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07
Jun

Why focusing on grades is a barrier to learning?

It is hard to believe that we have only been back from half term for a week. As one of my colleagues and I were remarking yesterday, term times at school do not ramp up or wind down: they just start at 100mph and continue at that pace until we hit a complete halt for the holidays. With only six weeks until the end of term and the academic year, there is plenty to cram in. Everyone is working hard planning all the activities, events and trips that will take place before we break up on Friday, 12 July. 

However there has been a noticeable level of focus and a quieter atmosphere in school than usual this week. Our Year 11 and Year 13 students, who are more than halfway through their GCSE and A Level examinations, respectively, contribute to this change. Meanwhile Years 7, 8, 9 and 10 are receiving and digesting the outcomes of their summer internal assessments; this process has naturally led to increased stress, anxiety and fear of failure. 

Our pupils are understandably very keen to do their best. This situation reminds me of the findings from the annual PISA study of 2018 which noted that “In almost every education system, girls expressed greater fear of failure than boys, even when they outperformed boys by a large margin, and this gender gap was considerably wider amongst top-performing students. With regards to the UK, the gap between boys and girls was one of the most pronounced. In fact, female students in the UK have the 5th highest fear of failure out of the 79 countries covered in the report.”

It is not failure that students fear. It is the perceived negative consequences that follow the failure that stresses them out. This type of fear can lead to lowered self-esteem, avoidance of challenging tasks, being pessimistic and even cheating. This chimes with our high achieving students at Northampton High who often face high pressure that may be linked to perfectionism as well as fear of failure. As part of our educational goals, we have made it one of our explicit aims to help reduce this fear and I am sure you will be reinforcing the view at home that these are diagnostic assessments, aiming to show us (and our students) what they know, understand and can do, with the aim of identifying gaps in knowledge and areas where skills need to be developed. 

Why does this matter? What is wrong with students judging their performance against others? The deep-rooted problem lies in the belief that intelligence is fixed and that education should focus primarily on accelerating the progress of the gifted and supporting the less able. The mere assignment of a letter or number grade can impede the learning process and students are steered to have a fixed view of their intelligence and potential. Furthermore, it can be argued that grades tend not to recognise improvement over time, so they make ability seem fixed rather than due to effort to learn. 

As a school we work very hard to encourage learning without limits for continual improvement, avoiding a narrow focus on artificial barriers. Written and verbal feedback about learning rather than grades is central to our approach. This strategy builds intrinsic motivation to approach new learning in a very powerful way. As such the alternative to grading of course is to give students informative feedback. For example, ‘medal and mission’ feedback and clarity about goals can be effective to maximise the rate of learning. This means students need to know what they have done well (a medal) and what they need to improve (a mission). 

More importantly, we wish to encourage our students to understand the link between fear of failure and mindsets. Excessive worry about potential failure can lead to students being so risk-averse and overly cautious, preventing them from embracing challenges and intellectual risks, and engaging in divergent thinking. This is a hallmark of a fixed mindset, which can severely limit opportunities for learning. This is why developing and fostering a growth mindset is so important as it acts as a positive multiplier effect that improves various aspects of a student’s educational experience. Students learn most by taking risks outside of their comfort zone.

Additionally, by helping students learn about the causes and consequences of fear of failure, as well as proactively teaching them how to manage their emotions, we can help improve their self-regulation and resilience, and develop healthy motivators towards their success.

Our educational philosophy and teaching staff are committed to creating an environment free from limiting beliefs about fixed abilities and predetermined futures. Consequently, we avoid a relentless focus on high stakes testing, which can so easily limit notions of what education is for. Over the years, we have supported our students by believing in their capabilities to learn and succeed, encouraging them to surprise us – and themselves – with what they can achieve through a richly creative, broad and balanced curriculum. This philosophy is underpinned by our High School’s approach of Learn, Reach and Coach. As a result, our teaching staff can focus their energy on planning high quality learning experiences that ignite our pupils’ imaginations and curiosity. 

Furthermore, our adaptive teaching model provides choices of tasks within lessons and students make decisions about how much challenge they can attempt. Students are therefore guided by their individual interests and are led to those things that are valuable and meaningful to them personally. The result of this learning process is the development of competence, self-confidence and mastery. As competence increases, it boosts confidence, which in turn inspires students to tackle subsequent challenges and be pushed to take risks. This positive cycle continually reinforces itself, cultivating a lifelong quest for learning. 

