Out of sight but not out of mind
Without a doubt the purpose of school is to educate, and the primary focus is understandably on students and teachers. It is surprising to realise therefore that, in common with most other schools, there are almost as many support staff as teachers at Northampton High. Why should this be? And what do they all do? Particularly when the school is closed during the evenings and school holiday periods.
It is reassuring that almost 50% of the support staff are directly involved in supporting teachers and students whether they be Science Technicians, IT Technical support, Teaching Assistants, Before and After School Care, Nursery Nurses, School Nurse, Counsellors or Examination Invigilators.
We have made a conscious decision at Northampton High to keep all school services in-house rather than contracting these functions out. This means that we have experienced teams of caterers and cleaners who take a great pride in keeping the domestic side of school running smoothly and to a high standard. The beauty of having in-house teams means they are flexible and responsive to the needs of the school community, whether this is during term time, or to support the community use of the building in the evenings, holidays and at weekends. It also means that these staff are generally long serving and very much an integral part of the wider school community which adds value in so many ways.
Our administration team take care of the two school Reception desks, transport administration, financial administration, examinations, database management, HR, marketing and admissions, trips organisation, ordering goods and services, as well as supporting teaching staff with routine administrative matters. I think anyone who has had reason to visit or telephone, either the Senior School or Junior School Reception, will acknowledge that they received a warm welcome and help with their enquiry.
This just leaves our Premises team who cope admirably with the running of a 27 acre site and school mini bus service. They are on hand 7 days a week to meet the demands of the school and out of hour’s lettings. The growing demands of compliance involve them dealing with the management of tree surveys, legionella, water risk assessments, asbestos management plans, health and safety, COSHH risk assessments, grounds contracts, swimming pool plant and our several school boiler rooms. They are an experienced team with a wealth of knowledge about the school site and infrastructure and are always on hand to carry out work requests from teaching staff. One of their favourite tasks is getting up at 3 am to open up the school to wave off a trip! Or being woken at 2 am when the intruder alarm has been activated by a display falling from a wall!
It feels like there has been a need for increasing numbers of support staff over the years brought about by an increase in legislation, inspection regimes and compliance, adherence to best practice in safeguarding and the need to risk assess just about everything we do. It would be good to think that the additional support staff have eased the workload of teachers but this is most certainly not the case. The job of the teacher is as challenging as ever, demanding a huge level of commitment, talent and many working hours. However it is true to say that the school could not operate with the dedicated team of support staff that also work hard, often behind the scenes, out of sight, and sometimes out of hours.
One of the joys if working at Northampton High is that all staff come together to form a community united in its aim of doing the best it possibly can for our pupils. This applies to all staff, whatever role they have to play.
International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day (IWD) offers an unmissable opportunity to shine a light on an area of human endeavour where women’s role has traditionally been too much in the shadows. This year, with our recent Music Department refurbishment in mind, we have chosen to celebrate the contribution of women to music composition. The hashtag for IWD 2019 – #Balance for Better –fits beautifully with this. IWD is not about claiming that women are better than men are but, rather, proclaiming that balance (or diversity, to put it another way) is better than narrow exclusivity.
Men have, it almost goes without saying, achieved amazing things in music. (Just think of Byrd, Bach(s), Buxtehude, Beethoven, Brahms, Bizet, Bruckner, Berlioz, Bartok, Barber, Britten, Bernstein, Birtwhistle, the Beatles and Bowie – without moving from one letter of the alphabet!) Women have, however historically found it very difficult to get any of their music heard. This has been true for all sorts of reasons – to do with the way money, power and time were distributed in society and to do with deep cultural attitudes, which disapproved of women taking the limelight.
It has been easy, then, to study and enjoy music (especially classical music) without ever meeting any women composers and easy to believe that women just aren’t there in the tradition. Jessy McCabe, the student whose high-profile challenge, a few years ago, of Edexcel on its exclusion of any women composers from its A Level Music Specification, hit a chord (ouch!) with a mass audience and, since then, change has come rapidly. Jessy’s action (backed by our own CEO, Cheryl Giovannoni) was a brilliant example of the power of persuasion – which we can all take inspiration from – and opened a doorway into a new world in which women composers, past and present, are popping up everywhere.
From Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century nun, writer, composer and a true pioneer, to the current luminaries of the composing scene, many of whom (Anne Dudley, Rachel Portman and Anoushka Shankar, for example) we have been celebrating in school over the last few weeks, we have discovered a plethora of prodigies to counterbalance the traditional canon.
Allied to this, IWD is also a perfect platform to celebrate the wealth of composing talent and originality we have in our midst, as our own students enjoy the opportunities in school to express their ideas and hone their skills, assisted by the recent addition of a state-of-the-art Music Technology Studio. We were, for example, delighted to hear Théa Deacon’s own original composition, inspired by a masterclass with Kerry Andrew at a Summer School at the Purcell School, in Assembly a few weeks ago.
Finally, Mrs Care’s specially created film focusing on the many women in key roles within the contemporary scene was a timely reminder of just what a vibrant professional field the British music industry is for young women to enter, at a time when many schools are easing music and other creative arts into the margins of their curriculum.
When sharing my own personal A-Z of women composers with the girls today, I left Y blank – with a challenge that said ‘Y could stand for You!’
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl starting a new school must be in want of a friend.
Little wonder, then that the topic of friendships dominates much of life in school in the first year, and often periodically in the years beyond. Sometimes, especially when we are growing up and exploring our identity, things go awry and, when this happens, it can be hard to avoid being engulfed by the emotional fall-out. ‘Girls on Board’ – our programme for tackling these issues (which Mrs O’Doherty wrote about in her High News article recently) – starts from the premise that, while we all need friends, managing our friendships can be tricky. It works towards the goal of empowering girls to manage the ups and downs of their friendships – building them, keeping them, salvaging them, changing them, leaving them behind – while also staying focused on the bigger picture of school life and its many demands and delights.
With the Annual Alumnae Reunion Lunch still fresh in my memory, though, I want to focus on the other side of the equation and consider the gifts that friendships, especially lifelong friendships, bring. The din of talk and laughter in the Dining Room on Reunion Day, Saturday 26 January, spoke volumes (literally, one might say) for the wonderful gift of friendship. Dozens of women, some regular attenders, others first-timers or decade specials, converged at school to reconnect and reminisce. They came from all over the country (as they always do) to be there. Some, who left school perhaps sixty years ago, were given lifts. Some, from far-flung places, were offered space in spare rooms and on sofa beds so that they could make a weekend of it. All were drawn by the power of friendship – the bonds that begin in childhood and are forged in the vivid milieux of our schooldays. The years peeled away as memories (of misdemeanours, as often as not) and jokes were aired and traded, and stories ripened by years of retelling, like vintage wines.
The Ancient Greeks, whose subtlety of thought in such matters has not persisted into modern times, recognised friendship as a form of love and called it philia – a love based on shared goodwill. The inherently reciprocal nature of philia – in contrast to other forms of love, such as passion, which can be one-sided – marks out the root of its special character. It is never asymmetrical or based on power, even if one friend becomes richer or more successful than the other. I believe that the essentially equal and reciprocal nature of true friendship is vitally important to young women as they leave school to enter a competitive and often unforgiving world where disinterested support can be hard to find.
Friendship comes at a price, though, both in effort and in forbearance. Gaining the full benefits involves taking the long view to surmount bumps in the road of relationships. It entails looking beyond the superficial transactionalism of social media likes to a deeper mutual regard. It means not sweating the small stuff. There may be differences of opinion. Ride them out. There may be quarrels. Patch them up. You may feel you are drifting further and further apart. Travel further. Make the effort to bridge the gap – going to your School Reunion is a great way to do this!
The push-me-pull-you dynamic of friendship will surely even out across shared lifetimes. Your A Level results were better than mine, I’m now getting paid more than you. I help you today with a work experience opportunity for your daughter. You gave me a helping hand with a loan for my start-up when I was made redundant ten years ago. We both visit Janet, whom we met when she joined the School in Year 4, because she is having a hard time with her ill partner.
