Confidence is a highly desirable attribute, in life and in learning. The magnetic illumination we sense around people with confidence is almost physical, while the feeling of being confident is exhilarating and empowering; an unstoppable force where there are no immovable objects.
Gaining or maintaining confidence is the tricky part of course. Whether it be a nagging inner voice which tells us we are not good enough, or past mistakes that have scarred us, or others’ judgements voiced without thought for the consequent impact, or even well intentioned praise which is twisted around, it can be difficult to gain the magnetism of a virtuous cycle.
Self-awareness can be double-edged, but critical in sustaining a resilient sense of our own identity and in valuing our own attributes, as well as those of others around us. Filtering the pseudo-perfect and finding the grittier reality allows us to gain traction and control.
It can seem murky and lonely, like staring up a darkened cliff-face from a seeming abyss, when the familiar crumbles or change swifts in with rug-pulling challenges, scattering our beliefs like iron filings. At such times it is understandable that we might hide, avoid, fall silent, excuse, flee, lash out; but in order to climb back into the light and re-forge our beliefs, we must take a risk, take on the challenge, find or re-polarise our magnets: our sense of self.
I am confident. I say it and therefore I am. My inner voice is very nice to me; it didn’t use to be, so I sacked it years ago and hired one of my own choosing. I am in no way remotely perfect, yet experience has taught me what I can achieve when I set my mind to it.
How startling it was then, ten months ago, when I confidently sat down one Sunday morning in January to write model reading answers for the new English Language GCSE. I had marked my Upper Fifth’s papers, had seen and understood the mark scheme, had had time to let the source material sink in. I had one hour, a pen and paper. I had my experience and my confidence, as a student but also as a teacher. There were four questions, with 40 marks distributed unevenly towards the latter questions. I expected almost full marks.
As time ticked inexorably on, I began to realise that I had seriously misjudged things. Each question seemed to require far longer than I could afford to give it, yet my experience told me I had to stay calm and see each point through properly, otherwise it would be wasted. At every pause there came a fresh wave of rising panic, a rush of blood, a prickling of the skin, a sense of things unravelling. Not since an A Level Biology examination some 21 years ago had I expected so much and delivered so little. I was being harsh on myself of course, but I had effectively failed; I had only answered three questions in over an hour and needed at least 25 minutes more for question 4. My ambition, my confidence, my sense of self were being threatened.
I would not accept it.
This was not a real examination. I could re-write my answers, learn, adapt, cut back, speed up. I had a coffee break and started again. 75 minutes later I had something like I had expected the first time around, with the benefit of having learned from a mistake. I shared the experience with my Upper Fifth. I think they appreciated the honesty. My message to them was to take confidence that we all learn to adapt, that with practise comes improvement and to repeat my advice that mocks are so valuable as long as you give it everything you have at that point.
It has been said that we learn best by teaching, something I tend to agree with. I decided to take it a step further: we learn best when there is motivation. For me that motivation involved a risk, one which would sharpen my own learning and therefore my teaching and consequently my students’ learning. I entered myself for the actual public examinations in June.
I was called “a brave man.” If I was expected to gain the highest grade, what was there other than the risk of failure? To me, it was a principle: if I expected my students to do it, and yet I was not confident that I could do it myself, I needed to regain that confidence. With greater risk came greater motivation and from that the ‘confidence trick’. I believed I could do it, I worked towards it, I practised. I sat the examinations in real conditions and experienced again all those sensations felt by teenagers across the country. I walked out knowing I had done my best, had stuck at it when the going had got tough, had stayed calm and strategic.
Regardless of any outcome, I was proud of myself because I had not hidden, but had played my trick and forged ahead, feeling the dynamism energise me as I did so. 21 years ago I entered an examination expecting to gain the highest grade, having worked for it, and the wheels came off. 6 months later I re-sat the paper, dealt with the pressure and gained the grade I wanted. That was the start of my belief that I could do anything if I applied myself to it; my ‘confidence trick’. 21 years later I have revitalised that trick. It would be easy to make light of what I did, or to dismiss it, but that would be to rob me of my confidence, to doubt, to criticise, to put obstacles in front of something so hard won and so easily lost: confidence.
I often talk about confidence with students and parents and it is something I seek to nurture. Our school is a brilliant environment, where the girls really do grow visibly in confidence over the years, albeit not without bumps along the road. All I really want is for our students to be confident enough to dare to be the best them they can be on any given day.
So, look out for opportunities to build confidence, be kind to yourselves and each-other, feel able to take some risks and become unstoppable forces.