While academic grades can provide a measure of progress, we understand that most parents are more concerned with whether their children feel understood, valued and inspired. Parents want to know their children are happy, resilient, and passionate about learning for its own sake, and that they are making progress. Ultimately, we believe we guide and support our students more effectively by helping them discover their inner sources of motivation to grow and learn at school. It is important to me that Northampton High School is recognised as a place where girls are encouraged to believe in themselves, define success on their own terms, and gain self-esteem, self-knowledge and confidence as they progress through the school.

Dr May Lee
Head

06
Jun

“If you have a library and a garden, you have everything you need.”

So says Cicero, better known as a great Roman lawyer, statesman and letterwriter than a horticulturalist.  His famous saying asks us to reflect on a need for balance, between the busy world outside, and the internal world of reflection. Cicero uses his garden both as a retreat from politics and as a sanctuary to reflect on the nature of ‘nature’ itself.  However, the link between learning and nature goes deeper – our external environment can shape and influence our internal psychology. Without a calming natural oasis, are we capable of great leaps of intellect?

Far from being a sanctuary, nature today is more often a cause for concern for both old and young but most especially the young, with over 75% describing the future as ‘frightening’ because of the effect of climate change. From the forest fires in Europe and record breaking monthly temperatures in the UK to the ubiquity of micro-plastics, air pollution or the endangerment of remote islands (or even cities here in the UK) from rising sea levels, Mother Nature affects us all.

But how best can we look after her, and can we help ourselves at the same time?

One of the best and easiest ways is by looking after the green spaces around us, and in so doing, we look after our wellbeing.  Whether it be a local park, a garden, a roof top terrace, balcony, windowsill or yard, ‘green exercise’  – as gardening and other forms of exercise outside have become known – can contribute to an increase in physical and mental wellbeing. As little as five minutes can make a difference, and mowing, digging, planting and pruning can all count towards the 30 minutes of ‘moderate’ exercise recommended daily by the UK government (equivalent to the same duration of yoga or even badminton!). In 2021, the RHS released research that revealed those who garden every day have wellbeing scores 6.6% higher and stress levels 4.2% lower than people who don’t garden at all.  Green exercise can benefit mental as well as physical health: given that “up to 20% of people visit their GPs for what is primarily a social rather than a health problem”, the creation of pioneering social prescribing schemes at places like RHS Bridgewater can help people who need connection to improve mental health, rather than just focusing on medication alone.

The conclusion? Get outside, and get involved!

All of this is good news for us, as we are incredibly lucky that our school site encompasses so much green space and opportunity for the student body to interact with the environment around us. For learning, quiet times with friends, fun, games, outdoor lessons, (a short cut to lunch?), the Cripps, Derngate and Towerfield quads offer a more formal garden environment, enriched with herbaceous planting, shrubs, herbs and seasonal flowers, as well as the greenhouse, fountain, arbour, benches  and areas of wildflower meadow  in ‘No Mow May.’ The Creative Arts Faculty in our Senior School are soon to add a new growing space for edibles via their greenhouse. Bird feeders help the birds through winter, and our Eco Team were able to supply new feeders to replace our old ones last year; we have many nest boxes around the site, and our students enjoy contributing to the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch annual surveys. Staff are encouraged to take a Wildlife Wander  to enrich their wellbeing, and we encourage citizen science in other areas, too, like the annual  Butterfly conservation surveys in the summer months.

Our Wildlife Gardening Club have won awards, learning not just Level 1 but also Level 2 in the RHS School garden campaign for their attempts to grow a range of fruit and vegetables (peas, beans and wildflowers very successfully, but marigolds and radishes less so!) Their activities have also helped the school garner the Woodland Trust’s Bronze, Silver and Gold awards, for finding out about carbon reduction in school, climate change, recycling, making decorations from foraged materials and learning more about trees and folklore traditions. This year, we’ve focused on improving mental health in the garden, and have trialled mindfulness in the courtyard, forest bathing and more art activities, such as Shakespeare’s flowers, acting A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  making garden clay sculptures and cane toppers to personalise our spaces; cherry blossom viewing and matcha tea was a personal highlight! The Wildlife Trust have awarded us their ‘Wildlife Gardening Award’ for the habitat provision we have in school, commitment to homes for bees, bugs and birds, recycling materials, providing green corridors and walls,  and composting what we can. Many thanks to past and current students in Yr 5, 6, 7, 9 and, especially, Elisha and Rishika in Yr 12 for helping to lead the club this year.

Perhaps next  we should focus on greening the inside space, too, as research has found that having house plants in office spaces can improve productivity by up to 15%, and the scent of  rosemary has indeed been proven to increase memory (great for GCSE students before exams!)

So, is NHS an oasis of calm in which students can pose rigorous academic questions whilst also taking the time to reflect and nurture their own development?

