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.” 

IB – Focusing on Language Acquisition

I am a big fan of language acquisition and believe it is central to every student’s education. I am pleased we embrace languages at BGS and I will always encourage our students to keep studying a language, or two, throughout their time at school.

I also believe that part of the fun of learning a language is starting something new, the thrill of starting with the basics and putting the words together to make sentences for the first time is always exciting. I am therefore delighted that we will be introducing an additional language option in the Sixth Form for IB Diploma students from September 2021, where students who have not studied it before will be able to take up a course in Italian. Who would not want to be able to sit on the terrace of a bar in Rome and order a meal with a perfect Italian accent, or ask for directions to The Colosseum without relying on a google translate?

Having worked in Asia for five years, the vast majority of the students I taught there were fluent in at least two languages. Many had three or four languages under their belt; they were always open to learning a new language to communicate with their new friends from other countries. In the Languages Department, they used to have a poster which stated:  “monolingualism is the new 21st century illiteracy” and I couldn’t agree more. In our interconnected, globalised world, it is imperative that we are able to communicate with one another. This is one of the elements of the IB Diploma Programme which I most love, the focus on language acquisition as a link to understanding and connecting cultures.

I studied French at A Level, and was able to study in France for a year at university, work in Brussels as a lawyer and then I had an excellent grounding for learning Spanish, whilst traveling around South America when I took a career break before moving into teaching. Learning languages has opened so many doors for me; it has changed my views on the world and created a network of friends around the world. It has given me the confidence to travel, to work abroad, to walk into a room and not be afraid of starting a conversation. Learning languages has been an important part of developing my self-confidence.

There is plenty of research that also highlights how language acquisition encourages brain development, which has extensive cross-disciplinary advantages. Languages are puzzles, the logic of learning and putting sounds and words together can be applied to other subjects, Maths, Music and Sciences. These key building blocks are fundamental to a holistic education and develop enquiring, problem-solving mindsets.

I hope our students seize this opportunity to experience a new language and through it appreciate the importance of understanding others’ customs and cultures.  As the American Law Professor and author, Amy Chua, said: “Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery”. So I encourage all our students to take these words as inspiration, to be bold, to step out of their comfort zones and to open themselves up to a world of new possibilities.

Black History Month: A Reflection

Written by Meranie Kairu (Lower Sixth) and Aisha Njomo (Upper Sixth).

Reflecting on Black History Month, Mrs Gibson (Headmistress) has invited the Lead Ambassadors of the African and Caribbean Society to guest write her blog.

As our Black History Month campaign comes to an end, we take a moment to reflect on the work we have done. Our goal was to celebrate the achievements of the Black British, Black African and Caribbean population and educate students on their heritage and history. The foremost aim of this campaign, however, was to spark conversations in our school community that would encourage students, and staff, to think about the diverse nation in which we live with a greater understanding of its people. 

Our whole school assembly highlighted the importance of Black History Month to Black Britons and others in the UK. For Black Britons, knowing your history deepens your understanding of who you are and helps you to acknowledge the power in your identity. Power in our identity provides us with a strong sense of pride and belonging. This is a powerful tool that can equip our minds against the negative stereotypes imposed on us both consciously and unconsciously by society. For our communities, we are only strengthened by appreciating the achievement of Black British people and recognising the influence they have had on British society.

Our House competition gave students and staff the chance to put a spotlight on the most influential Black woman to them and we received lots of excellent entries that will be displayed around the school. Through a range of form time activities, students have explored art in the Nairobi Gallery, the presence of Africans in Roman Britain and recollected familiar Black British Actors. Decorative displays have also showcased the fabrics and flags of African and Caribbean countries and detailed their achievements. As well as this, a series of form time debates engaged students in thoughtful discussions on topics such as cultural appropriation and hair discrimination in schools.

This Black History Month campaign marks the beginning of a cultural shift in the BGS Community. By engaging students and staff in necessary, thought-provoking conversations on the erasure of history, race relations in the UK and the single-story many have of Africa and the Caribbean, we have taken our first dive into previously uncharted waters.

However, the end of Black History Month does not signify the end of these conversations. As lead ambassadors of the African and Caribbean Society, our mission is to keep these conversations ignited. We will not leave it to October to celebrate the achievements of Black Britons that have shaped our society into what we see today. We will continue to keep these ideas and topics fresh in the minds of our community. It is only once students become comfortable with the uncomfortable, that they find the confidence to go out into the world and take action. We are hopeful for the future of BGS and believe that our work will contribute to the building of a more inclusive environment for all.

Sixth Form Options…Follow Your Passions

We have arrived at the time of year where Year 11 start thinking about making some big decisions about their future; this should be seen as an exciting opportunity to reflect on their current post school aspirations. I have used the word ‘current’ in relation to what they want to do in the future. No doubt for a lot of the girls, there will be many evolutions of their plans over time and in some cases there may even be abrupt changes of direction. And that is fine! Research shows that in the next generation “individuals are likely to have three or more different occupations and/or careers during their lifetimes” (Wilson, D.N: The Education and Training of Knowledge Workers) and that around 65% of primary school aged children will end up in jobs that do not yet exist. So focusing on relevant skills and attributes is far more important than agonising over subject choices.

