Head's Blog


International Women’s Day 2018

‘We have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling.’

In her speech conceding defeat in the US presidential election in 2016, Hillary Clinton reminded us that there are still many milestones for women to reach and cross on the road to full political equality. But the fact that she ran Donald Trump so close – winning more votes, in fact, than her rival – speaks to me of the winds of change blowing through Washington, Westminster and the world’s legislatures.

On International Women’s Day (yesterday), a month after celebrating the centenary of Votes for Women in the UK, it was timely to celebrate the progress made in that 100 years and remind ourselves of the lessons learnt in 150 years or more of struggle for true political equality between the sexes.

The latest UN stats show that around 23% of MPs worldwide are women. This may not sound too impressive but the fact that the percentage has roughly doubled in the last two decades gives cause for hope that growth will accelerate with the increased prevalence of role models.

The 208 women MPs in the House of Commons (a record high of 32%), for example.

Or the 106 women (20%) currently sitting in the US Congress.

Or the 18 female presidents or Prime Ministers (9%) holding office across the world at the moment.
For some, the pace of change is simply too slow and more radical action, such as positive discrimination, is needed. Jess Phillips MP, for example, has called for quotas of female representatives to be set for local councils. But the bitter legacy of affirmative action on race relations in the USA, all-too-evident in that country today, should give pause for thought when considering relying on artificial levers to crank up the rate of progress.

A cultural shift is a more powerful driver than a formal change to the rules of engagement. And there are encouraging signs of change. Until 2010, for example, the Houses of Parliament had a rifle range but no crèche. That situation is now reversed. Perhaps Jacinda Ardern’s announcement in January that she is preparing to give birth while serving as Prime Minister of New Zealand may encourage other women to see politics and pregnancy as compatible.

The years since Vote 100 have also shown the naiivety of thinking that women politicians per se make better decisions than men. From Nazi Germany’s Trude Mohr to Winnie Mandela via Madame Mao in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, there are plenty of examples of power corrupting women at the top. And more recently, it has been sobering to see that Dilma Rousseff of Brazil failed to transcend the corrupt culture of her country while Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s policy towards the Muslim minority in Myanmar has tarnished her reputation internationally.

Armchair critics have greater access than ever before to a public platform, through social media, and our challenge is to avoid falling under the spell of their siren voices. Anyone with a proper education in the art of politics knows that exercising power justly and wisely, especially in hard economic times, is even harder than gaining it in the first place. That is why political education is such a vital part of our modern curriculum, though it is often overlooked or marginalised.

The rise in interest in current affairs, in political engagement and in the pursuit of politics as an academic study among High School students has been one of the most exciting developments of my time in the School. Through debating, in-school activism and student journalism as well as in lessons, a true renaissance in political engagement is in play.

Never was this more apparent than on International Women’s Day itself. In Assembly, Femsock members introduced us to the pioneering young women who are inspiring them to go out and make a difference in the world, ranging from Rupi Kaur to Emma Gonzalez. The #PressforProgress pledge stand in the Foyer was a hive of activity, girls and staff proudly wore their purple, green and white and the School was buzzing with discussion and debate. The Junior School girls got into the act with their hand-made Vote 100 sashes and rosettes and a group of students from Y6 to Sixth Form were interviewed for Radio Northampton about their views, impressing the journalist with their knowledge and articulacy.

Barack Obama, himself a convention-busting politician, said ‘truth isn’t about who yells the loudest, but who has the right information.’ In the end, that hardest, highest glass ceiling will be broken, not by the blunt force of aggressive populism, nor by the gimcrack trickery of media manipulation but by the resonance at high frequency of many well-informed, truth-speaking voices.



Love, actually

As the retail frenzy in preparation for Valentine’s Day next week reaches a crescendo, it is time to ask a question that in schools perhaps we don’t ask often enough – how do we tell the truth about love?

