The Inspector Calls

Every six years an Independent School is inspected. For three days it opens its doors and welcomes Heads, Deputy Heads and Senior Teachers of other private schools to share good practice and to ensure the regulations laid down by the Government are being followed.
Inspections are invaluable for schools. They encourage rigour, discipline and ensure schools do no become complacent. But I think the true value of the ISI inspection is that in opening up your doors to colleagues from other schools excellent practice can be recognised, acknowledged and shared. The role of the inspector is to look for the best and make recommendations on how to make a good school even better. Inspectors shine a light on all areas and schools are better because of this.

Last week I was delighted to be invited to be part of an inspection team. I learnt much. I saw lessons, assemblies, looked at exercise books, school policies and spoke to pupils, staff and parents. It was a very full but enjoyable three days. I saw some excellent practice, some super lessons and many good ideas in action.

When you witness good practice I believe you should reflect upon how your own school compares and whether there is something you can learn from this to make your own school even better. For me no school is perfect as ultimately education should be about continual improvement and we should all be looking at ways and adopting ideas that allow this to happen. It reminds me of Dewey, an educational psychologist who said “If we teach today as we were taught yesterday we rob our students of tomorrow.” Certainly at the school I observed there were areas where we could improve our own practice by considering their approach, but equally there were many innovative things that we are doing that their school could learn from. It made me feel very proud of BGS.

Three days is a long time for a senior member of staff to be away from their own school but the experience you gain makes it so worthwhile. It is because of this that we actively encourage our senior staff to be trained as inspectors and when offered the opportunity to inspect to take it. I firmly believe BGS will always be a richer place because of it.

The hard value of soft skills

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Much has been written in the national press about the Girls’ Schools Association Head’s conference held last week in Newcastle where Head of the GSA, Hilary French asserted that the ability to filter ideas and knowledge and to practise what we misguidedly call the ‘soft skills’ are fast becoming bigger educational must haves than a string of top examination results. She went on to argue, “I’m beginning to think that ‘soft skills’ is a complete misnomer. What exactly is soft about being able to demonstrate resilience, leadership, integrity, confidence, independent thinking and compassion? What is soft about having the skill to communicate, to keep actively learning and adapting to the world around you?”

We certainly are living in times of great technological change that is impacting on education far more than it ever has done. The top ten fastest growing jobs today did not exist six years ago.  It is therefore imperative that as Heads we consider, very seriously, how we educate the girls today for a very different world to the one in which we grew up. The workplace is so full of new sectors and rapidly changing technologies that there is a growing recognition that education needs to teach the girls more about resilience and flexibility in their thinking so that they can adapt to the changing job market rather than focusing only on the mastery of knowledge. It is our role to ensure that the girls can position themself at the front of the wave of change, embracing and welcoming ideas.

Like the educational pioneers who set up the foundations of Bedford Girls’ School over 130 years ago, we are also living in times of immense social change. Above all else, schooling in the 19th century sought to prepare pupils for their future roles in the industrial age. Ken Robinson articulated this brilliantly during his 2010 TED talk on changing educational paradigms: Bring on the Learning Revolution. At the GSA conference we were encouraged to see a new model of education for the 21st century.

With knowledge and facts at the girls’ finger tips, courtesy of technology there is scope for education to become a more philosophical process, focusing on the value and role of the individual. This means valuing what each of us as individuals can do. Which educational philosophy is more permanent in this new era of change? One that seeks to educate everyone to the same benchmark, filling each and every pupil with an identikit tool kit of knowledge for a bygone industrial age or one that plays to the strengths of pupils as unique individuals and equips them with a diverse skillset and highly personable attributes, alongside academic success? In our brave new world, where change is so rapid and the world is at our fingertips, the value of the latter must surely be greater?    

At BGS we strive to do just that. We focus on the individual girl, creating an environment in which she can flourish. Giving her skills, opportunities and experiences that help her cope with the ever changing world ahead. Hillary French emphasised in her speech that society needed caring, compassionate citizens who can take responsibility and make a valuable contribution to their community. I could not agree more. I want our girls to be outward looking, open to change and most importantly I want them to go out and make a difference to other people’s lives.

As I left Newcastle I stopped off and admired Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. I was reminded of his vision in the creation of this masterpiece which was to grasp the transition from an industrial to information age, and serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears. How appropriate that the GSA Heads’ Conference was addressing these same ideals.

The value of education

I am conscious that like us, in the Autumn Term schools and universities across the country open their doors to prospective students, encouraging people to visit and see the fantastic features they have to offer and what makes them special.

At our Open Morning on Saturday I was reminded by our Head Girl, who is currently applying for universities, that we are all promoting similar educational values. We all want to provide the best for our students, we want them to engage with their learning and we want them to enjoy the experience. No educational institution should promise anything different. But the experience enjoyed will be dependent on the individual and what she is looking for.

Our Head Girl, Lucy Charatan, articulated four aspects that she wanted from a university which were the same criteria she applied to choosing schools. She wanted it to be strong academically, to provide co-curricular opportunities, the students to have a voice and for the institution to have a sense of community. Her ultimate question was whether she would be happy there?

Lucy is proud to be part of BGS. In her Open Morning speech, she felt that there was no one mould for a student at BGS but opportunities existed for anyone and everyone. It was important that her voice was valued and she and her team are leading the campaign “Culture of Kindness”, as part of Anti-bullying Week in November, with a “High Five” day. She feels strongly that there is a sense of belonging in the school and she and her peers want to contribute something to the school and to the wider society.

I am proud that Lucy and her peers want to make a difference and reminded that as educators what we have in common – the collective promotion of the value of education and how it leads to better opportunities – is greater than the features that uniquely define us.