Educate girls – save the planet
Do you remember a TV series from about 15 years ago called Heroes? The catchphrase was ‘save the cheerleader, save the world’.
Well, my catchphrase is ‘educate the girl, save the world’.
It’s more than a catchphrase, though – it’s real.
A recent report from Project Drawdown said that one of the most important keys to tackling climate change is “access to … high-quality, inclusive education”.
Worldwide, “[w]omen with more years of education have fewer and healthier children… [they] realize higher wages and greater upward mobility, contributing to economic growth. Their rates of maternal mortality drop, as do mortality rates of their babies. They are less likely to marry as children or against their will. They have lower incidence of HIV/AIDS and malaria. Their agricultural plots are more productive and their families better nourished.”
This is why I’m focussed on the transformative power of girls’ education – both in developing nations and here in the UK.
In the UK, we’re still far from being a fair place for women and girls – and it looks like the pandemic has halted and even reversed some of the progress we have been making. The horrific toll of domestic abuse on women has been made worse by lockdown, as women feel they have no escape from their abusers. When schools are closed, mixed-sex couples often decide it’s more affordable for the lower earner (usually the woman, thanks to the gender pay gap) to sacrifice her career, so childcare and home education falls disproportionally on mothers rather than fathers. Globally, women’s job losses due to Covid-19 are 1.8 times greater than men’s – so much so that some commentators are calling this a she-cession to set it apart from previous recessions.
Yet where are the women making the decisions for England?
Politicians have repeatedly ignored and neglected the differential impact of their policies on women – so much so that Caroline Nokes, Chair of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, described it as “institutional thoughtlessness”.
It’s timely that the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘choose to challenge’. How do we choose to challenge this thoughtlessness?
It’s a thoughtlessness that pervades artificial intelligence too. AI ‘learns’ from the information available to it, and if that information is biased or incomplete, or treats men as the ‘default’ sex, then poorly written algorithms can reflect and amplify those biases back at us.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that AI is going to have more and more influence over how we work and how we live. We also know that we cannot leave the design of the future to men alone, women have to be designing the future alongside them – and we have to inspire girls to be inspired by it.
Of all the possible investments we can make in the future, it’s probably no surprise that I think education must be the priority. GDST Sixth Form students think so, too. When we recently asked them in a survey what they think will make the most difference in making a more equal world for women and men, nearly 50% said women in leadership positions. And how do women take up pole position in public life? Through education – and nearly 30% of GDST students in the same survey said education was first and foremost the route to gender equality.
Through education, we can help young people – boys and girls – grow up into confident, committed, determined individuals, ready to tackle injustice, build a more equitable society, and remake the world as a better place for all.
Chief Executive Officer
Work – but not as we know it
There is nothing like the perfect storm of a pandemic and a Brexit to make one reassess many things, not least of which, since enforced home-working has become part of so many workplaces, is the world of employment.
Around 18 months ago, I heard Dainel Susskind, co-author of A World Without Work (2020), speak at the GDST summit. I have since heard him ‘in conversation’ at the How To Academy and purchased the aforementioned book. The premise of his book is that, whilst there have been fears of a dystopian future where machines take over the world ever since the industrial revolution, it is here and now that technology has developed to a stage where this really is a possibility. Or at least, it is highly possible that a range of professions could be fundamentally and irrevocably changed by developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI).
In my opinion, Susskind makes a compelling case for a world without work; after all there are already algorithms in use that can determine whether a person in court is guilty, with 90% accuracy, which is significantly higher than the average human who manages 54% accuracy.
Schwab (2017) calls this age ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’. In short, this suggests that we have moved well beyond the first Industrial Revolution where machinery, operated by humans, made manufacturing and production lines quicker and more efficient to a time when AI can simply complete jobs without human interaction. Of course, this is not entirely true, since someone has to program the machine to perform tasks in the first place, and machine learning is still a developing concept.
Depending on your opinion about technology and the workplace of the 21st century, the idea of a world without work could be a blessing or a concern. What is unarguable is that when when we tell our students that we are preparing them for jobs that have not even been created, we should not underestimate the uncertainty that concept could invoke. What is the point in studying to be a doctor when robots can be programmed with astonishing accuracy to carry out surgery and can work for longer even than a junior doctor. Or when systems such as NHS 111 and online diagnosis services use intelligent systems to make a relatively accurate diagnosis of simple conditions. Teaching, legal professions, design, architecture, engineering, surveying are just a few of the many professions where AI is increasingly able to replace a significant proportion of the work involved.
