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.

The joys of living in a community

It is with a sense of relief that January has passed. Like most of the British population I do find it the flattest month in the year. The joys of Christmas have passed, the days still seem incredibly short, the weather at best erratic and the promise of Spring too far away. It is not surprising that psychologists have labelled certain days in January, such as Blue Monday, as the bleakest in the year.

For the girls it can also be a trying month, particularly those taking part in summer public examinations. The Christmas plans of revision have not been as well executed as they had hoped, the mock exams are rightly challenging and therefore the grades received for some are not as high as they anticipated. Summer seems a long way away.

So I was touched and lifted this week when I walked down the Sixth Form corridor to see on every girls’ locker a hand written note of something of good cheer. Small individualised notes to bring a smile, a message of positivity, a sense of wellness to their community. They are running a campaign of random acts of kindness, which has spread across the school, with messages and quotes pinned on notice boards lifting the spirits in the joyless month of January.

It began with their very fine assembly at the start of the month, encouraging the girls not to make resolutions which they are likely to fail, or “to have another year of new year, new me, make this the year where you think to yourself, new year, more me”. Too often we forget to be proud of who we are, we forget to look to the positives about what we have achieved and instead focus on what we are not or what we have yet to achieve.

As I walked down that corridor, after a very long day, my heart skipped, my face broke into a smile as I read the touching messages. As a Head it made me so proud. One should never underestimate the collective power of a positive community, where kindness really does matter and is valued. The girls certainly made a difference to me on that day.

Coping with the mocks

At this time of year, many of our girls are sitting their mock examinations. Time was spent over the Christmas period revising, reviewing and practising. Soon they will receive a result that reflects their performance in a particular paper on that particular day. For some, the result will be pleasing, for others less so. However, what is more significant to me is how the girls respond to their results.

I am always reminding the girls that the path to success is not smooth. It is certainly not linear and no one achieves success without meeting obstacles along the way.  If they do badly in their mocks it is not a disaster and, indeed, in them catastrophizing the failure is unhelpful. In the grand scheme of things, it is a performance in a paper on a particular day. Reflecting calmly on what needs to be done next, being self-regulated in their learning, is more productive than spiralling down into a vortex of despondency.

I liken it to the analogy of learning to drive. Some will show a ready aptitude and others will take longer to master the skill and pass the test – but that does not indicated how good their driving will be in the long term. Learning is about a process not a single outcome. Mock exam results are simply a signifier of their current performance. It is not a measure of their future performance and after the mocks we ask the girls to think about the skill of strategy planning. We stress the importance of reflecting upon their performance, reflecting on their revision strategy and if needed spend time reviewing the strategy. Developing the skill of strategy planning and developing the attitude of self-regulation, are attributes we are trying to develop in our girls. To us these are the hallmarks of an effective learner.

Christmas Pride

Last week I went to the Year 3 Christmas production. It told the story of how we celebrate Christmas through time, from the Romans through to the Victorians, to modern day England. It was humorous, entertaining and informative. But what always strikes me with our Year 3 productions is the maturity in which our 7 year olds approach this event. Many share the lead roles. Many have long speeches to remember. Many play different roles, wearing different costumes and remembering their cues.

But all of them engage with the production with gusto and sheer glee as they sing merrily the songs whilst reflecting still seriously on the message of Christmas. I have to remind myself that they are only seven, yet the manner in which they hold the stage with grace and joy is not dissimilar to professional actors.

It also serves to remind me if we ask much, the girls always deliver and do so with pride. They have come a long way since they joined our community in September. They have formed new friendships, enjoyed the challenges, responded positively to their learning and maintained their energy right to the very end of a long term. It is with pride that I, their teachers and their parents watched this magical event. As parents mouthed the words, their daughters had learned so carefully and others wiped a tear from their eye, we were all captivated by the Year 3s and impressed by the distance the girls had travelled.

As the end of a very busy term draws near the Year 3 production always stands out as a testament that schools are wonderful places of learning, celebration and joy. A Merry Christmas to you all!

Changing World of University

At the recent GSA Heads’ Conference, we were asked to consider whether the best students need to specialise at Russell Group universities. A provocative statement indeed, especially for schools, such as BGS, where large number of our students attend Russell Group universities. But the evidence is growing, an increasing number of employers are becoming degree blind. Deloitte, and Ernst and Young are developing their own tests to find the students they need. Penguin, Unilever, Google and IBM are all beginning to look beyond the degree and setting up a selection process that gives scant regard to the quality of university qualification.

Why? Because they are finding that degrees are specialised in silos of knowledge. Students are not able to connect knowledge. Societal problems are not subject specific they cut across silos. If graduates cannot problem solve, think laterally, collaborate and work in different dimensions they are not useful to their employers.

