School Blog


Now’s the Time

Imagination is not usually seen as the best foundation for policy-making.  For that, we look to facts and stats.  In education, though, things are – or should be – different.

Why?  Because we are preparing our youngest school pupils for adult life and the workscape as it will be in the mid-2030s.  For this, the facts and stats of the past 16 years will not suffice to inform our thinking, just as the facts and stats of the turn-of-the-millennium – pre-iPhone, pre-Facebook – did not help us greatly to shape the education of today’s 18 year olds.

For decades, education has been playing catch-up with technological change, with classroom practice and social conduct adapting ‘on the hoof’ to the new possibilities of communication, information gathering and disclosure presented by innovations and inventions emanating from commercial enterprises with a completely different agenda from that of schools.  For more than a generation, our education system has been enmeshed in a struggle to prove itself against national (and international) standards of individual employability competencies, in an exercise in which countless incommensurable variables are smoothed into invisibility in a bland background picture.

The result has been an exodus from the teaching profession on an unparalleled scale as the joy of the work has been squeezed out of existence.  Meanwhile, the dizzying possibilities for our own students of internationalism – a truly globalised higher education and employment market, for example – seem scarcely to register in a society in which the levers of social mobility seem to be  rusted in a locked-shut position and the prevailing public discourse is stuck in the well-worn groove of blaming the independent-state divide.

Sticking narrowly to the facts and stats of economic, social and technological change has brought us hither.  Continuing to do so offers a depressing outlook for the journey onwards.  What, then, can inspire teachers and young people to resume the challenges of education at the opening of a new year – 2019?

For that, we need imagination.

Imagine, for example, a world in which the gender pay gap has already been bridged and sexual harassment has become a thing of the past in the workplace culture.

How can we get there?

Now let’s imagine a girls’ school whose approach to Student Guidance revolves around preparing its students to speak out and to act to build the society that they want and deserve rather than merely preparing them to cope with the obstacles they will encounter.

If this sounds powerful, it is.

But what does it look like in practice?

Let’s focus on one concrete example to exemplify the approach.  This was our #Now’sTheTime Conference, run for our Year 12 students in November.  The day was bookended by individual stories; beginning with Carole Stronach, Director of Global Real Estate for Avon, who spoke about her quest for personal success and fulfilment, and the rewards and sacrifices made along the way and finishing with Sally Kettle, High School Alumna and professional adventurer, drawing on her insights about the same issues from a generation younger.  The filling in the sandwich consisted of sessions designed to tackle head-on the key issues facing young women as they prepare to enter a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, both professionally and socially, where, the stats tell us, a discouraging outlook of diminishing self-efficacy, narrowing expectations and plateauing professional horizons beckons.  A plenary from Dr Melanie Crofts, Senior Lecturer at De Montfort University’s Law Faculty, gave girls the low-down on the law of consent while experts in their fields ran workshops on vocal efficacy, bystander intervention, practical self-defence and building a vision of equality, which will stand the test of confrontation with real-life experiences.

Sharing the day with a group of Year 12 girls from Weston Favell Academy meant that we could hear a range of stories and build solidarity with peers – while also practising networking skills over lunch!  And, invaluable though the day was in itself, we knew that we could reinforce key messages and practise building self-efficacy through follow-up events in school and through the Girls’ Day School Trust’s unique CareerStart events and mentoring programmes.

Our Sixth Form students believe wholeheartedly that Now’s The Time for them – the time for them to enter an employment market in which gender equality is a lived reality and for them to flourish in workplaces where sexual harassment no longer needs to be on anyone’s agenda.   Now’s The Time for them to take an active part in society – feeling free to express their views, taking for granted the fear-free enjoyment of public spaces, reclaiming the night from violence and intimidation, refusing to be a frightened bystander.

They are ready and eager to make it a reality for themselves and, with a little imagination and large dose of belief – in them and in ourselves – we can help to make sure it happens.  Now’s the time.


Lost without translation

A skill deficit that costs the UK economy an estimated 3.5% of GDP.

A knowledge vacuum that 74% of business leaders identify as a major barrier to career success for graduates in today’s world of work.

You may be forgiven for thinking that I am talking about science, technology, engineering or maths – subjects which occupy so many headlines, especially where opportunities for girls and young women are concerned.

But, no.

These stats relate to Foreign Languages, an area which rarely attracts comment and stands pretty low on the national educational agenda at the moment.  And yet, I would argue that Britain is in danger of sleepwalking into an employability crisis, as many educators continue to turn a deaf ear to the research and the warning signs highlighting a comparative skills gap for our graduates that will materially harm their employment prospects in the coming years.  We are in danger of nurturing a generation of global consumers who are incapable of flourishing as global citizens, earners and opinion-formers.

