Assessing Potential

Spring is the time when we, like many independent schools, set our entrance examinations and children across the country are assessed to see if they qualify for the school of their dreams. It is a tough time for parents and their children. Having seen it from both sides, as an aunt and as a Headmistress, I can attest that it’s also a testing time for schools because in seeking to determine a child’s ability and her potential, we are also required to make a judgement on how happy, successful and inspired she will be as part of our particular model of teaching and learning.

Equally, as a parent, choosing the right school for your child is not easy. You have to evaluate what is right for your child. What can they achieve in the school? What can they bring out of the school and what the school can bring out of them? It is a process that requires a good deal of careful thought and carries an awful lot of responsibility. However, if you believe a school is right for your child and that an independent school best meets your educational ideal then the selection process should not be seen with fear. If it is indeed the right place for your individual child, then the selection process will have been devised to draw out the attributes they want in their pupils, those that will be happy and prosper in their specific environment and who will thrive through a shared ethos and approach to learning. If the school you believe to be right for your child is highly academic then your child should gain a place if such a selective school suits their personality, their approach to learning and their benchmarking of academic success. If your child is a Bedford Girls’ School girl, she will gain a place because she will have demonstrated her ability to think critically, to make intellectual connections between disparate areas and her personality and potential sit with our values of bold, imaginative and reflective.

The school chosen should never be seen as a badge of honour that is worn proudly by the parent, with the badge suggesting the intellectual prowess of their child. If your child is not academically motivated to get into a highly selective school without excessive tutoring and additional hothousing then your child will ultimately be unhappy in that environment. They will feel inadequate, they will begin to struggle and all the things you want for your child – confidence, self-esteem and self-belief will gradually ebb away.

The best way to prepare your child for any entrance test is to make them think they can do it. Build up their confidence, reassure them and give them plenty of sleep and good food before the event. Make them feel excited and make them see it as an opportunity to share with the school all that they know. Don’t make them view the day with fear. Their preparation should not be about seeing tutors, sitting endless tests and switching them off from learning. Your child should know and really believe that if they do not get into the school, it is not the child’s failure, it is because the school simply isn’t the right place for them. In fact, they should be encouraged to think of it as an opportunity to reassess their options in the knowledge that the right place, a place where they will truly flourish, will be found and a brighter pathway to a successful future forged.

I do not want to see girls in my school struggle academically in comparison to their peers. I believe a child’s self-esteem, their sense of worth is the most important gift a school can give. If they do not get into our school it is not because they are failures, but because they would not thrive. It is my profound belief that all children have a valuable and unique role to play in the betterment of a future world and equally a school that will best facilitate that.

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas

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My childhood was spent in Australia; Christmas there is celebrated in the heat and for me it was without my extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who lived in England. The magic of Christmas, the joy of the celebrations never felt quite right. Something was always missing.

But now – I love Christmas and I especially love celebrating the run up to Christmas at school. At BGS Christmas begins with the Association’s Christmas Fayre. The night before, the Head Girl’s Team in both the Junior and Senior School decorate the Christmas trees and on the following day we open up our doors, this year to over 300 people, our biggest Fayre ever. The Fayre is always a special occasion – a lovely mix of girls’ stalls raising money for Charity and professional stalls selling Christmas gifts. Parents and girls move between both, spending money and donating generously. It is special because it brings together the whole community, young and old, neighbours and parents, all entering into the spirit of Christmas.

The next Christmas event on the BGS calendar is the Year 3 Christmas production. This year it was enchanting, telling the story of Silent Night. I marvel at the maturity of our girls; at the age of 7 or 8 they have the presence to command the stage, singing, dancing and learning for some, large numbers of lines. Every girl takes part and every girl has her special moment on the stage. We give girls opportunities at BGS at a very young age, but what delights me most is that the girls readily seize them. The performance this year was exceptional and I commend the girls and the staff who directed them.

Polished performances are always on display at our Christmas Music Recital evenings. Always heart-warming and uplifting they demonstrate the wealth of musical talent from the Junior and Senior Schools and are a highly anticipated moment in our calendar. This year has been extra special for our Junior School choir who had the honour of performing for His Royal Highness Prince Charles as part of the opening ceremony at the Christmas Tree Festival at St Paul’s Church. It was a moving and memorable occasion for everyone involved.

Christmas is also about the Christian message; the birth of Jesus Christ. It is one of the most important traditions on the Christian calendar and we remind ourselves of this message with our annual Carol Service at St Paul’s, Bedford. We are, however, a school of different faiths and beliefs and although not all our community take part we give all the opportunity to experience this tradition.

We finally celebrate the other great English tradition of the Christmas pantomime. On the penultimate day of school, the Upper Sixth work with the staff to put on this annual production. This year it is Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and staff are already learning their lines, dusting down their costumes and looking forward to the roar of the approval of the whole school. It is a time of enormous fun as the staff share the stage with girls, acting spontaneously and revelling together in the slap stick humour of the event

Yes Christmas is a special time and I have to say, at BGS, one I look forward to every year.

