Anti-Racism Week

This week, Natasha Dahir (Upper Sixth), guest writes on the Headmistress blog about the African and Caribbean and South Asian Societies anti-racism campaign.

The African and Caribbean and South Asian Societies have kickstarted this term with an important message. That is: be anti-racist. Our anti-racism campaign aims to raise awareness of racism in society and educate all of us about how we can prevent and respond to incidents in our school community and beyond. Furthermore, this week has been dedicated to progressing the conversations surrounding racism and prejudice towards marginalised communities. This is an extremely valuable experience for us all, to understand the role we play in providing a safe and all-inclusive space for each other.

We began with a Stephen Lawrence Day assembly on the Thursday 22nd of April. In 1993, eighteen-year-old Stephen Lawrence was attacked and murdered on his way home, solely because he was black. The assembly not only helped raise awareness about this infamous racially motivated attack, but also shed light on how the investigation was mishandled by the police, who were blatantly racist. Lawrence’s murder opened the nation’s eyes to the extent to which systemic racism can affect our lives and the decisions we make. It has encouraged more people to actively work against racism through charities such as Blueprint For All, founded after his death. 

Additionally, the South Asian Society produced a video celebrating the plethora of Asian cultures and their differences. Their descriptions of the parts of their cultures that make them most proud brought a celebratory tone to the week and shows us that anti-racism can also manifest itself in embracing our cultures and identities. 


The work of the late American Civil Rights Activist Claiborne Paul ‘C.P.’ Ellis is really admirable. Originally Ellis was a well-respected KKK member for 12 years. A change in him, which he described as almost being born again, made him decide to spend the next 30 years of his life fighting against racism and for the rights of black people alongside other activists. Despite receiving threats from people he once cared for, he said: “I made up my mind that what I was doin’ was right, and I was gonna do it regardless of what anybody else said”. The Netflix film The Best of Enemies summarises his ten-day journey from Klansman to Activist. I was moved by the volume of emotion this drama film was able to achieve. The message I learnt from this and would like to pass onto you all, is that change doesn’t come without resistance, but if it is for the right thing, then it will definitely be worth it.

The Importance of Digital Fluency

This week, Mr Potter (Director of Digital Strategy) guest writes on the Headmistress blog, and explains how BGS is filling the digital skills gap by being at the forefront of the use of technology in education.  

In a recent article on the BBC website research by World Skills UK highlighted that UK is “heading towards [a] digital skills” shortage as schools were not investing in providing young people with the right skills for a future jobs market; the demand for skills in AI, robotics and cloud are rapidly increasing in the workplace, as identified by Accenture, however young people are not being equipped for these areas as part of their education. 

In a week where a team of Year 8 students represented BGS at the semi finals of the NCSC CyberFirst competition and two Year 11 are taking part in the Lockheed Martin CyberQuest competition, I read the article with interest, as it seems we are clearly bucking this trend!  

As a School, we have always been at the forefront of the use of technology in education; we are looking ahead to anticipate which skills our students will need as they move into an uncertain world. We were very early adopters of iPads in education and the digital literacy that our students display was recognised by last year’s ISI inspection report as ‘outstanding’ as a result of their embedded and flexible use of iPad across their learning. However, technology does not stand still and we must continue to look to the future and anticipate the next technological breakthrough which will add real value to our students.   

The extensive use of iPads across learning helps us embed technology skills discreetly and continually throughout their education ensuring that our digital fluency is keeping pace with the changing in technological advancements and that our students stay ahead of the curve, and that these skills become part of their everyday learning. Students in the Junior School use Sphero robots to see the physical results of their coding. They code elements of a Shakespearen play, enabling characters to move around the stage and recite lines using code. As they transition through to Senior School in Year 7 they learn how to apply these skills into text based programming to solve more challenging problems as well as looking at networking, computer hardware and cybersecurity. 

To further our students’ interest and understanding of robotics, we have recently invested in a humanoid robot capable of machine learning. A group of Year 11 students will be able to use the robot to investigate social robotics – how humans interact with robots with human-like characteristics. Our students are adept in collaborating  with the use of cloud technology through Google Drive being second nature to them, to give them flexibility and ownership over their work. Students in Years 10 and 11 have access to Seneca Learning which uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help tailor their experience in using the platform. It works effectively to highlight areas within a task that a student is finding more challenging and present these back to them in different ways to help them work on their understanding. We also operate a ‘BGS Hackers’ Google Classroom which is a mine of information about future careers in tech, challenges and competitions (access code rflztd2 – shhhh don’t tell anyone!).