The figures are eloquent – and concerning. Only a third of Britons report that they are able to hold a conversation in another language. A 2016 review of language teaching in English secondary schools found that a mere 34 per cent of pupils obtain a good GCSE in a foreign language, and less than five per cent do so in more than one language.  As language learning in schools and universities continues to shrink – with French and German A Level declining by 17% and 12% respectively in the past six years, for example,  it looks unlikely that the situation will improve for the next generation.

Many people seem to be assuming that the problem will decline after Brexit.  After all, they say, many of our trading partners are Anglophone (such as, the USA) and (American) English is the lingua franca of the global economy.  This overlooks the reality that post-Brexit Britain will inevitably turn more outwards towards non-European markets and, hence, into more difficult territories for business in countries, such as Russia and China, where the linguistic scales are even more drastically balanced against monolingual Britons than in European countries.

Professor Bianco of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Language and Literacy Education has put it in a nutshell: There are two disadvantages in global language arrangements: one of them is not knowing English; and the other one of them is knowing only English.

We must not rely on the fact of the first (a reality which many, many young people in non-Anglophone countries are working hard to address) to ignore the truth of the second.  Nor does this mean radically reorientating language-learning in the UK away from European languages towards Russian or Mandarin, say, a suggestion which may well leave policy-makers in education and head teachers shrugging their shoulders in impotent despair. Language-learning is about more than mastering a single language.  It is about mastering the skills for language acquisition, which can be transferred to other languages in the future.  No surprise, then, that French, German and Spanish remain in the top five languages recommended by the British Council as threshold languages for study.

It is also, and crucially, about developing the cultural awareness that opens the way for a more sophisticated understanding of other ways of doing things.  This, in itself, is a vital transferable skill, which is indispensable in international business negotiations.  It should be part of the armoury of any ambitious professional leaving education today.

With 39% of employers surveyed in 2017 expressing dissatisfaction with the global cultural awareness of UK graduates (up by 9% in just one year), the imperative facing responsible school leaders is clear.  Making the study of a Foreign Language to GCSE level as part of the core curriculum should be an absolute minimum and internationalism must be a golden thread woven through school life.

What does this look like in practice?  At the High School, for example, language exchanges, a compulsory residential in Year 8 to Normandy, cultural visits every year to a rich selection of destinations (recently Berlin and Granada), a thriving eTwinning programme and an exciting Erasmus + project, collaborating with schools in Germany, Hungary, Latvia and Portugal, provide a myriad opportunities for girls to develop a global perspective.  Last Tuesday, we hosted the European Universities Consortium for a workshop on European degree applications to feed the growing curiosity among our students about overseas study.

Whatever Brexit brings, we know that the future for our students is unlikely to be defined by the lines of national borders.  That is why igniting the fires of interest in language-learning and internationalism at school is as important as stoking the flames of STEM.





Celebrating achievement in an unpredictable world

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence” –  Helen Keller

 Our annual Events and Achievements celebration, held earlier this month, is without question the single event that best sums up Northampton High School’s ethos and philosophy for me. This is partly because it is designed to fulfil that role, although my perception of why it performs the function so well is broader and more personal. As the event draws nearer each year I am filled with a sense of apprehension and pride, because I know that I will be called on again to list the glittering achievements of so many students. A privilege and also a serious responsibility in anyone’s book. The achievements are extensive and varied, from academic awards to ballet grades, but perhaps the most notable are those we celebrate with the students who left us in the summer and are now busy starting the next stage of their journeys through life. Into higher education, apprenticeships or travelling, but above all into adulthood.

What does our awards ceremony mean then, if it is adequately to do justice to the young people whose lives have been channelled through the school? This is not an easy question to answer, because the breadth of achievement in schools is arguably only matched by the range of human endeavour in the world at large. However, I think that Helen Keller’s words go some way to explaining why this particular event means so much to the students receiving prizes, as well as to the wider community of the school.

Some might say that young people in the UK have little reason to be optimistic. Looking towards an erratic and changing workplace, students are naturally concerned – more so now perhaps than ever before. The vast majority of people under 25 did not want to leave the EU, with over 80% saying they would vote to remain in any future referendum, according to research by Survation. Their freedom to find work has without doubt been affected by Brexit, indeed, according to Ernst & Young, 34% of companies monitored have ‘publicly confirmed [..] to move some of their operations and/or staff from the UK to Europe’.

Yet the catalogue of destinations and courses our Sixth Form leavers have chosen, and the sheer range of prizes given for academic, musical and artistic achievement, tell another story altogether. One of optimism of the purest kind. There is opportunity for those who know how to find it and success will increasingly be defined by how well people are able to match their skills to the changing needs of employers. Striving for new and better achievements throughout life at school feeds the fire of ambition, encouraging flexibility and developing pools of resilience when things do not quite go as planned.