Alumnae ambitions

Last Saturday we held the annual general meeting for former pupils and staff of Dame Alice Harpur School. It was a delight to see so many people spanning a wide range of generations: from former pupils who had left school three years ago to those in their late 80s. Without exception every person there was proud of the schooling they had received and wanted to do all they could to help the next generation of alumnae from Bedford Girls’ School.

As a body of people they were keen to create a very strong alumnae association. They wanted to build an active pool of former pupils and staff to help nurture and develop the younger, new members as they left school. One recent alumna wanted to come back to school to speak to our Year 11s about the value of work experience and how the work experience she had at Year 11 had shaped her life. She also recalled the benefits of Future Fortunes, organised by our Careers Department for the Lower Sixth, which gave her the opportunity to meet professionals which helped her to build up links that she is still using today.

It is this type of alumnae community we are trying to create where former pupils proactively reach out to members in a number of different ways. It stretches far beyond reunions at school and offers a wider range of activities to benefit members of different ages in diverse communities.

Our aim for our alumnae association resonates with what Hillary French, president of the Girls’ School Association, spoke about this morning on BBC Breakfast. She said that schools had a role not just in teaching girls to pass examinations but also, importantly, to give them the softer skills of networking and building contacts to help them compete successfully in the very competitive job market. It is with this ambition in mind, this evening I am meeting with former alumnae of both Bedford High School for Girls and Dame Alice Harpur School who are currently studying in Newcastle and Durham. Why the North East? The GSA Heads’ Conference this year is being held at Newcastle and it provides me with opportunities to introduce former pupils of both schools to speakers at the conference and in doing so build up their networks. Schooling at BGS continues long after the girls have left us in Upper Sixth!

Responsibility, Learning, Recognition & Joy

In my role as a Head, I am fortunate enough to meet and share information and ideas with a variety of business leaders. Kevin Roberts, Worldwide CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi recently told me that in life, whatever you do, whatever you choose, you should always seek out four things: responsibility, learning, recognition and joy. Four important words and ones that resonate with everyday life at BGS. Our Open Morning was no exception.

First our Head Girls, in the Junior and Senior School, took on the responsibility of speaking to a large audience of prospective parents and girls, explaining why they chose this school and what it meant to them. Harriet Clough, BGS Head Girl said “An important part of coming to Bedford Girls’ School is that it helps us flourish, and grow into the women of the future in this complicated and fast-moving world”. Anna Sherwin, Head Girl of the Junior School, felt that “the best thing about BGS is the opportunity you get to do the things you love. I also like that you get the chance to know lots of different girls throughout other year groups and the feeling that you belong to the school”. It was Anna’s maiden speech, but listening to her speak with such confidence you would never guess.  I know an all girls’ environment has helped give them the confidence to be who they are and take on the responsibility of leading the school.

The value of learning at our school was also very evident at our Open Morning. James Potter, our Director of ICT, demonstrated the power of teaching and learning with new and emergent technology. He demonstrated how iPads and apps can add a new dimension to teaching strategies and to what girls gain, holistically, from being in our classrooms. In doing so, he showcased The 13th Legacy, a book our current Year 9s have collaboratively written and is now selling on Amazon, with its own website built by the authors. Most of all he showed how teaching is changing in the 21st century and how BGS is in the vanguard of these changes.

Open Morning also affords an opportunity for our girls to receive the public recognition of their hard work and talent they so richly deserve. Our musicians played beautifully, our sportswomen showed why BGS is so successful in sport and our drama students performed confidently their parts for the next school play, the RSC production of the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is also an opportunity for girls to act as our guides showing the many different features that make up our school, answering questions honestly and sincerely. The parents were impressed by their genuine pride in the school, their willingness to give up a Saturday, and speak so positively about BGS. They were a credit to us.

Unsurprisingly then, that there was a palpable sense of joy in the building. People were really enjoying what they were doing, whether it was performing, touring, demonstrating or answering questions; it was all done with enthusiasm, good will and most of all joy. As Nicole Chapman, Head of Chelmsford County High School for Girls, said last week in The Daily Telegraph: “Girls in a single-sex environment can totally be themselves. They don’t have to pander to anything to do with being a girl. If they love to do really sporty things, if they love their Maths, Science or IT, no boy will push them out of the way.” No one is pushing our girls out of the way, they are seizing every opportunity and that is what gives me the most joy!

Campaigning for girls’ education across the globe

Friday 11th October is International Day of the Girl: a day when groups from all over the world take action to highlight, discuss and ultimately change situations and actions that devalue, neglect and oppress girls. Established and led by girls themselves, these proactive collectives join together to discuss, highlight and advance girls’ lives and opportunities across the globe, helping everyone to adopt new ways of thinking about gender issues.