Readers may be surprised to learn that, until now, education about relationships and sex (RSE) has not been compulsory in schools outside local authority control. The announcement by Justine Greening recently that this will change from September 2019 has sharpened debate about what exactly should be taught to young people about the R and S in RSE, and at what stage of their lives. Many column inches have been devoted to the question but I have yet to see any of them devote any serious attention to telling the truth about love. The nature and power of love – its joys and pains – are, it seems, generally confined to literature lessons and the outer margins of the humanities curriculum. (Indeed, as I reflect on it, history in school has little to say about love beyond the repercussions of Henry VIII’s crush on Anne Boleyn and the political embarrassment surrounding Edward VIII’s passion for Wallis Simpson. Hatred on the other hand…)

Now, this is odd, because one may fairly say that our understanding of love is one of the rare examples of a topic on which our ancient antecedents could knock us Moderns (or post-Moderns) into a cocked hat. Only consider, as the cultural historian Roman Krznaric has put it, that, while we have six different words (at least) for our daily cup of coffee (Americano, cappuccino, espresso, flat white, macchiato and mocha), we have only one word for love compared with the six (or more) variations in Ancient Greek.

Could it be that ‘our impoverished language of love’, which Krznaric likens to ‘the emotional equivalent of a mug of instant’, is at the root of many of the difficulties, from sexting to porn addiction, that our new-look RSE is supposed to address?

By failing to distinguish between eros, the sexual passion and desire we associate with falling in love, and ludus, the playful affection which can fuel flirtation between strangers, a frisson of excitement between dancers or banter between friends, for example, we may find ourselves in relational hot water very quickly. Understanding, too, that eros is likely, with time, to mellow into pragma, the deep mutual understanding (often mixed with patience with and tolerance of each other) which characterises successful long-standing relationships, may help us by tempering our expectations at the outset of a marriage, civil partnership or other open-ended commitment of the kind.

Recognising philia – the love that forms a golden thread through genuine friendships – is as necessary to us as the erotic or romantic love of a partner encourages us to pay more attention to cultivating and sustaining the friendships that bring us much joy and help in life rather than devoting all our energies to searching for The One. Finally, by grasping that there is a place in our moral universe for both agape, the selfless love which drops a pound in the beggar’s paper cup or pulls into the hard shoulder to let the ambulance speed by, and Philautia, the self-love that we would describe as a healthy level of self-esteem, we might avoid some of the traps of guilt and jealousy that plague the lives of many.

I suspect that the concept of ‘love, actually’ – as immortalised in the hit film of the same name – comes closest in our cultural lexicon to expressing the subtleties of love that were so much a part of everyday understanding for the Greeks. As the old song says, it is a ‘many-splendoured thing’ and I hope that, wherever you are on 14 February, you will find time in the day to celebrate and appreciate the many splendours of love, actually (agape, eros, ludus, philautia, philia and pragma) in your life.


R Krznaric, The Wonderbox (Exmouth, 2011)


Learning the new shorthand is a barrier to employability

For our fore-mothers, learning shorthand as part of a repertoire of secretarial skills was considered a vital attribute in preparing them for a world of work. Women with such skills had an advantage in many realms of the employment market.

The arrival of digital communications has rendered obsolete the conventional skills of shorthand writing. Why laboriously notate speech when you can record it and convert it into a written document at the touch of an icon? And, this done, endlessly reproduce it and publish it at will.

As with so many aspects of the digital revolution, however, we have replaced the challenges of scarcity with those of superfluity. So, the focus of difficulty has shifted away from the creation of documentation to its storage and security. The quest to locate scarce information, locked away in paper archives, has given way to the search for worthwhile information amid clouds of words free floating in the ether and all competing for our limited attention.

And what if that search becomes not an active process but a passive one –as we feed on the information we are given rather than actively seeking what we need?

Information curated for us as a result of algorithmic calculations about us as consumers. Information channelled to fit our political bias and preferences.

The age of shorthand writing has, in other words, given way to an age of shorthand reading. And, shorthand reading brings with it the ever-present risk of shorthand thinking.

We say that we know something from scanning a few characters about it on Twitter or an online post. Pictures are used allusively to add narrative force, apparently making redundant the need for actual words to define and refine the meaning or interpretation of the headline.
This is not new. In an age before mass education, the handbills of the print era summarised stories, sensationalised them and offered opinions in a shorthand form, without the need for much text at all, if any.

It is worrying. Just as the handbills of history were linked to outbursts of mass hysteria and the spread of damaging fantasies, such as the witch-crazes of the 17th century, so the digital feeds of today are linked to the rampant circulation of fake news. The widespread credence given to the story that a dead gorilla received 11,000 votes in the last US presidential election illustrates the point.

We all concur but what is harder to agree upon is what to do about it. This is an urgent question for schools, which are, after all, the training grounds for the leaders as well as voters and employees of tomorrow. The OECD recently called upon schools to do more to teach young people how to spot fake news. Readers who believe that gorillas can stand for election may end up voting a gorilla into the White House.