More and more I am hearing from our parents, who are the future employers that the skills they need in their businesses are sorely lacking in young graduates. They cite a lack of initiative, a lack of creativity or the need to be micro-managed. If this is the case it is not surprising that large businesses are beginning to disregard the degree and instead test the graduates directly in these skills.

Our students are also becoming more savvy. Whilst there is the intrinsic joy of learning, the reality of a £50k debt and insecure employment prospects forces many to question the need for a degree. Apprenticeships are becoming game changers. Why stack up a debt when you can have direct access to the profession without paying the costs.

Universities, like schools, are having to review what they are teaching. Sir Anthony Seldon at the GSA Conference reminded us that we are facing the biggest revolution in tertiary education in 60 years. If universities continue to deliver what they are currently teaching they will not survive. It is not enough to teach History, French, or Spanish; they need as part of their degrees to be teaching data and technological literacy, holistic and systems thinking, entrepreneurship and perhaps increasingly important in today’s world, critical thinking and the discernment of what is truth.

A new market in universities will appear, two year degrees, bilateral degrees, nano degrees, alternatives to universities, diversification within universities and increasingly students applying to individual institutions rather than through UCAS. Unconditional offers are just a taste of things to come and we need to be ready.

At BGS with our emphasis on building learning skills, providing a forward thinking careers education, which encourages the girls to consider alternatives and offering the IB Diploma Programme, an internationally recognised qualification, are all ways in which we are working hard to  make sure our girls have an education and mind-set which is future focused.

Healing through Drama

Last night I went to the opening night of Alice, our Years 11- Upper Sixth school production. It was superb. I do not think I have both laughed and cried so much in a single production and left the theatre still tingling from the atmosphere created by our BGS and Bedford School teenagers.

The set design and costumes were striking and clever, even to the detail of the set changers wearing similar costume to the cast. The music and lighting were carefully choreographed to enhance the mood created by the actors, and the intelligent direction ensured the actors blended beautifully the absurdity of Lewis Carols Wonderland with the message of grief and loss that pervaded the whole play.

Grief is a difficult topic. At the recent GSA conference I was reminded that 70% of GSA schools, at any one time, will have a bereaved child or adult in their school, yet it is something we find difficult to talk about. Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist who specialises in paediatric counselling, highlighted the fundamental role schools played in supporting children and young adults through their bereavement. A school’s support is integral to helping them cope with their loss. We, therefore, must not sweep it under the carpet or shy away from talking about it for fear of upsetting the individual who is grieving. We need to be honest, we need to listen and not tell them how they should feel. We need to recognise that grief is a normal and healthy response to loss and we as teachers cannot fix it.

For me what resonated the most from Julia Samuels’s lecture was that grief is about mourning the loss of the relationship we had with that person. The black hole that people use to describe their feelings is the emptiness of their life without that relationship. Whilst we grow to accept that we will not see that person again, grieving is about recognising that the relationship we had still shapes us and is still part of us. We want markers in our life to celebrate it and we want to talk about that person to remember and celebrate that relationship. So whilst grief is about mourning the loss it is also about a process of restoration as we try to re-engage in the world holding onto the relationship without that person.

The production of Alice touched on all of these themes. Through Alice’s dream, she starts to understand her need to mourn the loss of her sister whilst trying to re-engage with the world without that important relationship in her life. The actors played the theme sensitively, honestly and powerfully. As someone who has recently experienced loss, I found the play cathartic and I felt very proud of the cast whose acting had helped me with my healing process.

Take your Grandparents to School Day

On Wednesday, we ran our first “Take your Grandparents to School Day”. Grandparents can play a significant role in the lives of our girls; helping out with child care, acting as a taxi service, advising on homework questions, being part of an audience in the theatre, cheering on from the side of the hockey pitch, and for many, generously helping out with the school fees. For many parents, working hard and juggling family life, the additional support of grandparents is vital for the success of the family unit. So for us it was a pleasure to invite our grandparents into school to see their granddaughters in action and listen to what we are trying to achieve in their granddaughter’s education.

For many of our grandparents, they had not been “back to school” or into classroom lessons since they left in the 50s and 60s. Many were also alumnae who had not been back to their old School for many years. Whilst the set up and demands of the traditional examination systems has changed little, the teaching and classroom experience has significantly moved forward. At BGS, our teachers are no longer the sage on the stage; technology has released them from being the fonts of all knowledge. Their role is not to fill empty vessels but to ignite fires in the pupils’ learning, which can now be done in a multitude of exciting ways. Technology has liberated the teachers and has enabled them to be far more innovative in their delivery and imaginative with their use of space in and outside of the classroom.

Our grandparents loved it; they appreciated what we were doing and why. The teachers loved it, explaining to our community of grandparents what they were studying in lessons, but most of all the girls loved welcoming their grandparents in to School. For me, it was touching seeing the girls look out for their grandparents at break-time and the pride they had in showing them their “place of work”. The atmosphere in the school was joyful; it reminded me of the vital importance a community plays in the education of each and every child.