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.

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.