School Blog


The power of the network behind Northampton High School

It is always exciting to see your name in lights and on Sunday 2 September that was what happened, metaphorically at least, as the Girls’ Day School Trust’s new national ad campaign shone a spotlight on its 25 schools, 20,000 students and 8,000 staff (with particular help from our own Chelsea Hikwa, one of the featured personalities).

This has set me thinking about the role the Trust plays at the High School – a role which is perhaps larger than we realise when we take into account all that goes on ‘behind the scenes’.  At the opening of a new academic year, with all its energy and promise, I can think of no better way to start than by describing that broad, bold backdrop to school life.

In an age where trusts of all kinds (multi-academy trusts or MATs, say) are commonplace in education, it is easy to forget how special the GDST is as a Trust among trusts. First and foremost it is far older than most, with a much longer and more distinguished track record.  Founded in 1872, at the very dawn of girls’ education in this country, it has played an integral part in the proud struggle to achieve education for girls on the same basis as for boys.

Second, is the ambition and inclusiveness of its mission.  From its inception, the Trust has sought to provide ‘education in the true sense of the word’ for all its pupils, rather than narrow training, and to ensure ‘first-rate teaching for all’ regardless of background.  This was a groundbreaking vision in Victorian society, with its rigid class system, and continues to be a relevant manifesto for our own day.  Another way of putting it would be ‘girls learn without limits.’

What does all this mean in practice for us in Northampton?

For our girls, it means extended opportunities during their school career in every facet of life – sports rallies and scholarships, competitions and conferences, placements and performance platforms.   The menu of events grows year by year.   Last year, for example, our keenest Y6 mathematicians enjoyed a conference at Oxford University while budding cricketers benefited from elite coaching from a national player and coach.

The power of the network also extends far beyond the school gate, with the largest Alum organisation in the UK standing behind our leavers as they stride out into higher education and the world of work.  University groups provide friendly support, from Freshers’ Week to graduation, while professional contacts offer a helping hand or a wise word of advice at crucial points on the professional journey.

For staff, the GDST offers access to a central training and professional development programme that is second to none – from subject-specific workshops to bespoke leadership training courses and everything in between.  We can draw on the services of experts at HQ in legal affairs, finance, health and safety and IT as well as educational matters and plug into the support of a network of fellow professionals, united by a common purpose, eager to share their skills and experiences.  The support I gain from the other Heads in the Trust – always just an email or ‘phone call away – is simply priceless and my colleagues each have their equivalent circles to call upon.

And for parents?  Because the GDST is more than the sum of its parts, each of its schools can ‘punch above its weight’.  As a charity, with Trustees but no shareholders, it can commit every penny of its income to the development of its schools.  Providing very good value for money has always been a major part of its mission and excellent stewardship remains a top priority.

This is a reassurance that parents prize greatly.  Some of the benefits are easy to see, such as the major refurbishment project for our swimming pool completed over the summer and the Inspire East conference for our 6.1s in Cambridge last Friday.  Others are less tangible but equally important.  The relative attractiveness of Trust schools as employers and training bases means they draw the highest calibre staff, which matters greatly at a time of a national recruitment crisis in education.  Access to the highest echelons of educational expertise and debate not just nationally (for example, the Annual Summit) but internationally, such as the Global Forum for Girls’ Education in Washington DC I recently had the privilege of attending as part of a GDST delegation, ensures that we keep abreast of new thinking and help to shape the broader educational debate.

Shouting from the rooftops has never been our style – we are always too busy focusing on putting the girls first.  However, this national campaign reminds us that we are stronger together,   it raises the curtain on all that we achieve together in the unique GDST community.




Are the arts in trouble? Not if we take a 360 degree perspective

The apparent decline of the arts subjects in many schools across the country appears to be an unintended consequence of the coalition government’s decision to champion a more overtly academic regime, with its related reforms to the exam system. With hindsight, this decline does not seem so remarkable, perhaps, particularly in the light of the dissolution of local authority control in favour of independent academies and multi-academy trusts, and the consequent loss of long-established networks of advisory specialists.  Furthermore, according to a new report funded by the Nuffield Foundation, faced with the inspectorate’s (Ofsted’s) focus on national test outcomes as the key measure of school success, headteachers have been forced to react restrictively to avoid the disastrous impacts that failure on these metrics can have on pupil and staff recruitment, as well as the wider reputation of their schools (1).

The narrowing of the curriculum that has been the result of all this has only relatively recently been recognised as a potentially damaging trend in economic terms. The creative industries contribute in excess of £90bn to our GDP and account for 1 in 11 jobs. These numbers have been rising at a rate faster than all other parts of the economy in the recent past, reliant to a large extent on immigrant talent attracted to our creative hubs. However, the danger that a large gap in the supply chain for future employees in these industries might emerge following Brexit is now very real, according to John Kampfner, CEO of the Creative industries federation, with ‘17 defined skills shortages in areas such as animation and special effects’ (2).

