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).

Role Models

This week Year 5 have been thinking about role models. They have explored the town of Bedford looking for blue plaques and finding out more about local role models. They were particularly delighted to meet the mum of Etienne Stott, 2012 Olympian gold medal canoeist. They struck up a conversation and hope to hear more about his story on becoming an Olympian in future weeks from this chance encounter.

Later that day, in the dining room, a Year 5 student asked me who was my role model. My immediate thought was my mum because she has been the constant voice of reason throughout my life. But I realised that our life is influenced not just by one person but by many. I have been lucky; there are many people who have shaped me, impressed me, people who have I wanted to be like, whose respect I have wanted to earn, whose voice I have listened too and whose ideals have influenced me.

It made me recognise how important it was for each and every generation to have role models. I reflected these thoughts to the Year 9s at their weekly assembly, asking them who were their role models and indeed reminding them that they too were role models for each other and for the younger girls on the hockey pitches, in the school play, in the music performances and in the classrooms.

So it was with sadness that I read a report recently written by Geena Davies, an American actress, who was bemoaning the lack of role models for her young daughters. She has set up a charity If she can see it, she can be it which was in response to watching movies with her young daughter. She was staggered by the woeful depiction of women in family movies. They were often invisible on the screen and their roles were largely to serve and support the male characters without any identity of their own. To illustrate her point she watched the top 100 grossing family films and found that for every female speaking character there were 2.5 – 3 male characters. Women spoke for 36.3% of the time and only 22.5% of the women portrayed on screen had jobs. Of all the speaking characters 30.8% were women and even in crowd screens women were largely invisible making up only 17% of the crowd.

If girls can’t see it, they can’t be it. Damming statistics show the more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in life. When women appear in film as role models the number of women wanting to study that career rapidly increases. ER increased the number of women wanting to work in emergency rooms in hospitals; the Scully Effect saw a dramatic increase of women in forensic science, as a result of the long serving TV drama the X Files.

I was reminded of a recent visit I made to the Science Museum, in London, where I only found one image of a woman in the whole museum. If girls can’t see it, they can’t be it. This is why I believe so strongly in girls’ schools; they are surround by female role models, not just amongst the staff, alumnae and the wider community but also amongst themselves. We believe all of our students are role models, we show them how to believe in themselves and to recognise that their skills and experiences provide positive models to others; as I reflected on my conversation with the Year 5 student I smiled knowing one day she would be a role model to many others.

Seeing Alternative Perspectives

As I sit and write this blog, the summer break seems a long time ago. I relish the summer for the time it allows me to unwind, read books, newspapers, listen to the radio; to reflect and indeed breathe deeply and calmly.

But this summer I found it more difficult to unwind as my sources of calm were anything but! All forms of media seemed to highlight the increasingly entrenched positions people were beginning to take on every issue. People seem more divided than ever, more polarised and less willing to consider the opposing view – it was as if their way, was the right way, their view was the right view, their knowledge was the truth, and an opposing view was fake news. Whether it was Brexit, climate change, Trump or even Taratino’s new movie, the response seems to be so binary – you are either for it or against it – there is nothing in between. There is no room for ambivalence, no time to ponder, no real attempt to see or more importantly understand alternative perspectives.

Too often we think we have to have a view, we have to have an opinion; and that it has to be right because it is ours.

I put this to the girls at our first whole school assembly. I believe that actually not knowing something, being uncertain about an issue, not immediately knowing the answer, or being aware that in many things there is no right answer was a good thing. It leads to very productive questioning. It leads us to be open, to listen to alternative perspectives, to look at the evidence, to investigate the assumptions and not jump to holding an entrenched position.

I feel strongly that if we can’t see alternative perspectives there is no common ground and without common ground conversations cannot take place. Being ambivalent and seeing different perspectives, allows us to walk in someone else’s zone in order to learn more. Seeing different perspectives provides the bridge between two sides, it enables us to meet in the middle – it is what allows a democracy to flourish and a dictatorship to fail.  Instead of that childlike split of good vs bad, love vs hate, right vs wrong – we move to one that recognises that an idea can have good and bad points, we can love and hate someone at the same time, and in doing so we can tolerate people, accept and celebrate differences.

I gave them the example of Nelson Mandela who spent many years negotiating with people who had imprisoned him for 28 years, trying to understand their fears, being open and seeing their perspectives and in doing so was able to break down the forced segregation of whites and blacks, leading to the first democratic election in South Africa.

In this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, mastering this learner attribute has never been more important. Our girls need to be open-minded and not have entrenched views; they need to build that bridge across common ground and in doing so become modern democratic human beings.

As I looked across the Assembly Hall I reminded them that this is where it starts…

Running for good health

This weekend I am running the Hitchin Hard Marathon, raising funds for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) charity based in Bedford. CAHMS is a local mental health charity that is linked to the GLG charitable focus on respecting your mental health and wellbeing.