There are risks here of a knee-jerk reaction. Above all, this cannot simply become a campaign against the internet – or phones. Superficial reading is, after all, not necessarily purely an effect of material being in a digital form, though the size of the phone or tablet screen does lend itself to bite-sized consumption. Nor does a digital format always lead to skimmed reading. Let’s not forget that digitisation has actually made it much easier to read ‘War and Peace’ in bed.
It is much more about fostering an attitude of mind.

Courses such as the GDST’s Career Start Workshop on ‘Understanding the Media’ – which our Sixth Form students took last term and which unpacked the layers of the dead gorilla story as a case study – lay a good foundation stone. Promoting in-depth reading is also vital. At a time when many schools are doing away with their libraries and the county’s public libraries are facing closure, I see great value in maintaining a conventional library, blending books and digital materials, at the heart of the High School (both literally and metaphorically).

But nothing less than a culture shift, in opposition to the prevailing currents pushing students towards shorthand reading and thinking, is needed. I end with a suggestion for a starting point: that we accept as a first principle that we cannot claim to have an understanding of a topic from a standing start unless we have spent at least 15 minutes reading about it. I believe that ‘longhand’ reading and the thinking habits that go with it are the key skills for employability; the challenge of developing them is one that schools neglect at their peril.


Karen Kimura of GDST has kindly shared details of her Career Start Workshop and the following sources

Dr Stringer, Head Teacher


Happy New Year!

As we take our first steps into a new year, a year in which we will celebrate 140 years of the School’s work, I use this platform to reflect on our academic year so far and to look ahead to some of the highlights of the term ahead.

A digital report from Senior School by Mr Rickman

It has been a busy term for technology in school with Mr Rittler and his team working hard to replace the computers that power the interactive whiteboards in the classrooms. These fast machines are now being linked to CleverTouch boards, which offer many exciting opportunities for students to interact with the displays in class. Mrs Hodgetts-Tate in Science has been leading the way with this technology and the screens have now also been fitted in the Maths and Languages classrooms. In October we relaunched the school virtual learning platform, Firefly, giving it a fresh new look and improving the way teachers use the site to set and collect in homework, or prep. Using our links to OneDrive and Google apps for education, pupils can now collaborate with each other and share work directly with their teachers. Parents can also keep track of the prep that is being set, as well as other information about their children, via the parent portal on Firefly. If you have not yet accessed the service, please see instructions in the attached document. My assembly in November touched on the important issues of online safety and how students should use their own devices in school, as well as showcasing the ePortfolios students have been creating since the summer term in 2017. ePortfolio websites built on the GDST Google platform are a great way to allow students to curate their online presence while showcasing their achievements and progress in school. In January, U4 pupils will start to design and build their own ePortfolio websites, joining the students who have already made them, from L5 through to the Sixth Form. Finally, from the technological viewpoint, I’m pleased to say that our uptake of GCSEpod more than doubled over the term. This is a service designed to help students learn and revise for GCSE courses in small audio-visual chunks, via their digital devices and in class. Our group of GCSEpod champions in U5 ran an assembly for younger girls and were recognised by the company for their work in supporting other students. Meanwhile, Mr Donaldson, Head of History, has been selected to join the writers and his first ‘pods’ will soon be available on the system. GCSEpod is an excellent support for learning for all students in U4-U5 and instructions for signing up are available on Firefly.

From Sixth Form, Mrs Cantwell reports…

For 6.2, the slog of the Autumn Term is behind them, meaty chunks of their academic courses are now covered and the hours spent refining UCAS applications are beginning to bear fruit in the form of university offers. Eleven students are waiting to hear if their applications to Oxford and Cambridge have been successful for courses including Linguistics, Engineering and Philosophy and Maths at Cambridge and Classics, French and Music at Oxford. Our eight medics, vets and dentists are waiting for the results of recent interviews and others are planning to follow other NHS alumnae to study, for example, Law at Leeds, Engineering at Imperial and Geography at Newcastle, Politics and International relations at Bristol and Theoretical Physics at Durham. Others are breaking new ground, with applications for Fashion Design at the University of the Arts, English and Film Studies at Exeter, Sports Product Design and Technology at Loughborough and Interior Architecture at Oxford Brookes, to name but a handful.