Elizabeth Jennings, a poet and practitioner of friendship, summed it up exactly when she wrote:
Two people, yes, two lasting friends.
The giving comes, the taking ends
There is no measure for such things.
For this all Nature slows and sings.
This is the sort of friendship I see in evidence every year at our Reunion and it is one of the reasons that the event has an energy and an atmosphere about it that is unmistakable. This is the sort of friendship I wish for, for all the girls whose start in life is spent at Northampton High – the Alumnae of the future. To whom I conclude by saying – don’t measure it, just treasure it.
Should ‘Be More Kind’ Be the First School Rule?
“There is a momentum in kindness, that beats the momentum of ‘no tolerance” 
In these last few dark days of a seemingly endless January, it would be easy to be even less optimistic about some of the challenges in caring for the wellbeing of young. Many school staff (and parents too) face a huge challenge in trying to gain support from overstretched local services whose job is to offer advice and guidance. And with the opening of every newspaper, teachers discover yet another 21st Century problem could be fixed by simply ‘teaching it in schools’ (mobile phone safety, financial skills, cooking, resilience – you get the picture – many of those things that communities used to teach their children). So I was delighted to discover that my cold journey to the ASCL Pastoral Conference, in the shadow of Blue Monday, was to prove a refreshingly positive experience.
Pastoral Care is a tough one; it encompasses all of those things that are not the nuts and bolts of academic work. To name a few strands, we are talking about health in all its guises, including mental health, extracurricular offerings, happiness and resilience, behaviour and rewards, safeguarding and online safety. Countless things that are so important to the wellbeing of our pupils, and that make such a difference to their potential to thrive and succeed.
The conference I attended introduced keynote speakers who all talked of the increasing challenges facing all teachers and especially those charged with leading on pastoral care. There was acknowledgement that times are difficult, local support is sparse and an acceptance that young people are facing challenges that adults are struggling to get to grips with. But this was no navel-gazing self-help group. It was a conference filled with practical advice and professionals sharing their experience of supporting pupils and parents in myriad, innovative ways. Paul Dix, founder of Pivotal Education, whose astonishingly effective behaviour management techniques advocate simple kindness and consistency (and tearing up the long list of rules) was both entertaining and practical. Then there was Tony Clifford’s enlightening talk on Attachment in which he discussed how understanding the impact of experiences in early childhood can affect the behaviour and attitude of the teenager will really help teachers get the best out of their pupils. Other workshops included a practical session on digital parenting (useful for parents and teachers) from Maria O’Neill of UK Pastoral Chat and workshop from Janet Goodliffe on developing a whole school approach to student emotional health and wellbeing.
It is good, for any professional, to get out of normal routine and discover what others are doing, particularly in these times of change and uncertainty for young people and their wellbeing. I’m looking forward to implementing some of the strategies and ideas learnt.
But the day also made me reflect on the fact that the staff at the High School really care about our pupils and really want the best for them. We aim for pro-active pastoral care; spotting issues before they get out of hand and supporting the pupils in building a toolkit of strategies to help them deal with things that life can throw at them. We achieve this through our PSHEE programme, tutorials and lots of informal support. Our adoption of the Girls on Board programme to empower our pupils to tackle friendship problems with adult support, rather than interference, has been groundbreaking. We also embrace the Positive Project, which is used across the GDST network, to help young people tap into their feelings and determine some strategies for improving how they feel about life’s ups and downs.
As a reflective practitioner, I am always evaluating areas where we could make small tweaks to turn the volume up on warmth and support too; I fully advocate the notion, from Paul Dix, quoted at the top of this post. We are fortunate to have few behavioural issues of any consequence in our school, but that quote really embodies for me what every interaction between a pupil and member of staff ought to be. Anyone who has spent time in my office will be familiar with my chalkboard wall, upon which I write quotes that I find inspired or inspiring. For some time now, the Frank Turner lyrics ‘In a world that has decided that it’s going to lose its mind, be more kind my friend, try to be more kind’ has been on that wall. And the facts back up the words – there is strong evidence that schools that embody mutual kindness between all members of the community have fewer behavioural issues and a greater academic purpose too.