I have, on many busy evenings, questioned why I am taking this on! But it was one of those staff room conversations where a teacher relays a discussion she had had with her Sixth Form about the importance of keeping fit during the examination break. I agreed with her wholeheartedly. Running is a great stress de-buster. The release of endorphins is well documented, as is the value of getting outside, breathing in oxygen and energising the brain. This member of staff was extolling the virtues to her Biology class of exercise and a plan was hatched. Before I knew it, I had volunteered to run 13.1 miles with the Sixth Formers along with three other colleagues.

I always believe that as a Head you are a role model. If I was asking the girls to get out of their study to keep fit then I should as well. It has not been easy. It is over ten years since I ran my last marathon. The muscles have atrophied, the heart beats a lot faster, the legs move a lot slower but the discipline of following a training schedule and ticking off the miles is invigorating. As the day gets closer, the imagined injuries become more real, I may have to walk part of it but I am looking forward to be running as a community, raising money for an important cause and in the process focusing on respecting my own well-being.

Your donations will certainly help motivate us going over those last few miles, donate here.


Practise what you Preach

As a Head we often give words of advice to our pupils but to me it is equally important that we heed these words. I stress to the girls the importance of hard work; practise, practise, practise; not give up; step outside your comfort zone, take a risk. Some things I advise come naturally to me, with other advice I question how often I heed it.

Like many people I took up the piano at an early age. I found practising tedious, dull and found every excuse not to do it. I jumped at the opportunity when asked if I wanted to give it up. I found piano examinations threatening; I was always a bundle of nerves with my fingers slipping off the keys, I really struggled with I guess what is now called performance anxiety. My father was the instigator of me taking up the piano and with his recent death, I began to question my teenage decision in giving up this skill.

In my reflections I felt that later in life I would revisit playing the piano, but did not have the time now. A wise colleague highlighted that 15 minutes a day, is all that was needed. Finding 15 minutes playing a stunning Steinway at school was possible. So I began to live by my words, not give up and practice. But my real struggle was performing in front of people.

So it was at the Years 7 and 8 assembly that I shared my anxiety about performing in front of people, that I needed to step out of my comfort zone and do something that did not come naturally to me. I ask them to perform in front of an audience, appreciating their nerves and therefore I needed to do the same thing. So at my next assembly with Years 7 and 8, I will perform the first movement of The Moonlight Sonata, a piece my father encouraged me to play and in preparation for it I am practising every day.

As adults we are role models to the younger generations, we need to practise what we preach. I am already nervous about the performance in June but as I explained to the girls, it is not the outcome, in this case the performance, that matters, but rather the focus on the process, the skills and learner attributes to get there. The performance may go horribly wrong, it may be a risk that fails. It does not matter, I will have learned in the process, I will have stepped out of my comfort zone and at very least found a new love of playing the piano, which I now look forward to every morning. It is a lesson to me, well learned.

Campaign Challenge

This last half term our Lower Sixth have been engaged in Campaign Challenge. It is an opportunity for the girls to work together in small teams to promote a social cause they feel strongly about. The causes vary widely, from sustainability, period poverty, loneliness in elder generations, male abuse, child neglect, mental health and challenging stereotypes.

Before they embarked on their campaign they researched people’s views, by carrying out a survey, to understand the school’s awareness of particular social issues. They need to consider what would be relevant to their target audience, and how to develop messages that would stand out from the crowd. Based on their findings they put together a campaign and then launched it in a school assembly. Throughout the following weeks, they undertook initiatives around the school to promote their cause, further raising awareness in and beyond the school community.

I have been extremely impressed. The campaigning has been powerful, clever and thought provoking. They have used the space of the school creatively to stop people in their tracks to make them think. Installations have been put up around the school, one in the shape of a whale made up of plastics found lying around the school. Another was a living exhibit, sitting alone, ignored, in the iCreate space, to highlight the plight of the loneliness of elderly people. Silhouettes of small children stuck on the wall, featureless, to stress the damage of neglect in our community, other messages and petitions on walls drawing attention to the damage of prescription drugs or the presence of male abuse.

The students have supported their campaigns using social media and email to staff and students to extend awareness, some are so inspired by their issues that they are planning events to support awareness, beyond the official campaign framework.

The value of these campaigns is immense. The lesson learnt invaluable. The voices of many of the girls have been heard. Their Sixth Form education does not exist in a bubble. Education to me is not just about the final examinations, it is about how the girls can use their many skills to make a difference to world in which they are living.

This world is uncertain, complicated and volatile and the more we equip them with a toolkit the more adept and comfortable they will be in dealing with it. Campaign Challenge is a powerful way of honing the skills whilst at the same time raising the school’s awareness of complex social issues.