We are proud to say that our school is “a calm, happy and purposeful place in which to learn” where “pupils apply themselves readily to acquiring new skills and are willing to take risks in their learning.”

What more can we do? I am sure our students will tell us, and lead the way.

Here are their top 10 tips of things you can do for nature, wildlife and yourself:

  1. Reduce, reuse and recycle (check if you’re not sure, and don’t buy if you won’t use)
  2. Conserve water (make a rain garden? Use grey water?)
  3. Buy local (think food miles, and carbon footprint)
  4. Take a minute everyday just to breathe and listen  (appreciate what you’ve got!)
  5. Look after a houseplant
  6. Put up a bird feeder, or make your own
  7. Throw a wildflower seed bomb (or make your own)
  8. Grow some herbs on a windowsill
  9. Take a walk once a week, and list the things you see, hear and touch
  10. Everyone can do something for nature – you just have to start!

Bibliography
https://horticulture.co.uk/houseplants/statistics/
https://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_409094_en.html
https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/health-and-wellbeing/articles/Lockdown-lowdown
https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/health-and-wellbeing/articles/social-prescribing
https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/uk-adults-houseplants-poll-gen-z-b1885308.html
https://www.itv.com/news/london/2022-12-02/ellas-law-clean-air-bill-passes-in-the-lords-and-heads-to-the-commons
https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/health-and-wellbeing/articles/why-gardening-makes-us-feel-better
https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/calories-burned-in-30-minutes-for-people-of-three-different-weights
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-12-21/young-the-garden/4437806

Barton, J., & Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Science and Technology, 44, 3947–395

Mrs Peto
Teacher of Latin

28
May

Do pupils in single sex schools get better grades?

We often say, “practice makes perfect”, a mantra that can be as clichéd as it is true. I was reminded of its value recently in very different contexts because it is as valuable for examinations as it is for fostering lifelong learning at Northampton High.

Exam season is now well underway here and there is a unique concentrated quiet in school at this time of year that accompanies busy minds. Year 11 and Year 13 are in the full swing of their GCSEs and A Levels down in the Wake Studio, and Year 7 to 10 are wrapping up their internal assessments – a special note of praise for our Year 10 students for their calm, composed and focused attitude in their first GCSE-style assessment week.

I was struck by a conversation I had in the staff room last week in which half a dozen colleagues from different subjects were talking in positive and glowing terms about the active and enthusiastic approach they had been seeing from our girls in lessons in preparation for these internal assessments. They shared their admiration for the girls’ serious approach to revision, whilst also recognising that these assessments serve as an opportunity for them to diagnose areas that might need more support and give them an understanding of how they work in formal test conditions. At Northampton High, we see a motivated learner not simply being about character traits such as grit and resilience, it can be achieved by understanding the learning process and using the most effective strategies and techniques, which can be taught and practised.

‘They’re taking their revision really seriously’, said one teacher, about Year 7. ‘I’ve been so impressed with their work on practice questions’, said another teacher about Year 10. ‘It’s been great to see them taking responsibility for working out what they need to do’, added a third about Year 8 and 9. I am particularly grateful to Mrs Rimmer, our Examinations Officer, Heads of Year (Mrs Fordham, Miss Fraser and Mrs Down) and the Wellbeing and Medical team for their dedicated support and guidance, helping our students manage anxiety during these internal assessments. It is evident that our students have completed some sensible, well-structured revision and have also managed to maintain a good sense of perspective.

What a difference a year makes! It is so heartening to see that the work Mr Rickman and our Heads of Faculty have been leading all year on the development of our intellectual characteristics – collaboration, curiosity, independence, perseverance and risk-taking – at Northampton High is paying off and that the mindset of our students is changing. I am delighted that they are beginning to believe us when we say that all assessments, from class vocab tests to full internal assessment papers, should be approached as a learning opportunity – and that the evidence suggests they are confident that they are developing the skills and attributes they need to do so. At the same time, by modelling our assessment processes on a developmental philosophy of continuous improvement, we hope to demonstrate our belief in the pupils and allow them to believe in themselves.

I am equally pleased that our ‘Northampton High Approach’ to pupils’ academic and personal development is helping to keep our students focused throughout their school career and enabling them to get the best out of their school experience.

Interestingly, according to analysis by FFT Datalab, girls who attend all-girls schools achieve better exam results than girls with similar backgrounds at mixed schools, as well as surpassing boys at all-boys schools. While girls’ schools have been known to outperform other types of school in England, the analysis found that even after adjusting for background characteristics there was an unexplained boost for pupils at girls’ schools, equivalent to 10 per cent higher GCSE grades last year. These findings attribute to the environment the girls are in and how much attention is given to their success from teachers. We know, and research shows, that boys typically in a classroom demand more of a teacher’s time, so if you remove boys from the question the girls are going to have more teacher’s time, and that is going to be helpful in terms of achievement.