As with other independent schools, at Northampton High we have the freedom to consider developments in national education policy through the lens of our own philosophy and educational beliefs. This gives us the option of only gathering up innovations when we think they are beneficial and channeling our approach to structural changes, so that we can focus on the learning experience and help our students to find their own paths without having to compromise the breadth and balance of the choices they can make. We know that this leads to our Sixth Form students leaving us to go on to a striking range of futures beyond the purely academic or scientific, large numbers of them specifically arts related and many more very closely allied.

As befits our aim of helping our pupils come to a 360-degree understanding of what drives and inspires them, we place the arts squarely at the heart of school life and we encourage them to weave a path in and around the more traditionally academic subjects. Hence art, literature, film, music, food, textiles, dance and drama all feature in the day to day lives of the girls, both in curriculum time and in the wider life of the school. To mention but a very few examples from the last 12 months, this has been seen in our work with both an artist and director in residence, a link with the National Leather Collection, national awards for film, textiles and food collaborations with junior school girls, a dance and gymnastics celebration evening and extensive partnerships with humanities, science, maths and arts subjects across the school, including a STEAM extravaganza last month.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention our stunning annual Arts Festival which this year was bigger than ever, in honour of our 140th birthday, including 3 invited authors to suit all age groups (and parents!), a recital of music performances from girls aged 7 to 18 and arguably the most technically accomplished musical ever produced by the school, the Sound of Music. To finish off a fabulous year for the arts, we are refurbishing our Music department over the summer with the theme of female icons in music, practice rooms no longer being known as room 1 or 2, but by the name of an artist or composer, such as Beyoncé or Clara Schumann.

Needless to say, while the arts are flourishing at Northampton High and at other schools like ours, we cannot do it all. I sincerely hope that the wake-up call to government does not come too late to avoid our national influence in this vital sector being reduced beyond all recognition.

  1. Toby Greany and Rob Higham, UCL Institute of Education. Hierarchy, Markets, and Networks: analysing the self-improving school-led system agenda in England and the implications for leadership, Nuffield Foundation and IOE Press, July 2018
  2. John Kampfner. Creative industries are key to UK economy, the Guardian, January 2017

Mr Rickman, Deputy Head Academic


Think globally, act locally

I recently had the great good fortune to attend the Global Forum for Girls’ Education in Washington DC as part of a GDST heads’ delegation.  This international conference, organised by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools of America, was only the second such event of its kind.

Reflecting on the first day of proceedings at day’s end, I was aware of a strange sensation of light-heartedness, which seemed at odds with the seriousness of much of the content of the speeches I had heard.  The opening session, for example, featured Azar Nafisi, an academic and writer whose work in championing educational opportunities for girls was driven by her experiences in post-Revolution Iran, where censorship limited the scope of study for the young women who attended the university where she taught.

Puzzling about how to account for this, I wondered whether the venue was important.  The Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, founded a century ago, has certainly known its share of drama and glamour.  A home to several past presidents (and Marlene Dietrich), it was also the centre of a spy ring during the Second World War.

Or perhaps the setting was the key factor.  Washington DC is a beautiful city.  (Or, perhaps more accurately, it is a city with an attractive centre, elegant and green – the suburbs may well be a different matter.)  It is an exciting world metropolis and a place where global power lines converge.   The location undoubtedly added an exciting vibe to the occasion.

Perhaps, too, it was the company I was keeping.  With over 750 delegates from as far afield as Australia and Afghanistan, the delegate list had the perfect blend of friends, including a sizeable contingent from the UK’s Girls’ School Association as well as GDST colleagues, and of strangers, each with an interesting and unfamiliar perspective to share.  The line-up was star studded with the leading experts in their field – such as Rachel Simmons on wellbeing and Gail Kelly on leadership.  Billie Jean King rounded off the conference in her own inimitable style.

The break out workshops were led by educators from an astonishing range of backgrounds.  Some topics were niche, such as gender-specific strategies for teaching geometry, while others had such mass appeal that, as in the case of Rachel Simmons’s talk, the organisers had to take down a wall to accommodate all the attendees.  What they (I should say ‘we’ as I co-presented a session on sustaining success beyond the school gate with my counterparts from Putney High and Wimbledon High) had in common was a passionate belief in the importance of girls’ schools to providing the best education for girls.

All of these ingredients played a part, I think, but it was only when I studied the programme in more detail that the full explanation dawned on me.  Among the seven keynotes and dozens of breakout sessions on offer, not one was devoted to A Level or GCSE reform, the quality (or otherwise) of public exam marking, value added stats, EBacc, school league tables or regulatory compliance.