For instance, if I reflect on my own career path, the skills and attributes I gained as a lawyer have often stood me in good stead as an educational senior leader. My years studying the law were not wasted even though I didn’t stay in the profession; at the very least they opened the door for me to teach Law at A Level, hopefully inspiring another generation of young lawyers and frankly there is nothing more satisfying than that!

This leads me to my best (and simplest) piece of advice for choosing Sixth Form courses: follow your heart and focus on the subjects for which you have a passion or interest, because through those passions you find the drive and determination to develop the attributes you will need to unlock opportunities and to find the right career path.

Sixth Form should be such an exciting time, but it won’t be if students don’t emotionally connect with their subjects. Sixth Formers have to be independent in whatever courses they take, they must have a desire to learn more about their subjects and be willing to read around and to find links between different areas of study. It is not possible to be successful by simply turning up to lessons and reading one textbook, as the novelist E.M. Forster, said: “One person with passion is better than 40 people merely interested”. If you can’t muster up passion for chosen subjects, so that you cannot vehemently argue your point during class discussions, then it is not the right course for you. There should be real academic joy in being a Sixth Former, being able to submerge yourself in subjects you love and to start to consider yourself an expert in your chosen fields.

At BGS, girls are lucky enough to have two pathways open to them: A-Levels and International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB). We always recommend all students consider both pathways before making their final decisions. There are merits to both of them and each student must decide which is best for them. With A-Levels, students have the opportunity to narrow down their focus to three subjects, which they will cover in depth. For those students who are already very sure about what they want to do in the future, this is a good route, providing expertise and depth of knowledge in specific subjects for students with very clear direction. 

Nevertheless, many argue that only studying three subjects at this age is too limiting. In fact the new leader of the Russell Group Universities, Dame Nancy Rothwell states “I worry that in the UK we specialise very early for young people and I think we miss out”. She supports the idea of restructuring A Levels so they are a bit lighter and students could take a broader range of subjects giving a more balanced education and in her view be better prepared for university. This is where the IB Diploma comes into its own, allowing students to keep that breadth for longer, to cement key skills, whilst still allowing students to immerse themselves more deeply in their passions in the form of their Higher Levels. With the IB’s international mindedness and focus on education for a better world, it really does help equip our students for their exciting careers (plural) to come, as they balance interdisciplinary skills and learn to view the world through many different experiences. I am in no doubt it prepares them extremely well for being global citizens and moving into the wider world. Over the next few weeks, girls and parents will receive lots of information about how to make the best choice for the future. We are here to support each girl through this process and to ensure that it is an enjoyable one. With this in mind, I shall leave you with a quote to have in the forefront of your mind when making these decisions from the American Pastor, Bishop TD Jakes “If you can’t figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose.”

The Windrush Generation: Revolutionising British Music

By Nina Leech and Etienne Maughan (Year 11)

Continuing our focus on Black History Month, Mrs Gibson (Headmistress) has invited members of the African and Caribbean Society to guest write her blog, as they explore the role of Caribbean influences in British Music.

In the 1930s, the ship ‘HMT Empire Windrush’ was built and designed for the German Navy. However, it was built purely for war so its future purpose was undetermined. In 1945, after World War II had ended and Germany was defeated, its purpose was now very different: this ship would be used to rebuild Britain’s damaged industry. In 1948, what we now know as the ‘Windrush Generation’ travelled to Britain and would come to have a profound and positive impact on British culture as we know it today.

Caribbean communities arrived with a diverse music spectrum ranging from Latin American to Asian and African influences, which had a large impact on the British music scene. These styles fused with British music, which consisted of primarily swing and dance bands at the time, creating a unique blend, which eventually led to genres such as Drum and Bass, Garage and Grime. In the 50s, few nightclubs were open to black people, so small clubs in Soho and Brixton began to adopt genres such as Ska – a predecessor to Reggae. The legacy of this led to a second-generation wave in Coventry with bands like The Specials, pioneering multicultural Post-Punk Fusion. Birmingham was also central to politically-led, British Reggae, with artists writing about hardships faced by young black people, led by bands like Steel Pulse. The evolution of Soca music in the 1980s created the blueprint for many music styles that dominate the UK charts today. Two of these music styles, Hip Hop and Grime, have generated success for many black artists such as Stormzy and Dizzee Rascal. Popular British bands such as The Police, Culture Club and The Stranglers all used riffs inspired by Reggae. The impact that the Windrush Generation had on helping to construct Britain’s varied history will continue to shape and influence the music of the future.

The Caribbean communities diversified British culture, shaping and creating a new British society with new music, culture and charm. The Windrush Generation was not only key in pioneering change in a predominantly white country, but also helped in creating a sense of belonging within the young population of black teenagers. The music that many produced allowed the younger generation of the African and Caribbean communities to relate to the struggles of racism and hostility towards them, and provided a sanctuary and escape for them. Unable to prove their legal right to remain in the ‘mother country’, as they had arrived before it was a legal requirement, many were afraid of what was to come for them in Britain, so the music created by black artists showed power within the black community.

Unfortunately, an escape was hard to find, as the racism that the Windrush Generation faced was extensive. Even now, more than 50 years after the first ship arrived, those who are part of or descended from the Windrush Generation are told they do not belong; many have been detained and are facing deportation. Regardless of our skin colour, we must advocate for all black lives. The work we do during Black History Month to celebrate and uplift black people should not stop here, but continue each day of the year.

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