Outside of the classroom, BGS is involved in many technology competitions and challenges, run by GCHQ, Lockheed Martin and Cranfield University. These give our students an insight into what it is like to work in a major technology company and the skills that are needed to succeed. We have also hosted lunchbox lectures with industry professionals in cybersecurity and robotics, providing role models and insights into the amazing jobs that many of our Alumnae are in. This year, we have also started mentoring programs in industry with some of our students lucky enough to be mentored by staff from Cardiff Metropolitan University Robotics lab and IBM. We recognise that these links with industry are hugely important as we look to be at the forefront of giving our students the technology skills they need to thrive and succeed in whatever they decide to do.

We believe that this dual approach of teaching skills and ensuring we are building links to wider tech communities, employers and universities will give our students the confidence to tackle any opportunity when they step out into the workforce as the next generation of  innovators and problem solvers. 

Speaking Out

At BGS, one of our key values is being bold, as defined in the Cambridge dictionary as “not frightened of danger”. We believe this is an essential characteristic for our students in this uncertain world. We are able to help them foster this courageousness in a safe and secure environment. Our students know their views are valued and we encourage them to question the world around them and stand up for what they believe in. 

However, we are fully cognisant that unfortunately for our young people they may at times have to confront danger. It is up to us as educators, in conjunction with parents, to not only help protect them, but also instil in them guiding principles around how we should behave towards one another. Growing up is a learning curve and no matter how well we guide them, young people will inevitably have errors of judgment. It is important that we call out when a young person falls below these standards whilst also supporting them in moving forward positively from their mistakes.

I suspect many of us have read with horror the news about the killing of Sarah Everard and what it exemplifies about the treatment of women in our society. Concurrently, alarming stories about peer-on-peer abuse and misogyny in schools has been highlighted by many students across the UK and Australia. As a school that encourages young women to have a strong voice, we are impressed to see so many speak out about the issues that are affecting their daily lives; we know this takes great courage. But these young people must also seek help and support. We need to ensure our students not only have the strategies to protect themselves, but that they have the confidence to speak out to a trusted adult, either at home or at School, if any of these issues are affecting them. 

Without those brave enough to step forward the issues will remain. I fervently hope that the world our students go out into will be fairer, kinder and safer. I want to see our alumnae continue to achieve successes in their chosen professional lives, free from gender stereotypes and able to take on any challenges that come their way. I want them to always feel safe and secure in their day-to-day lives; this should be a right, not a privilege. 

Just over 100 years ago, Nancy Astor, the first female MP, said in her maiden speech: “I do not want you to look on your lady member as a fanatic or a lunatic. I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves.” Her words still resonate today and are echoed by the number of female MPs who have spoken recently about the current issues facing women. Jess Phillips said, last week, before reading out the names of the 120 women who have been murdered by men in the past 12 months; “In this place, we count what we care about. We count the vaccines…We love to count data of our own popularity….However, we don’t currently count dead women…Dead women is a thing we’ve all just accepted as part of our daily lives. Dead women is just one of those things.” Powerful words indeed.

I urge our students to continue being bold: to speak out if they see injustice; to come forward when they need support; to strive to take on leadership roles in all areas of society so they can make a difference; and most importantly, to always support one another as we are, without doubt, stronger together.

Holocaust Memorial Day

This week the School community has been commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day with an informative assembly by Mrs Cruse (Head of Years 7 and 8) and a creative activity based around the Jewish custom of leaving pebbles on gravestones. The most striking part of the assembly for me was an extract from a letter written by Holocaust survivor, Haim Ginott, who said:

“Dear Teacher, I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers, children poisoned by educated physicians… So, I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce monsters, skilled psychopaths… Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.”

And what a vital message this is for educators not only here at BGS, but around the world. At a time when schools are daily in the newspapers, it is important to remember that education is not just about passing examinations, though naturally that is a part of what we do. We teachers are in such a privileged position getting to work with young people, and particularly such wonderful students as your daughters. The students at BGS are impassioned, inquisitive and compassionate. Through my conversations with them and reading about all their achievements, they are clearly determined to make a difference to the world around them. They want to fight injustice, raise funds and awareness of charities that are important to them, protect the environment and go off into the world as adults committed to being agents of positive change. Naturally, they gain much of this from you, their parents, but I am confident that this is confirmed through our teaching and co-curricular activities, and the ethos that permeates BGS. 

