Educating girls for life, not just school

I spent the first part of last week at the annual Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) Conference in the serene Cotswolds, which was a fabulous opportunity to connect with fellow heads of girls’ schools and to discuss together the prevailing themes and challenges facing us in education. I have come away with plenty of food for thought and an abundance of reflections, providing ample material for future instalments of High News. I heard fascinating talks on the authority gap, the mental health of our adolescents, the development of inclusive cultures in schools, among others.

During her opening speech, GSA President Marina Gardiner-Legge, who also leads Oxford High School, lauded the resilience, persistence and adaptability fostered by the tailored education provided by girls’ schools. I think that our annual Senior School House Plays performance is a great example of this. Even though the students may initially consider taking part as just about singing, dancing and putting on a show, they are in fact developing vital skills of communication, collaboration and adaptability, essential tools for navigating the complexities of the modern world. Furthermore, they are also making memories that will last for years to come.

I often say in my meetings with prospective families that one of the unique joys of a girls’ school is that everything in it is meticulously designed just for them: the curriculum, the classroom, the leadership opportunities, and the very culture of the school is intricately woven around the empowerment of women. This week, I had the privilege of interviewing several Year 11 students applying for the Sixth Form Spirit Scholarship. It is interesting to hear their perspectives on the value and importance of an all-girls learning environment. Even more inspiring and commendable is their answer to what contributions they would like to make to the GDST and our school. Every one of them said, in their own way, it is vital to prepare and educate girls and young women for a world which is not equal, and to help them develop the skills necessary to confront the evident bias and challenges which still remain in many aspects of society.

This theme resonated with Marina’s speech, as she highlighted the ways in which women’s standing globally is still unequal, despite significant progress and development in recent years. From the disproportionate impact of war on women in conflict zones to the widening global pay gap and the burdens of the ‘second shift’ of home duties for working women, the challenges are vast and multifaceted. For us in schools, there is no doubt that the cost and availability of childcare is having an impact on teacher recruitment and retention, and that’s just one way in which becoming a mother can adversely affect a woman’s working life.

As Marina aptly pointed out, the world is not just unequal and underrepresentative of women, it can also be actively unpleasant for them. This stark reality was further illuminated by journalist and broadcaster Mary Ann Sieghart in her discussion of her new book, The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men and what we can do about it. Sieghart demonstrated the inequalities of attitude faced by women, by citing study after study which demonstrated the myriad ways in which women are systematically underestimated, patronised, assumed to be more junior, frequently interrupted. Interruptions were an interesting example. As Sieghart put it, interrupting someone fundamentally tells them you are more important than them which is a fundamental assertion of dominance. She quoted a study of US Supreme Court hearings revealing that female Supreme Court Justices were interrupted three times more often than their male counterparts, with 96% of the interruptions coming from men. These women are some of the most powerful in the federal government and yet they remain subject to the basic inequality: an excellent demonstration of the authority gap.

Therefore, it is incumbent on us to unleash the power of girls, instilling in them the confidence and self-belief required for a future that is not just designed for them but with their active participation. Students in girls’ schools, as trailblazers, serve as catalysts for a more inclusive society, and there is no doubt that the unique collective understanding of a girls’ school offers opportunities for female leadership and empowerment in an environment where every pupil can be a role model for each other.

We know every girl in our school. Education is a personal journey, one that involves igniting each girl’s curiosity and enabling her to understand herself and her aspirations, so she can navigate life with persistence and purpose, enacting positive change for those around her. As the world and other young women see more girls boldly and courageously living their lives in all parts of society, the more will be inspired to join them, confidently taking their place alongside these trailblazers.

I am encouraged that Northampton High is taking practical steps to make a real change and to encourage our girls to speak up, speak out and speak loud, where they feel equipped and ready to do what is right rather than what is easy, to be captain of their lives and make them fulfilling and meaningful. I know that we are educating our girls for life, not just for exams, university and work and we must find ways to continuously reinforce the worth and value of women in society, and to give them the confidence to know that their voices will be heard for the benefit of everyone. The skills often associated with women – collaboration, empathy, communication, integrity, moral courage – are desperately needed in all sectors and in our leaders.

Thank you for your continued support as we work together to empower and support our girls, and embrace the extraordinary magic of a girls only school.