As we finish preparations to allow younger girls from age 2 to experience Northampton High School it has sparked thoughts of what makes the best environment for the perfect learning experience, and do the requirements change with different ages? It is probably best to start by thinking about two prime ingredients in all aspects of education, namely safety and enjoyment. A safe learning space for a 2 year old is very similar to that of older nursery age girls. We believe that an open plan space which enables girls to learn routines and rules whilst also making decisions for themselves is important. All nursery aged children should feel that they have space to move around and that their area is full of a wide range of learning and playing options, as well as space to be alone, to be quiet and to watch the goings on of others.
Girls under 3 do need to have a higher level of adult supervision and support whilst learning to be independent but the requirements of space remain the same. Happiness comes through from our environment but also the types of activities which should be stimulating and challenging, ensuring that well-rounded progress is made. Nursery age girls most definitely require a different experience to boys of the same age. Girls crave structure and routines, where boundaries are clear and expectations high. I am frequently asked about the suitability of girls only at the nursery age and can answer the question simply by giving a tour. Seeing the learning, both direct and indirect, in our setting along with the standards of behaviour and positive friendships is often sufficient to answer the question for me.
With each year that passes there are subtle changes required to create the best learning space. Role play areas can become more adventurous and allow interaction which is at an age appropriate level. Right now, our Reception girls are able to experiment with light in their own dark room and have a space full of reflective surfaces to create reflections and patterns. Outdoor spaces are vital in the daily routines of children at school and they will gradually need more freedom to create their own games and to turn the space into an area for whatever activity is currently popular. We use our outdoor areas for growing and girls enjoy learning to plant, water, weed and feed; instilling in them the need to be responsible and reliable, or else the plants will wither.
Vegetation in the classroom is an idea that we are currently investigating in the light of a GDST research project into CO2 levels and classroom productivity. Some of my favourite classrooms as a child were the ones with huge pot plants that generated interesting smells and shadows. They also help to replenish the air with oxygen, an ingredient which can often be taken for granted in the classroom. We are preparing to install some CO2 monitors in our classrooms to monitor the levels and make sure that a window is opened whenever we reach the cut-off and girls begin to lose their focus. I am sure we will also see classes popping outside for a quick-fire exercise session to reinvigorate and boost those O2 levels in preparation for more hard work.
Many of our girls would argue that the perfect learning environment is actually in our Forest School, and I find it hard to disagree. I am always amazed by the work that takes place ‘at the end of the field’, across the full range of curriculum areas. The elements never seem to get in the way as the tarpaulin shelter is rapidly put up. We hope to make this an even more comfortable space when the clouds darken by installing a permanent shelter to go with the composting toilet!
On reflection, I don’t know that anyone can tell you what makes the perfect learning space but there are certainly guiding principles to follow. Our school building may be 25 years old but it has withstood the test of time and continues to provide a wonderful place for girls to learn and play.
Mr Ross Urquhart, Head of Junior School
25 Years Young
Last week we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the High School’s move from Derngate to its current, purpose-built site in Hardingstone. Saturday’s Reunion brought together Alumnae and former staff from across the years, many of whom were visiting for the first time since they left. It was quite an occasion.
At the centre of the day – besides eating (a delicious lunch and afternoon tea), enjoying a magnificent display of memorabilia, visiting old haunts and sharing memories – was a tree-planting ceremony, with Mrs Mayne and Mrs Nugent (Headmistress and Junior Head in 1992 respectively) and the Mayor being guests of honour.
As we sprinkled the roots of the specially-chosen rowan tree with soil, I was reminded of the many reasons why a tree-planting is such an appropriate way to celebrate this milestone for the School.
Because a tree is a powerful symbol of so many of the attributes that characterise an excellent school. With roots deep in the ground and leaves touching the sky – it represents the journey from school to far-flung destinations that our students take.
Trees speak of new growth, and planting a tree is an act of investment in the future.
Trees also span the generations – outliving all of the planet’s other occupants, weathering the vicissitudes of the seasons and growing in venerability in the eyes of their human cohabitants.
Just as the High School has spanned generations – approaching 140 years no less (and remaining throughout a pioneering girls’ school) – and weathered many vicissitudes – educational, economic, political and cultural.
Trees represent solidity – always there and yet also ever-changing to adapt to their environment.
Just as the School has adapted to changes – with the move to Hardingstone, for example, through the good offices of far-sighted governors and generous benefactors, including the Cripps Foundation, and its enrolment in the Girls’ Day School Trust, which has ensured a level of support and development for the site over and above anything which we could maintain (even with our first-class Estates Team) as a stand-alone school. Many of our visitors on Saturday were amazed that the site looked just as modern and fresh today as on the day it opened – and we all feel that it is, indeed, 25 years young.
Trees carry powerful associations with learning – the Tree of Knowledge being one of our earliest cultural motifs, while the primacy of the Tree of Life as an archetype in the mythologies of so many cultures (from Assyrian symbology to Yggdrasil in Norse mythology) suggests that the image of the tree as a cultural shorthand for life’s journey is universal.