This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme is “Be the Light in the Darkness” and I can’t think of a more apt statement for our times. The world has felt like a very dark place over this past year with COVID, multiple lockdowns, continued issues around racial discrimination and political unrest, but our students do provide us with bright spots amongst all this uncertainty and challenges. Their humour, determination, resilience and care for one another are the epitome of hope for the future. Through community events, such as this one, Black History Month and Rainbow Laces Day, we have demonstrated our commitment as a School to not only ensuring we are an inclusive environment for all, but also to standing up to discrimination and bias. 

I have had the privilege of hearing many Holocaust and other genocide survivors talk over the years and the horrors they describe cannot be readily imagined by those of us who have been fortunate enough not to live through it. The magnitude of what they suffered is overwhelming and it is distressing to hear, but it must be heard if we are ever to ensure that humans don’t allow these types of atrocities to occur again. This is why we take our responsibility as teachers so seriously; we have the opportunity to help children make sense of the darkness in the world, but more importantly we can help guide them towards the light: to be the defenders against discrimination; to be brave enough to make the right choices;  to be passionate enough to make a difference; and to be caring enough to show empathy and understanding to others.  

As always I shall leave you with a quote, this time from Elie Wisel, a Holocaust survivor, and I hope that it inspires all our students to stand up for what they truly believe in:

“ I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” 

Reni Eddo-Lodge Lifts The Curtain On A Country In Denial

Introduction

By Meranie Kairu (Lead Ambassador of the African and Carribean Society)

Last summer, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race graced many bookshelves across the UK. This included the bookshelves of a staff member and student who were inspired to share the book’s vital message with the rest of the BGS community.

Mrs Harrold (Head of Psychology) shared her deeply personal and thought-provoking perspective on the book in The Muse (Legend in their Lifetime) last summer. It is clear that for both Mrs Harrold and Mia Dowie (Lower Sixth), Eddo-Lodge has had a life-changing impact. In this review, Mia Dowie – a member of the African and Caribbean Society (ACS) – takes us through an honest and insightful account of how this book transformed her worldview. It moved her to advocate for change against the denial and ignorance of racism in the UK. 

By Mia Dowie (Lower Sixth)

I came across the book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, a London journalist, during the time of the Black Lives Matter Protests in May. These protests led to my eye-opening research of race, into places where I, as a white student, never realised there was an issue. I was searching for something that went beyond the mainstream discourse that focused on America and the civil rights movement. I found Eddo-Lodge’s book during my research on racism in the UK and realised there were issues all over our nation. Among the sea of complex titles, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race stands out. Its extreme title attracts lots of attention: some positive, some curious and some defensive. 

The text moves away from the general consensus that seems to have blanketed our society. The idea that racism is not an urgent issue in the UK, in comparison to other places, like America. The author explores the timeline of racism in Britain throughout history. Eddo-Lodge explores ideas of structural racism and she shines a light on a few of the harsh realities that the ‘nation in denial’ must face. She explains all the privileges a white child may have in comparison to a child of colour whose life will be ‘warped at every stage’, despite their level of skill. A reader may come out of it viewing society in a whole new light. 

Eddo-Lodge reinforces her idea about how Britain’s relationship with race is not a neat narrative with a feel-good resolution. She expresses what many people try to deny, that a post-racial world is not in sight, yet she is not without hope. Eddo-Lodge emphasises that to fight racism there is a large change that must occur and it will be an uphill battle which requires people to feel uncomfortable. To say the world is in a post-racial society creates an excuse to bury the discussion of racism, which then halts change. It is a vital realisation that is needed in order for us to be committed to fighting against racism.  

After reading this book I realised it was not one I wished to be left on the bookshelf collecting dust. This book is the wake-up call that people need. All that I have learnt this year about racism and the challenges my peers face has motivated me to make a change in myself. As a result, I decided to join the African and Caribbean Society (ACS). 

The ACS is committed to change. We aim to make BGS a place where students of African and Caribbean descent can express themselves, feel heard and celebrate their culture. However, our work extends beyond that to reach a point where students of all cultural backgrounds feel safe and cared for. A key part of what we do involves raising awareness of racism. Students and teachers must be able to recognise and understand racism in order to speak up for others. If pupils or staff are looking for a better way to understand and help, this book is a great first step. It is clear that if there are people who wish to learn more about racism and how to fight it then there is hope and a pathway to change.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas

A Christmas message to all BGS students.

“It is such a shame that we have not all been able to come together in the usual way this year, but I hope the recorded Carol Service and fun events of the last few day has provided you with some much needed Christmas spirit. 

