have been made, we have to acknowledge our mistakes and instead of being punished for them, look to see how we can make it better.

I was therefore saddened to read in the paper last weekend that kindness appears to be in decline. Analysis of annual surveys of American college students showed a substantial drop from 1979 to 2009 in empathy, and the ability to imagine the perspectives of others. Its not just that people care less, they seem to be helping less too. Achievement and happiness of individuals seem to be more important drivers than concern and care for others. Being kind in a fiercely competitive world can be seen as a source of weakness.

Overemphasising individual achievements may breed competitiveness, with a resulting decline in compassion. But I don’t think focusing on one obfuscates the other. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests generous people earn higher incomes than that of their less generous peers. This may be because the meaning they find in helping others helps to broader learning, deeper relationships and ultimately to greater creativity and productivity.

Neuroscientists have found that generosity activates rewards centres in our brains. Being kind to others improves our mental well-being. It stops our obsession with ourselves as we are encouraged to look outwards rather than inward. Evolutionary biologists observe that we are wired to help others, indeed Darwin wrote that a tribe of people who “Were always ready to aid one another would be victorious over most other tribes and this would be natural selection”.

Of course, we should be encouraging pupils in schools to do their best and to take pride in their work, but kindness doesn’t require sacrificing these aims. To me the real test of a good school is not what the pupils achieve in a set of examination results, but who they become and how they treat others. By emphasising the importance of kindness and the joy of its reciprocity, we are not just setting up our girls for success, we are also setting up success for the people around them.

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).