Success at Northampton High is not simply defined by elite performances. We reward pupils for serious academic progress as well as those who have achieved the highest results. Furthermore, our prizes for contributions to school life and to the wider community are given the same priority as those for students winning gold awards in national scientific and mathematical competitions. Beyond the actual awards in our ceremony, however, it was the recent Sixth Form Academic Scholarship that confirmed to me the confidence inherent in our students. This year well over half of Upper Fifth students entered the competition, in spite of the limited number of awards on offer. This shows huge self-belief and the realisation that there is much to be gained from the experience itself – an opportunity to give of one’s best and to learn about responding to pressure.

Helen Keller was right. Through hope, confidence and optimism, our students consistently come up with amazing achievements, no matter how uncertain our world may be.

Mr Rickman, Deputy Head Academic


University life

There was an interesting  synchronicity to my spending the day on Wednesday of last week (National Mental Health Awareness Day) at Bristol University at a meeting of the HMC/GSA Universities Committee.   Undergraduate mental health was right at the top of our agenda, on the back of research which showed that  the suicide rate among UK students has risen by 56% in the ten years to 2016 and a recent report that there were 95 suicides in English universities in the twelve months to July 2017.

These worrying statistics have given rise to calls among some educationalists to redefine the start of full adulthood in the UK from 18 to 21, thereby giving parents a greater say in the lives of their children through higher education.  In practice, some moves in this direction are already being seen ‘on the ground.’  Bristol, which has faced adverse press coverage in the recent past on this topic, now invites students to opt into a system, which allows the university to initiate contact with parents if there are concerns about a student’s mental well-being.

The proposal to change radically the definition of adulthood has to be seen in the context of a much larger and very confusing picture.  Just think of the many anomalies in the status quo.  On the one hand, the law has relatively little to say, for example, concerning the corrosive effects of permissive immersion in social media among children far younger than 18.  On the other, 18-year-olds are sent to fight (and possibly die) for their country and, if employed, are made to pay taxes.  A broader public debate on the correct thresholds between childhood, adolescence and adulthood is greatly overdue.

In the meantime, as the Universities Committee recognised, schools play a very large part in preventing crises developing when students go to university, both in the application process itself and in the broader guidance offered.  Prompted by the debates held around that table in Bristol, I offer here a few reflections on what we do at the High School to prepare our students for university life.

First and foremost, we offer tailored application advice and this is essential to ensure that students end up on the right course at the right place for them.   Bristol’s Pro-Vice Chancellor observed how often, in her experience, mental health problems occurred when students were there ‘for the wrong reasons.’  Knowing our students really well is key to this and negotiating the labyrinth of choices is best done with teachers and tutors who know the girls, have seen where they have come from and understand their capabilities and interests.

Besides this, helping students develop a versatile toolkit to help them cope with the pressures and setbacks of university life is a vital ingredient in an excellent Sixth Form programme.  In reality, at the High School, it begins long before Y12 and has many dimensions to it, ranging from the personal and psychological to the purely practical, via the social and sexual:

– gaining self-knowledge through tutorial, coaching and mentoring programmes

– learning how to make good decisions when making important choices

– mastering basic cooking and budgeting skills

– practising networking in a social gathering

– understanding the laws about consent and coercion

– building the confidence to negotiate ambiguous or potentially threatening social situations.

Finally, the emotional element is huge.  And this, above all, is about managing expectations.  Experience has taught me, for example, to avoid telling students that my university days were the best of my life.  Not because they were not (they were not) – but because I have come to think that it is unhelpful to them.  Hearing this from the adults in their life puts a terrific pressure on them to find university life wonderful from day one – a recipe for disillusionment and self-doubt.  Actually, the first few weeks of university can be disorientating and lonely.  Not everyone finds herself living in a scene from ‘Brideshead Revisited’ in Freshers’ Week.  Equally, the later weeks (and months and years) can be quite challenging, at least at times.  This does not mean that the whole experience will not be immeasurably valuable in shaping her as a person, extending her sphere of understanding and expanding her horizons.

Talk of finding one’s passion, ubiquitous in education, can lead students to feel as though there is something wrong with them if they haven’t been transported onto a higher emotional plane by a subject by the time they are 17.  Reassuring them that they can (and will) have fulfilling lives at university and beyond without the need for a daily diet of ‘peak experiences’ but simply by spending time with people they like studying something they find interesting may be the best encouragement we can give as they prepare to press ‘send’ on those UCAS forms.