And our holidays may look at little different too – perhaps you usually go to a pantomime as a family, or you may attend midnight mass to celebrate Christmas or gather with your family to celebrate Hanukkah, or perhaps these holidays are simply an opportunity to catch up with friends and family from around the country or further afield. You might usually throw a big party on New Year’s Eve or go to see a firework display. Although things will not be the same, I believe we can still all look forward to these holidays.

As we have seen over the past year, we humans are a resilient bunch and we have still found ways to make key events special: families have still come together either in person -socially distanced of course –  or virtually to celebrate things such as Chinese New Year, Eid, Diwali, Easter, Halloween, weddings, births and birthdays. These events might have been smaller, but they still allow us to connect with each other and remember what is important to us. 

So over these holidays, whatever your beliefs, use this time to cherish your family and friends, and to think to the future with hope. We might not be watching fireworks on New Year’s Eve or attending parties, but we can still reflect on the year that has just passed and what a momentous time in history we have all just lived through. Although it is not completely over yet, with the news of the various vaccines on offer, we can look forward more positively, congratulate ourselves for getting through 2020 and remind ourselves of all the wonderful opportunities to come in the future.

I want to wish you, your families and all of the staff a wonderful break over the Christmas holidays. I also want to thank you for making my first term at BGS so memorable, you have welcomed me into the BGS community with open arms and despite all the challenges we have faced, I feel incredibly fortunate and proud to be your Headmistress.

I hope you all stay happy and healthy. I look forward to celebrating the start of a new year, and a new era, with you all in January.” 

Black History Month

Celebrating the contributions and histories of the African and Caribbean communities. 

As a History teacher, the celebration of Black History Month in October has always been an important marker in my academic calendar, along with Remembrance Sunday in November and Holocaust Memorial Day in January. These national occasions allow us collectively to pause and reflect on pivotal moments in History, to help stop us continually making the same mistakes again, but also to celebrate the strength of human spirit through adversity and to honour the achievements of key figures who have had a significant impact on our world. 

Black History Month originated in the USA in 1926 when a historian from Harvard, Carter G. Woodson and a minister, Jesse E. Moorland, designated a week in February as an opportunity for communities nationwide to organise local events, establish history clubs and put on performances and lectures. By the 1960s it had evolved into Black History Month as part of the Civil Rights Movement, with it being officially recognised by the President, Gerald Ford, in 1976. In the UK, the event started in 1987 and celebrates the contributions that people of African and Caribbean heritage have made to our country. This year, in the UK, Black History Month’s theme is Black British Theatre and along with the Black Lives Matter movement it re-emphasises the importance of taking the time to celebrate the many and wide contributions of the Black community to Britain. 

At BGS we will be using Tutor time to raise awareness of Black History Month, setting it into the context of 2020, the year when people all across the world have openly taken a stand against racism and in the words of Joseph Harker: ‘It’s clearer than ever that Black history is everyone’s history’. Tutors will be running a variety of activities to explore Black History Month by looking at key inspirational, but often forgotten, Black figures from Robert Wedderburn to Emperor Septimius Severus; to discussing Black History Month firsts, and through using quotes as starting points for discussions and reflections, for example: ‘My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together’ (Desmond Tutu). 

The students, led by our African and Caribbean Society, are also leading the way with a House Competition focusing on the achievements of influential Black women. Additionally, the LRC has recently curated a collection of works highlighting Black British History, under the banner of remember, celebrate and educate, with new additions including Black and British by David Olusoga, BRITish by Afua Hirsch and the recent best seller Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.  

This led me to think about the importance of the study of History in schools and ensuring the next generation engages in analysing the mistakes of the past, questioning the status quo, and ensuring the future is a more inclusive one. 

Having taught History for many years in a variety of contexts, it is clear, firstly, how crucial it is that young people connect with the content of their courses, and, secondly how too often in the past, history curriculum in English schools have focused very heavily on British History (particularly on the achievements of white males) or perhaps, at best, have had a very Eurocentric approach.

This became even clearer to me when teaching History at British curriculum schools in Asia, where I found that I engendered far more engagement from students where the subject matter felt more relatable. For instance, when teaching the Holocaust to students in South Korea, I expanded the topic to look at genocides worldwide and, in doing so, included Rwanda, Bosnia, Armenia and Cambodia to provide the students with a more relevant global outlook. 

Whilst this global contextualisation led to greater understanding, the part of the topic the students were most riveted by was the study of the Jeju Uprising of 1948, a terrible tragedy which occurred on the island we were living on and, up until the early 2000s, was not widely acknowledged in South Korea. The students became far more animated in these discussions, particularly when trying to analyse whether the Jeju Uprising could be considered to be genocide. Their global understanding being applied to a local event was a strong combination in cementing their learning.

This confirmed to me the importance of ensuring that our teaching of History engages students by being relevant to them. Whilst History is also crucial for helping our students have a greater understanding of other cultures, if we continually focus too heavily on one type of History, young people may switch off and not fully value the lessons we can gain from the past. 

One example of this at BGS, is that in Year 8 we spend an entire year looking at women’s history. A key aspect of this topic is to study the significance of individual women and this year, girls have chosen a wide range of women including Mary Seacole, alongside the more well-known heroines such as Rosa Parks (who is also celebrated as one of the School’s House names). The decision to move away from a more traditional approaches to the teaching of History will equip our girls with a sense of pride in the achievements of women in the past, and inspire them to make their own impact on the world. 

Moreover, I have had some wonderful conversations with our History teachers, who speak  passionately about how we can engage all girls, whatever background, to feel connected to their own history, whilst also fostering academic curiosity about the customs, traditions and values of others. We are fully committed to finding opportunities to learn about other cultures, through the study of History and also in other subjects, such as Music, Literature and Drama. It is through this celebration of all that makes us such a rich and diverse community that we ensure everyone feels included. 

During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr said that “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people”. Unfortunately, as a historian, I know that this quote can be applied to far too many events in History, but it is encouraging that in 2020 people around the world are engaging in the Black Lives Matter movement (with potentially 26 million people in the USA alone) with more and more individuals, companies and leaders being committed to ensuring change happens. This has been no more apparent as the girls reflect on the significance of race as a contentious issue in the lead up to November’s vote whilst studying the 2020 US Election in A Level Politics. More widely at BGS, we will use the momentum of this movement as an opportunity to listen to our students’ and alumnae’s views, grow and develop as a community, and reassert our commitment to being an inclusive school where everyone feels valued and respected. I trust that when we study this period as part of our History lessons in many years to come, we will be able to say that this was the turning point which brought about real change to our society.

The Power of a Smile

One of the first things I have noticed about the BGS community is how friendly it is; standing at the school gates in the mornings and walking around the corridors, I am frequently greeted with cheery smiles. In fact, the smiles and little chats I have with the students at the gates are far better than a morning coffee for starting the day in the right way! These small encounters led me to thinking about the importance of human interaction, and particularly smiling and laughing together. We have spent so much time apart from one another over the last few months, that we must cherish these moments of togetherness and prioritise opportunities to connect with each other in real life. 

As I explored the importance of smiling and laughter, I uncovered some fascinating facts which may emphasise why we should incorporate these elements in our day-to-day lives. Both laughter and smiling have been proven to have many health benefits, both psychologically and physiologically. The most obvious one is stress relief, but they can also help stimulate organs, soothe tension and strengthen our immune system. Laughter is a bonding experience, it helps us feel connected to one another, feel part of a group and demonstrates that we trust each other; this is why it is so often contagious. Smiling is so powerful that studies have shown that its effects can be felt even down the telephone and that even faking a smile can lead us to feeling happier. People believe that those who smile frequently are more confident and successful. Interestingly, the philosopher John Morreal believes that we laugh as a sign of shared relief after a passing danger. Surely, therefore, this is the antidote we need, as we live in the constant uncertainty of the pandemic, our shared laughter and smiles may help carry us through.

But what about the effect of wearing masks on our ability to recognise smiling? This was the question I posed to the girls during an assembly, with many believing our faces being covered had a negative impact. However, initial research has indicated that a smile can still be recognised through the movement around our eyes, even though our mouths are covered. Though it may be more difficult to recognise our smiles behind our masks, it is certainly not impossible and I encourage the students to still connect with each other in this way, even when wearing their masks.

I am not the only person encouraging smiling in the school; the Girls’ Leadership Group has recently launched its One Smile campaign, which will be running all year. Did you know that adults only smile on average around 20 times per day compared with an average of 400 for children? So I have challenged the students to not only find ways to make themselves smile and laugh, but also to help the adults around them to smile more frequently too. So whether it be through watching sitcoms together or finding funny animal clips on YouTube or swapping silly stories, I hope you all manage to find plenty of ways to share laughter and smiles with your daughters in the weeks ahead. So on that note I shall leave you with a quote from someone whose name is synonymous with a kindly smile and the positivity they contributed to the world around them:

“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do” Mother Teresa