My personal take on this is not that our children face a future world without employment or even without work in the aforementioned professions, but that the skill set needed and the work undertaken will be different; it will be work that only humans can carry out. The comfort that students can take in this less certain future, is that the world of secondary education is opening its heart and mind to the importance of developing skills rather than merely covering content. If an adult knows how to collaborate efficiently with colleagues, make efficient use of workplace technology, solve problems, think strategically and develop agile working practices, they will undoubtedly be well placed to be the future leaders as well as the future professionals.
Deputy Head Pastoral
SUSSKIND, Daniel (2020) A world without work. London: Allen Lane
SCHWAB, Klaus (2017) The Fourth Industrial Revolution. London: Penguin Random House
Edtech – Technology and Collaboration
As in the song, we might say that collaboration and education go together like a horse and carriage. However, while the latter pair are more or less entrenched in an analogue past, collaborative learning has found a new lease of life through the power of technology, or EdTech. Perhaps a better analogy now would be a battery and an electric car!
A little over 18 months ago we launched the ‘Digacy’ programme at Northampton High. Digacy stands for ‘Digital Literacy’ but aims to go further, with the vision of bringing all things technological together under one banner, to help students develop future skills and to bring transformative approaches to teaching and learning. Little did we know that Covid-19 would push technology even further to the forefront of our thinking, giving us an unprecedented testbed for cloud-computing platforms across the school.
Using technology to support learning helps not just to deliver content in more adventurous and supportive formats, but, more importantly, allows students and teachers to connect with each other within and beyond the confines of the conventional classroom. Our school 1 to 1 device policy enables teachers to ‘break down’ the traditional home/school barriers, by sharing content before the lesson begins and allowing students to ‘preload’ with key information. It also encourages students to engage in shared working and they benefit from detailed feedback dialogue, which encourages continual improvement in skills and understanding.
The Digacy programme works from core principles, including online safety, computational thinking and the creation of content, to ensure that pupils have the adaptability they will need in the future. Digital tools like mentimeter, padlet, kahoot, flipgrid, quizlet, newsela, pobble and readtheory are amongst the many available that help teachers to support pupils individually, inspire curiosity and create inquisitive learners. All students curate their achievements online via a self-made website which we call the ‘360-degree Me ePortfolio’. This gives them the skills to manage their digital footprints positively, with an eye for their future employability. As a backbone to this, our shared platforms allow us to offer seamless learning approaches, meaning all pupils have access to the materials they need, along with their teachers’ expert advice.
As a result, both in lockdown and while just some students have been working from home, we have been able to prioritise live lessons via video to ensure as smooth a connection as possible. Beyond Northampton High School itself, we are proud members of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), a group of 25 schools which, like us, are centres of excellence in the teaching of girls. Our home schooling process, called Guided Home Learning, has thrived because of our access to GDST-wide online enrichment programmes, and the pedagogical support of many hundreds of like-minded colleagues around the country. In addition, our resident expert Consultant Teacher has also worked to develop our feedback methodologies, with much now delivered orally to students via technology.
The standing of computer science as an academic discipline has been given a boost in recent years. Famously, Bill Gates once criticised the UK for concentrating too much on the applications of technology and not the deeper understanding of coding and algorithms that is essential for developing the next generation of technical innovators. We took the step of incorporating Computing as a subject into Mathematics and giving it dedicated curriculum time from the youngest year groups in our Junior School. This has meant that computational thinking has been placed at the heart of the curriculum and has led to healthy uptake at public exams in the subject itself.
However, the belief that, as digital natives, our young people should be able to pick up IT creation skills as easily as learning a new computer game, ignores the fact that without clear guidance they will generally only approach this when they have to. As a result they may lack standard digital competencies, such as formatting documents, ordering filing systems, using spreadsheets, and creating intuitive presentations and websites. At Northampton High, the Digacy programme also acts as a safety net to ensure that these functional IT capabilities are not lost. All pupils develop these skills at the most suitable time in their education, and in the most suitable academic discipline. For example, the website skills learned in the 360-degree Me ePortfolio, are developed in Humanities lessons as a key part of our transferable skills agenda.
EdTech is with us to stay and we are confident it will help our pupils to thrive in the future, but technology is not an answer in itself. We may be moving into a world of self-driving cars and intelligent fridges, but some things will never change. It is the human connection transcending the digital, the understanding, guidance and perseverance of our teachers, that will allow students to find their individual paths in this changing world.
Deputy Head Academic
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…