Fundamentally, single-sex education gives girls a voice. We recognise that essential to any classroom is the ability of the teacher to convey information and engage the class in discussion and debate to assess understanding. In a girls-only classroom, interruptions are less likely, allowing girls to focus and have all the ‘airtime’ to voice their contributions. To that end, girls are more likely to achieve better grades during their time at an all girls’ school with cultural and environmental factors being key reasons as to why this is the case.

13
May

Why girls only?

On 2 May, Northampton High School marked another significant milestone, celebrating 146 years of expertise in girls’ education. Reflecting on my own positive experiences of a girls-only, all-through education has only fuelled my passion and commitment to what I am continually doing at Northampton High School GDST. Here, we do more than education; we empower young women to tackle life’s challenges and break societal expectations. This article discusses why schools like ours are pivotal in nurturing capable, confident young women ready to create a more equitable world.

The benefits of an all girls’ education are manifold. A quick look at the toy and clothing industries, children’s literature and television shows reveals how deeply ingrained societal messages about gender roles are from an early age. These messages not only reinforce outdated gender norms, but also limit girls’ aspirations and reinforce stereotypes. For instance, many ostensibly female children’s clothes emphasise passive states rather than actions or achievements – being cute, being pretty, or being a princess.

Similarly, girls’ toys often align with this narrative, emphasising the cultivation of appearance through activities such as jewellery-making, hair-styling, make-up. Take, for instance, Lego Friends, marketed as a female version of Lego, perpetuates traditional gender roles despite the fact that girls don’t necessarily require a separate version to develop spatial awareness, as other traditional boys toys encourage. Arguably, the toy industries have become increasingly gendered over the past few decades and the reason is utterly cynical. The motive is to manipulate consumers into buying different toys for each gender, preventing them from recycling toys when they have children of the opposite sex.

However, girls and young women are not passive victims; we are agents of our destinies as much as men. We may not, as a general rule, be as physically strong, but we are every bit as brave. In essence, the imperative of championing the cause of girls’ only education looms larger than ever before.

In a girls’ only education setting, opportunities are limitless, with everything designed with girls in mind, including the classroom, curriculum and culture. Hence, it is no surprise that girls are more likely to take STEM A Levels, engage in sports like football and cricket, or participate in activities like debating club in an all girls’ school than in a co-ed. Girls have the space to be seen and the voice to be heard; they are inspired to think for themselves and enjoy and celebrate success, however they may define it.

There’s an inescapable truth: girls learn differently from boys and thrive in an environment specifically designed just for them. This is why I am a strong advocate for single sex education for girls; the unique learning styles and needs of girls warrant a tailored educational approach that fosters confidence, curiosity, collaboration and critical thinking. In such environments, girls are free from judgement and societal constraints, and they learn to tear up the rulebook on what they can and can’t achieve. A classroom devoid of gender-based expectations regarding academic strengths or weaknesses, and free from the fear of embarrassment or labelling, provides girls with the freedom to experiment, test their assumptions and confront their limitations – essentially, it allows them to truly learn.

It’s there in the research and evident in my daily observations at Northampton High. Our girls can try and fail without judgement, forge their own identities, assume leadership roles or support their peers, and build self-confidence, self-worth and self-knowledge. Our Sixth Formers take leadership roles as part of the Student Senior Leadership Team and Heads of House and deliver them in their way, be that collaboratively, authoritatively or creatively, influencing through teamwork, persuasion and co-operation. We are modelling the world we want to see. Moreover, we prepare them for a co-ed world by discussing and encouraging healthy relationships, exploring how a mortgage works and providing the emotional support they need to navigate life.

In today’s world, girls-only education is more important than ever. Girls learn best through discussion and exploration because more areas of their brain are dedicated to verbal functions, while a greater part of boys’ cerebral cortex is concerned with spatial and mechanical functioning, resulting in their shorter concentration spans than girls. In classrooms without boys, girls can flourish. They feel more free to pursue a wider range of subjects, to participate more actively in lessons, challenge others’ views, take leadership roles, work collaboratively and contribute meaningfully towards an equitable society.

We must continue to recognise and champion the importance of girls’ only education in shaping a brighter future for all. At Northampton High, we are proud to provide a diverse and inclusive community that empowers our girls to believe there is nothing they cannot achieve and that everything is possible.