Trees provide life-giving oxygen and, as consumers of carbon dioxide and vital habitats for wildlife from sizeable mammals to microscopic insect and fungal life, serve as literal saviours of our embattled planet.
Tree climbing was, traditionally, a commonplace of childhood and the loss of this habit, as part of the much-lamented shrinking of the exploration radius of our young people and the ‘denaturing of childhood’ in general, is a hot topic for debate nowadays. Our knowledge of trees – of flora and fauna in general – is, we read, drastically in decline.
I am delighted to see that plant and animal identification is very much part of the curriculum in school – and tree climbing as part of our Forest School. A good, old-fashioned Harvest Festival Assembly was brought to us by Year 2 last Wednesday and Mr Attwood’s harvest-themed Pumpkin Assembly last.
Monday, complete with a lesson in evolution, is one of the most cherished rituals of the school year for the seniors.
Planting a tree now, which will become a Tree of Life for a myriad life-forms (for the rowan, caterpillars, bees and birds, especially the blackbird, mistle thrush, redstart, redwing, song thrush, fieldfare and waxwing), reminds us that we are all just stewards of our school. We are a part of its unfolding history and heritage, and architects of the next part of what will become its legacy as it continues to thrive and be an inspiration to generations of girls and young women into the far future.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress
No surfaces without depths
The phrase comes from journalist, Linda Grant. She was talking about clothes but, it seems to me, the thought applies equally to brands. The brand (what you see on the surface) is important because it is often the first (and sometimes the only) aspect of an organisation that you can judge before you have in some way committed yourself to an association (say, by buying).
However, the brand has to express authentically the depths of an organisation – its heritage for example and its value – or else it falls flat. We can all, I suspect, think of brands that fail to resonate with target markets because there is too much of a disconnect between the surface message and the reality beneath.
A brand, then, is about so much more than logos, colours and fonts – and one might truthfully say that ‘you can’t have surfaces without depths.’
The approach of a big birthday, celebrating 140 years of Northampton High School in 2018, prompted us to revisit our brand and to consider how well it was encapsulating the depths of our school – its history and core values, its current record and standing, and the lived experience of its students, staff and associates.
The rebranding project itself was a fascinating undertaking and, as a non-specialist, I felt privileged to be on the inside of such a complex, dynamic process. Many people – students, staff, parents, alumnae, governors and external advisors – contributed to the research and development phases and our discussion and debates (and, occasionally, disagreements!) took us to the very heart of what the School means to all of us.
Here, then, is the fruit of our labours.
We chose to return to a crest as the central symbol of the School in order to reconnect with an important part of our heritage. However, this is the traditional crest with a contemporary twist. The rose and crossed keys, both part of the original crest, reflect the fact that the School has been part of the life of Northamptonshire (rose of the shires) for generations and that, for many of those years, it had an active connection with the diocese of Peterborough. Besides this, keys are, of course, an excellent symbol for education, being a visual shorthand for the work of unlocking potential and opening the doors of knowledge and understanding, opportunity and enhanced life chances.
The Charles Rennie-Mackintosh-inspired motif (upper left quadrant), a new element, reminds us of the historic connection with Derngate in general and No. 78 in particular. The reference to an iconic motif of modern design – and an aesthetic that was years ahead of its time – also parallels the emphasis in our own philosophy and that of the GDST on being revolutionary pioneers in girls’ education. When the High School was founded, it was still relatively rare to educate girls beyond a basic level. That pioneering tradition persists in the way we embrace innovative methods, for example in using digital platforms and social media, to enhance our students’ life prospects.
Finally, the Eleanor Cross symbolises our proud place in the heart of Hardingstone for the last 25 years. It also neatly references the qualities of learning and leadership for which Eleanor of Castile, Edward I’s much-loved queen, was renowned. A powerful woman in a tough, male-dominated world and a patron of learning, she is an apt role model for our times.
Heritage and pioneering courage, strong links to our community and a commitment to educating and empowering women – these, then, are the messages conveyed in our re-imagined crest.
Alongside the visual symbol, we wanted to find a single phrase that distilled the unique essence of the education we offer. There were many things we could have chosen but, ultimately, it boiled down to one simple, compelling article of faith:
We believe in our girls
And they believe in themselves
as the key to their success and the essential ingredient that we contribute towards that success.
Qualifications are hugely important – yes, undoubtedly
Wonderful opportunities to learn new skills and broaden horizons matter – equally, yes, of course
These we take as read.
But, beyond these, the confidence to be oneself and to stride out into the world with integrity and self-possession – this is the key to fulfilment as well as success in life. Without it, the qualifications and skills alone mean relatively little. Our belief in our girls, which stems from our knowledge and appreciation of them as individuals, makes all the difference in the world as they learn and grow in pursuit of their dreams.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress