School Blog


Leading women and women as leaders

Over the past few days, several events have come together that have caused me to focus on the school that we are: our school librarian’s recommendation of ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’, by Caroline Criado Perez, discussions around our response to Black Lives Matter and my virtual attendance at the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) Conference, 2020.

Criado Perez’s book covers a wide variety of issues relating to the theme of gender bias or, perhaps – more accurately – data bias, and it is a fascinating read. In it, she addresses issues from government policy and medical research, to technology, workplaces, urban planning and the media, but a theme she refers to again and again is the influence of lack of role models on girls’ self-perception and learning. This includes ‘brilliance bias’ through which she explains that by the age of six girls have often started to doubt their gender and quoting a 2017 paper on the subject:

‘A recent US study found that when girls start primary school at the age of five, they are as likely as five-year-old boys to think women could be ‘really, really smart’. But by the time they turn six, something changes. They start doubting their gender.’

Much of this she links to leadership, stating that many girls go on to view female lecturers as less qualified than their male counterparts, despite the reality, and the huge sexist bias that remains. She also states that ‘job vacancies are still often announced with masculine forms – particularly if they are for leadership roles’ and that (only) ‘27% of CEOs in the US are female, but women made up only 11% of the Google Image search results’. Relevant to our children’s ‘education’, too, she states that ‘only 13% of non-human children’s TV characters are female and of children’s films released between 1990 and 2005, 72% of speaking roles went to male characters’. And, more importantly, of failures in the curriculum: the first being the 2015 campaign by an A Level student who noticed that, ‘of the sixty-three set works included in her music syllabus, not a single one was by a woman’ and the other Michael Gove’s 2013 national History curriculum that saw an ‘almost wholesale absence of women’.

Given the above – the ‘brilliance bias’, ill-designed curricula and a disproportionately low number of female role models, particularly in leadership positions, it is not surprising that Criado Perez writes that ‘a powerful woman is seen as a norm violation’.

Inspired by her book and associated research, I took some time to explore the facts about female leadership in schools and, although the figures are now several months old, this research is still representative today.

These figures tell us that, of 221,000 teachers employed in state-funded primary schools 34,100 are men and 187,000 are women, a ratio of 1:5.5, yet there are 4,500 male heads and 12,300 female heads, a ratio of 1:2.7 – almost half the proportion. Put another way, if you are a man working in a state-funded primary school, you are twice as likely to be a head as your female counterpart; in a secondary school, you are almost three times as likely to be so. Of the (relatively few) female heads that are in post, a shocking 96.6% in state schools are of white ethnicity. This reflects, in part, recruitment to the profession, but it is also a misrepresentative statistic in its own right. And let’s not forget the zeitgeist that is the gender pay gap…

My research went well beyond these headlines, but the outcome was still the same, and that is that women leaders are still well behind men, even in the 21st century, both within my own profession and beyond.

As she opened the GSA conference this week, Jane Prescott – Head of Portsmouth High School, Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) and Chair of GSA – spoke of strong female role models who have demonstrated tremendous leadership over recent months, including Angela Merkel, Erna Solberg and Jacinda Arden. When asked “Do you think girls in schools have been inspired by female leaders around the world, whether this has given them confidence and whether empathy has been seen to be a strength?”, Jane concurred.

Speaking later in the conference, Cheryl Giovannoni, CEO of the GDST, quoted Hillary Clinton’s concession speech of 2008 in which she acknowledged that Barack Obama was the clear nominee for the Democratic Party, stating that “although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” This is a woman whom Criado-Perez reminds us was seen, in the 2016 US presidential election, as ‘too ambitious’ to many, yet Cheryl reminded us of the fact that she displays many of the characteristics that we teach our girls every day: to be fearless, to get up, dust themselves off and carry on, and to believe in themselves and never give up on their dreams.

As members of the GDST family of schools and the GSA network we have no shortage of inspirational role models: in the GDST alone we have over 70,000 alumnae, many of whom are willing to give their time and knowledge to current students through initiatives such as the Rungway mentoring app and GDST Life.

Criado Perez’s quotes on the failures in the curriculum with regard to the absence of women are now a few years’ old and, although some progress has been made, more can be, too. Now, though, we are all rightly focusing on Diversity and Inclusion, Black Lives Matter and the associated curricula. As an independent school we have the gift to change the curriculum for all our students and we are working to do so through conversation with pupils, parents and staff. As members of the GDST and its ‘UNDIVIDED’ commitment to diversity, inclusion and real change, we can do even more.

I could not be more proud than to be leading one of the GDST family’s schools and to be a part of the wider GSA network, and particularly at this difficult time. I fully believe that our students have all of the inspiration, collaboration and support that they need to excel in life, and to eventually allow that light to beam through the place where that ‘glass ceiling’ once stood…


Ceramics at Northampton High School

Clay is an exciting medium and never fails to intrigue and excite children of all ages. I love to see faces light up when young people are handed a block of stoneware at the beginning of a project, and see the amazement when you simply slice a block with cut-off wire to reveal that flat, smooth clean edge.

I am lucky; I started my teaching career in 1994 with Glyn Thomas at Kenton School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where ceramics was strong and celebrated. Glyn and his team have sent many excellent ceramicists onto higher education, including Stuart Carey, but over the years we have seen how the Arts in schools, particularly traditional crafts, have been in decline. I hear stories of whole ceramics departments shutting down due to the scale, space and running costs needed to sustain courses in universities and colleges; not to mention the expertise needed to manage kilns, pug mills, slab rollers and wheels. Teachers do worry about where clay is going but I know there are schools and colleges in the UK who, like us, have a passion for clay.

What is happening to the craft of clay? How many schools are still using potters wheels? If courses are not available what is the point in continuing to teach children these skills? Why? Because children love handling clay. They want to squeeze it and experiment with shape and form. They want to see it ooze between their fingers. They want to give it a good bash on the desk. They are liberated, energised and excited by its possibilities.

Junior School Year 4 Owls from 2019, Constructed through Slabs and Coils.

My department are experienced enough to know that allowing the girls to independently explore their ideas is going to lead to fantastic sculptures. We plan and lead projects across our Junior and Senior School, and in particular, the last two years have been busy for us with a range of hand building projects taking shape. We find our sources of inspiration from surprising starting points and impromptu discussions in the department. Hand built animals are always popular, and we like to explore cultures through clay, examples include Egyptian Canopic Jars, Islamic Tiles and Native American Totems.

Researching projects is a fantastic element of Art, Craft and Design teaching and Karen Bull, who studied Ceramics and Glass at Cardiff, spends her valuable technician time creating exemplar sculptures as teaching aids, in addition to team teaching with Nieldre Laubscher and myself. She is very much at the forefront of the department, not just the mysterious figure loading the kiln at the back of the classroom. The girls know her.

Clubs such as Polymer Clay have popped up with students in Year 8 leading these sessions during their lunchtime, continuing their love of 3D work. This group of girls then formed a business venture through one of our Business Studies teachers, Imogen Tansley. The Tenner Challenge is a national competition – ‘Clay Create’ made a healthy profit after successful sales from stalls and markets.

‘ClayCreate’ Year 8 Students (Ariana, Mia, Annie-May and Lois).

Ceramics and working with clay is enjoyed by students of all ages, and we love giving our pupils the chance to be creative and see their ideas come to life. They love to use their imagination, and express themselves with different methods and techniques, to create a final product to be proud of and celebrate. This is the case across the whole of the school, with methods of study and practical tasks progressing as students grow, as you will see below.