An emerging trend is the growing popularity of the apprenticeship route with a number of students exploring the option of completing a degree while earning and experiencing the world of work without the burden of student debt.

6.1’s, in their turn, have embraced all the opportunities available to them with great enthusiasm and positivity. They are looking forward to the chance to stand for election to new 6th Form Leadership and House Leadership teams later this term. The superb House Plays and the reports from House Charity Leaders and the Deputy Head Girl (Charities) in the Celebration of Giving on the last day of term offered snapshots of the impressive work our student leaders do.

Our students are enjoying the opportunities provided by the new linear A-levels, leaving time and flexibility to explore other areas of interest through the 6th Form Electives programme. Many have chosen an EPQ, Extended Project Qualification, allowing them to research an area of interest and develop skills which will be greatly beneficial once at university. Others have chosen from a range of MOOCs, Massive Open On-Line Courses, offered by universities across the world or taken the Politics and International Relations, Film Studies, Art History courses or joined the Social Enterprise Changemaker programme.

Some interesting nuts and bolts… As you know, Parentpay was introduced at the beginning of the Autumn Term as a more flexible method for you to pay for school extras. This has proved to be very popular with parents and the majority are now signed up and using the system effectively. If you require any further support with the system, please contact our Finance Manager Bo Kuzniewska b.kuzniewska@nhs.gdst.net and she will be happy to help.

The school facilities have always been available to hire out of school hours but, from January 2018, we hope to make this easier to book by using Schoolhire as a platform to manage bookings and payments. If you are interested in booking school facilities, please refer to https://nhs.schoolhire.co.uk/. Please remember that as a parent you are very welcome to join our Sports Centre Community at a preferential rate.

This will enable you to participate in a wide range of fitness classes, and use the swimming pool and fitness facilities out of school hours. For further details, contact https://www.northamptonhigh.co.uk/sports-centre/join-now/

Active in the community

Our new Outreach Coordinator, Ms Heimfeld, gives a round-up of current events…

There have been fantastic Outreach programmes run in Autumn Term, including Sixth Form Volunteering, an Expressive Arts Enrichment Day, Femsock attending the National Council of Women Conference, hosting the English Speaking Union ‘School’s Mace’, and Screen Northants filming ‘Reverberations’ in the Science corridor and Dining Hall. Just before Christmas, U5 visited Age UK to sing carols and bring Christmas cheer and a group of students participated in the Hardingstone Living Nativity.

Looking ahead, on Friday 19 January, the Head Girls’ team are organising a Pizza and Quiz Night for students, parents, staff and local pensioners. Annie Loveday Hill will be conducting opera and vocal exercise classes in the new year and Go Code Academy will be running tech camp and holiday coding workshops in February half-term.


As we approach the School’s 140th Birthday, we are launching a project entitled WHEW! – Women Helping to Empower Women. We would like to have a positive impact upon the future lives of 140 young women in our community. The first phase of the programme is a Summer Steam Extravaganza with 14 primary schools bringing 10 students each to a day of science, maths, engineering and arts. The second phase of WHEW will be 4 weeks of Saturday Masterclasses in the Autumn of 2018 for these 140 girls, stretching their potential and encouraging career ambition. A key focus for WHEW! is the opportunity for our own students to mentor young women in the community and to take organisational roles within the events.

And looking beyond

It gives me great pleasure to report two prestigious awards for the School in the area of internationalism. The first is an International School Award (Foundation Level). The International School Award celebrates exceptional work in international education through, for example, fostering an international dimension in the curriculum and helping young people gain the cultural understanding and skills they need for life work in today’s world. The second is our success in being selected as secondary school category winner from entries across 42 eTwinning countries in a competition organised by the British Council, entitled ‘Don’t judge a person by a face.’ Many congratulations to our Languages Faculty on both these achievements.