The very fact that it was a global forum completely changed the perspectives and priorities.  It meant that every moment of this three-day event on girls’ education was devoted to listening, talking and thinking about girls and education.  It sounds obvious – but it isn’t.  The challenge of communicating with education professionals from 22 different nations and education systems imposed upon us the discipline of speaking to universal themes and concerns.

  • Gender parity in school, higher education, the workplace and public life
  • Female leadership
  • Balancing work and family life
  • Physical and mental health
  • The pressures of popular culture and social media

So, what did I take away?

Too much to summarise in a few sentences.  I learnt that the Australians are doing some interesting work on wellbeing and that we can learn from them.  I learnt that the Americans are streets ahead of us in their work on alumnae links and that the Icelanders are great role models for educating out gender stereotypes.

Above all, I learnt that thinking globally enriches my understanding of my task in the school that I lead, provoking me to lift my gaze from the straitened path of national concerns and emboldening me to act locally to ensure that the education the High School girls receive is not just first class but world class.


Time to take the plunge

Why should a dip in a cold lake help prepare us for GCSEs?

Fair question – and one which naturally got aired by some members of U4 as they battled uphill, soaked to the skin, at the end of the ‘jog and dip’ at Outward Bound in Ullswater recently. I was too wet and out of breath myself at the time to answer the question properly, so here is a fuller explanation.

In the first place, experts agree that encounters with the Great Outdoors are very good for you but the Great Outdoors has become the Great Unknown for most young people.  According to a study commissioned by the National Trust six years ago, in the past generation, the ‘radius of play’ for children outside has declined by c.90% while the percentage using their local patch of nature for play has gone down from over a half to under a quarter.

Evidence of the detrimental effects of this ‘move indoors’ on their physical and mental health is stacking up alarmingly. The cardio-respiratory fitness of children has, for example, declined by about 10% in a decade while the increase in mental health problems among 5-16 year olds (to a current incidence of about 10%) has provoked calls to action from across the caring professions. Fresh air, the aesthetic balm of interacting with greenery and the emotional impact of connecting with wildlife, by contrast, help to build physical and mental strength.

More specifically, outdoor education is especially good for you.  Just a week before we travelled to Ullswater, an important piece of research, based on the outdoor-orientated curriculum at Gordonstoun, was published.  It showed that outdoor experiences, such as hiking and wild camping, have an ‘overwhelmingly positive influence’ on students’ personal growth and development as well as on academic attainment. There are many reasons for this – foremost being the emphasis on self-reliance coupled with team-work, the strengthening of resilience through physical challenge and the development of healthy attitudes towards risk-taking.

Outward Bound was founded by Kurt Hahn, who also founded Gordonstoun.  It is a programme backed by a serious philosophy as well as 77 years of research into the field.  This meant that key elements of the U4 course were tailor-made as an induction to GCSEs and beyond.

Allocating groups randomly for rooming and working, while posing some challenges (though none that proved unsurmountable), gave enormous scope for building teamwork and resilience under pressure when tempers were fraying and roles not meshing seamlessly.  This is the bread and butter of leadership training and will pay dividends when things aren’t going to plan on the biology or geography field trip or during drama practical rehearsals.

The digital detox element, though daunting for many, provided a vital opportunity for every participant to assess how far her phone served her rather than the other way around.  After getting through the ‘pain barrier’ of separation, the reality that life without the digital ghost limb was possible and might even (in small quantities) be desirable could be calmly considered.

The expedition – calibrated to take everyone to the edge of their comfort zone – offered the kind of rite of passage that psychologists say is important in every journey from childhood into young adulthood.  Some of the experiences were, in the immortal phrase of one of the instructors, ‘type 2 fun’ (where ‘type 1 fun’ is when something is fun at the time) but, taken together, they built a memory that will be treasured and shared for years to come.

Finally, the ‘solos’ – short intervals of solitary contemplation built into the day’s activities – threw us back upon our own mental resources. The benefits of periods of solitary thought – even day-dreaming – to our cognitive and emotional development are only just beginning to be widely appreciated but, once sampled, they are palpable.

They also opened our senses to awe and wonder in the face of nature’s immensity.  In those moments we learn that nature is impersonal (just think of the weather). It cannot be negotiated with, no matter how much we wish it.  In a similar way, many aspects of the public world which young people are preparing to enter are impersonal and won’t bow to our preferences – including the public exam system and the employment market.

Outward Bound proves to us that preparation, practice and perseverance will help us to meet nature’s challenges.  And much more.  It teaches us that those same skills and qualities will bring us safely through the rough terrain and heavy weather of life as well.  As U4 start to look forward to ‘taking the plunge’ into the GCSE years, their experiences in Ullswater will arm them with an array of precious memories – and so much more.