A Level student Freya visited Kew Gardens and she was inspired by the glass art installation of Dale Chihuly. She wanted to use clay on a larger scale within a designated space, as opposed to creating a small sculpture, vessel or ornament. She examined curves, rhythms and repetition, before sketching and planning her interior space in The Studio. Additionally, she has made prototypes and support work in paper and card, experimenting with colour and monochromatic pieces.

Left: A Level work in progress. Component parts ready for larger ceramic installation.
Right: Year 4 Owls in Progress. Showing use of hands and modelling tools to achieve texture.

In our Junior School, Year 4 students have taken up the enjoyable task of creating clay owls. Starting with a block of clay, we used various wooden and metal tools, along with knives to refine and develop owl shapes and features, but we talked to pupils about our hands being the best for sculpting. The pupils quickly learned the importance of balance, use of slip and the drying out process before firing.

In Year 8, one exciting task our students undertook during the summer term was to create Islamic designs using traditional terracotta clay. Groups consulted traditional Islamic patterns and symmetry before creating their tiles, which the students carved with wooden and metal tools, incised with knives or built up with raised slabs to create a variety of designs and finishes. Card and paper templates ensured high quality results.

Islamic designs, ready for tile construction, using traditional terracotta clay for authenticity.

Students in Year 9 had great fun creating Club Tropicana inspired plates. Using slabs and underglazes for colour, old plates were used as moulds for the ease of construction and to give a smooth finish, with the finished items being displayed proudly at the front of the school. A recent task for our Year 10 students was to plan and create their own Canopic Jars. Using the coil technique to hand build the structure, the final results were fantastic as you will see below.

The finished results of our Year 9 Club Tropicana plates and the Year 10 Canopic Jars

One of our recent projects was ambitious in both number and scale, with us transforming our Senior School foyer to represent an ocean bed ceramic installation. 71 Year 8 students looked at a range of artists including Ernst Haeckel and Kate Malone, to inspire shapes and forms for their sculptures. Sea sponges, urchins, coral and kelp all provided ideas for the girls to express themselves through slabs, coils and hollowing out solid shapes.

Our intention was to provide our visitors not just with a decorative ocean bed, sweeping underneath our large open stairways, but to share a social comment on plastic in our oceans and the need for this to cease. Upon further inspection, the audience could see the plastic remnants we place in our installation and read the statistics and the action taken to stop this plastic pollution. Eco bricks created and donated by our school community and Eco Team, led by Head of Humanities, Mr Earp, will form part of the installation.

As we return to school, many new exciting projects are underway across all areas of the arts. We are excited to share our progress, and we invite you to head to our Twitter page (@ArtsNHS) where you will find a plethora of media showcasing our students’ outstanding work.

Mrs Mel Beacroft
Head of Creative Arts Faculty


The Blackhole of Social Media

Prompted by a number of parent recommendations and lured by it racing up the Netflix charts, I finally caught up with some of The Social Dilemma last weekend and it offered rather more food for thought than I anticipated.

I hold my hand up here – I am a social media user. But I am also way behind some of our Senior School pupils; I cannot get to grips with media-rich social platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat and I believe the official term for most of my Facebook use is ‘lurking’ (that and shouting at the ridiculous posts on my local Facebook page). But enough about my own use. Suffice to leave it here that I think social media platforms can be a fantastic tool to connect people young and old and conduct citizen science research. And I also think they can be insidious timewasting wormholes, twisting reality and taking young people into black holes filled with worrying misinformation.

The latter of my opinions above is where we meet The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski who is well known for his films about environmental disasters.  Are we suggesting that Social Media is the new disaster waiting to engulf society?  It is presented in what is described by Professor Mary Aiken  as a ‘documentary drama hybrid’ and contains numerous interviews with former employees of various social media companies, who have apparently ‘now converted on some Internet superhighway to Damascus’ (ibid). Yet, despite the high drama and the stark warnings, which one could call out as hypocritical when delivered by these former silicon valley employees, there is something unsettling about watching this series.