I feel strongly that part of our role as teachers is to educate our girls to want to make a difference to the world in which they live, educating them to make the world a better place. I was therefore delighted when the Girls’ Leadership Group embraced this idea and decided to make International Day of the Girl a landmark in their own forceful drive for change. On this day, they will be undertaking a series of challenges and initiatives both to mark the day and to support a charity they feel particularly passionate about: Educating Girls Globally.

Entirely under their own steam, the GLG has become one of 35 girls’ schools in the world to embrace the charity. They have built connections with girls’ leadership groups across the globe, forming links with schools in Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Together, this global group aims to raise money to support girls’ schools in developing countries and raise awareness of the importance of girls’ education in combatting global poverty. The girls are rightly proud of the connections they have made and together the schools are supporting a fund raising project for a school in Malawi where the girls want the funds they raise to help build classrooms, toilets and a security wall to make girls feel safe in their school.

One of the many challenges facing girls in developing countries is the distance they have to walk to get to school. For many it is a distance of 10km. As a school we are also getting behind the Plan UK and GSA Because I am a Girl campaign of walking 10kms on International Day of the Girl and we are encouraging all our girls in the Senior School to be part of a team of 10 to walk 1km in their lunchtime and donate money to Educating Girls Globally. The Girls Leadership Group are taking the challenge further and walking the full 10kms!

We are also showing on International Day of the Girl the film Girl Rising which highlights the importance of girls’ education and the difference education made to the lives of six girls. The film tells the girls’ stories. It is powerful.

As our Head Girl, Harriet Clough said to the school last week “Being able to just give a little of what we have at Bedford Girls’ School to the school in Malawi will make such an incredible difference to the lives and education of the girls that attend the school”. Girls at BGS are making a difference and I am very proud of their efforts to do so.

A sense of place

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First and foremost, a headmistress is a teacher with a passion for her subject and an overwhelming desire to spark a similar enthusiasm in her pupils. At heart, I am a Geographer and when given the opportunity to accompany a school geography trip I leap at the chance.

Last week I joined the Upper Sixth Geographers on a field trip to Belfast. A city deeply segregated and devastated by the decline in the ship yards in the 1980s, it has undergone a significant transformation brought about by the peace talks.  The end of the troubles encouraged large amounts of foreign investment to flow into Belfast revitalising the area with new industries, housing and employment opportunities. The girls’ brief was to look at the regeneration of Belfast, particularly the docks, to see whether the investment had resulted in positive change for the people of Belfast.

The girls were struck by the new industries, particularly the award winning Titanic Museum (which I would highly recommend), but they were also very much aware of the religious divide that still defined the city. Religious enclaves were clearly marked by flags that hung on every lamp post, the murals drew people’s attention to the enclave’s particular interpretation of the past and a no man’s land still existed between the two communities, marked by gates on either side. The girls, like me, were taken back by the patriotic demarcation which felt threatening and menacing and wondered how long it would be before the flags were taken down and the communities began to co-exist. Revitalisation was happening in Belfast but communities were still divided.

Field trips, I believe, open up the mind to worlds unfamiliar to your own. Seeing and being present in a natural landscape can give you a sense of awe and wonder at its creation, which the Giant’s Causeway seen in the morning certainly did. It also helps to understand the processes that give shape to the world in which we live. The trip to Belfast certainly introduced girls to a world that was unfamiliar to them and gave them, I hope, a greater understanding of how the use of space can provoke conflict. We all agreed the 12 hours spent in Belfast was worth it; I have not stopped thinking about the trip, I am sure the girls are the same. 

Playing your part

I think one of the greatest challenges for any teacher is not to underestimate the potential of a pupil. It is a skill to be able to set ambitious goals that demand much from the pupils without overwhelming them and making them feel a failure if they are unable to realise them. To challenge and engage is something we are continually striving to do at BGS and never more was this evident than with our first House Drama Festival.

We have asked girls in the Lower Sixth to direct and produce part of a play which is performed by girls in Year 7. For both sets of girls this provides a challenge. Both are entering a new stage in their education with all the excitement and nervousness that this produces and both have been asked to engage with people they do not know and produce within four weeks a part of a play.

I have to say there was some nervousness when I set this challenge but once again the girls are rising to the occasion. The first rehearsal was on Thursday and I was very proud by the manner in which the Lower Sixth took on board their responsibility. They ran the House meeting confidently, and introduced to the Year 7s, what I hope becomes a part of BGS’s history – a House Drama Festival. The Year 7s, I hope, enjoy forming friendships and connections with the elder girls, and will remember what they learnt from being directed by the Lower Sixth, and use this knowledge when they become Sixth Formers and direct the Year 7s in 2018.

It is of course early days. The after school dress rehearsals begin this week. Producing plays is always full of highs and lows; unlearnt lines, costumes or props that don’t materialise, pre play nerves but I hope the girls learn how to lead but most importantly how to work in a team to produce the best from the players in that team.

The girls are rising to the challenge, they are engaged and I look forward to the results.