The adult me understood the warning about usage of personal data, for example, but I know that teenagers do not generally understand fully what this could mean in terms of the post, information, photos and personal information they willingly share in what they think are closed environments.

My reflections went somewhat deeper than this though and considered the wave of mixed-messages given out by various organisations recently about how dangerous social media is.  The Department of Culture, Media and Sport recently published a white paper  following a consultation about online harms and is possibly as good as we have at the moment. The consensus here being that more research is needed to understand the potential harms.  A quick search online shows the numerous reports giving conflicting conclusions about whether social media causes increased self-harm, anxiety, depression and confusion amongst young people or not.

So where does this leave parents, educators and most importantly young people? Well firstly, I am certain that it is counterproductive for us to demonise mobile devices and social media apps. By doing so, we risk alienating young people who will dismiss our opinions as outdated and uninformed (‘you don’t even use TikTok do you Miss?’!). But we do need to remember that, as with all other aspects of life, our jobs as parents and educators is to guide young people and set clear boundaries.  It is not an easy task but in school we openly talk about social media use, what the good points are and how to protect themselves from the various different dangers that can lurk, including the unrealistic views of perfection that can be found.  Parents can certainly set limits on social media use by restricting app purchases or screen time.  But I would suggest that it is best not to fall into the trap of thinking that banning things is the best way to keep young people safe. Childnet  advise that a Family Agreement on mobile device use is a great tool – and that means agreements for parents too! Certainly, I know a number of families already successfully make use of a set ‘family meeting’ time each week where everyone switches devices off and talks about all sorts of things, including use of devices and what is happening online.  By bringing things out into the open, in a non-judgemental way, you can perhaps help your child to solve the social dilemma.

Parents may find this video of interest. It is part of a series we will be using with older students as part of our ongoing online self-awareness session.

Mrs O’Doherty
Deputy Head (Pastoral Care & Guidance)


Thoughts from the Head – Black Lives Matter

The shocking events following the tragic death of George Floyd in the USA have rightly sparked outrage and grief across the world, causing us all to reflect on our own values and attitudes towards racism – as individuals and as members of our school community.

We are privileged to be members of a racially diverse community at Northampton High School and I am proud of the fact that we avoid stereotyping, racism and unconscious bias. Indeed, our ISI inspection report earlier this year commented on this on many occasions, stating that ‘pupils show extremely high levels of respect for each other, being sensitive to different cultural traditions’ and that they are ‘tolerant and sensitive to each other’.

I am proud, too, of the fact that our school community is so passionate about the #BlackLivesMatter agenda and that there is great appetite to increase recognition of this through curricular and other means. Our students in partnership with our senior team have already been proactive in bringing matters of race to wider school community and plans are underway to move the agenda forward.

Much is already in place of course, however, we are keen to make the spirit of #BLM an inherent part of school life in all areas. We recognise that any change will be sustainable only if it comes jointly from the students themselves, myself and the senior team.

I have been hugely appreciative of our school community’s response to the situation and would like to thank the many parents who have volunteered to join the Diversity and Inclusion Forum and the students who have willingly come forward to form a society on the same theme. With so many committed to changing the culture for current and future generations of students, both in our own setting and beyond, we really have the opportunity to make a difference.

On a wider level, the GDST recognises that the organisation’s history and mission in helping girls to learn without limits – to achieve gender justice – cannot be achieved without racial justice, too. Consequently, our organisation plans to form a steering committee to work on a GDST Charter of Action that will ensure that staff, students, alumnae and parents have an opportunity to influence and contribute to the organisation’s goals and commitments in this area.

The Charter seeks to address ‘HOW we will make sure the GDST family always embodies an ethos of mutual respect and consideration; HOW we provide a safe, open and respectful working and learning environment for all; and HOW we will make sure everyone’s voice is heard as we seek to make meaningful change happen’. I very much hope that members of our community will commit to this, too.

Best wishes,

Caroline Petryszak – 12 June 2020