The power of the network One of the highlights of last term was our Awards Evening, when the CEO of the GDST, Cheryl Giovannoni, came to present the prizes and congratulate the students on their achievements. In her speech, Cheryl spoke about her commitment to ensuring that the GDST is as effective as possible as a movement for positive change for girls and young women, building on its pioneering origins. Her message is one that is gaining traction, not only in our schools but also in the wider world. In October, for example, Cheryl was named in the Evening Standard’s Power 1,000, being cited as one of the most influential people in education (follow the link here to read more https://www.standard.co.uk/news/the1000/the-progress-1000-londons-most-influential-people-2017-social-pillars-education-a3653956.html)

Her message – that now is THE time for us to bring transformative change for girls and young women – sent me back to one of my favourite quotations, from Barack Obama, which I included in my start-of-term Assembly to the senior girls and which I use to sign off, with all best wishes for the year ahead, my newsletter to you. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

Dr Stringer


The Celebration of Giving

Every school has its own particular traditions and, as we approach the end of term, we are busy preparing for one of my very favourites at the High School – the Celebration of Giving, which takes place on Wednesday afternoon. Part carol concert, part awards ceremony, it is the time of the school year when we focus on giving in all its forms.

This year, as usual, we will pay tribute to the energy and the sheer ingenuity of the students in fundraising. Events such as last Friday’s tightly-fought Strictly Come Dancing contest by Artemis filled the Hall (and the coffers) as performers went through their paces in styles ranging from Tap to Flapper via Bollywood and Barn, while Man v. Food brought, courtesy of Hestia, a spectacle of a very different (but equally lucrative) kind. The total raised so far, £1200, is impressive indeed and the Juniors, not to be outdone, have raised money for Macmillan Nurses and Children in Need. Gifts in kind have also flowed into school, as the Year 2s collected a car-boot full of provisions for the Hope Centre and the Senior Knitting Club made scarves and blanket squares to donate to the same charity.

Giving means more than just money, of course, and the increased emphasis on the service dimension to giving in our Celebration is a particularly welcome development. In our time-poor society, giving one’s time to another person or a worthy cause can be more of a sacrifice than a money donation. That is why I am particularly proud of the number of students at the High School who take part in volunteering of all kinds, whether through Duke of Edinburgh, Changemakers, National Citizens’ Service or Young Philanthropy. When the High Sheriff of Northants visited our Assembly on 6 November to present certificates of achievement to all the 6.1s who had completed their Young Philanthropy training, he reminded us (with all the solemnity that an appearance in18th Century court dress could bestow) that service to one’s community is part of any society’s lifeblood.

Willingness to take part is essential to the success of any community and that is why the readiness of our staff to be good sports is another priceless tradition at the High School. Where would Strictly be without Mr Attwood in his pumpkin hat or Mrs Langhorn twirling her umbrella? How could Man v. Food have worked without the men to go with the food?

Finally, speaking of sportsmanship, the staff Santa Fun Run, begun last year, is back by popular demand. Scheduled for Tuesday lunchtime, it may well prove to be the hottest ticket of the festive season. Are we, I wonder, seeing a ‘tradition in the making?’ In the true spirit of Christmas, I will only say – may the best team win (as long as it is ‘The SLT ThemsELVES’)!

With all best wishes for a happy and prosperous Christmas and New Year break


Brainwave, brainwash or hogwash? What we really know about brain science and education

Should the school day be shorter? Or perhaps longer?

Should we begin the day mid-morning rather than sooner to accommodate the circadian rhythms of the average teenager?

How does drinking lots of water affect learning power?

Or eating sugar?

What difference does physical exercise make to cognitive ability?

The answers to these and other compelling questions about how we might make education better for our pupils represent a promised land for educationalists. They were the key drivers behind the movement to bring the discoveries of neuroscience, one of the world’s fastest growing fields of enquiry, into schools. It is over a decade since the Centre for Neuroscience in Education in Cambridge was set up to do just this and almost four years since the government put money into the enterprise with the establishment of the Education and Neuroscience Project.

So, where have we got to in the quest for answers? The GSA Annual Heads’ Conference in Manchester last week was the forum for a roundup of progress, courtesy of a keynote by psychologist, Bruce Hood.

And the verdict?

It was, in its way, revelatory.

We still don’t know.

Or, as Professor Hood, a leading researcher in developmental psychology at the University of Bristol, put it, the bridge linking neuroscience to education remains ‘a bridge too far.’ This is because we simply do not know enough yet about the way the brain works to say anything meaningful about how brains learn (or fail to) in school. More than that, he warned that teachers ‘are being fed a diet of misconceptions and neuroscience nonsense’ which, in their zeal to improve, they are swallowing whole.

At best, this means that fads based on neuromyths (one thinks of brain gym) grip the educational establishment, taking up our valuable time (especially when costly training courses or resources are an essential part of the package) before falling out of fashion.

At its most invidious, though, it can perpetuate unhelpful attitudes that squash ambition and thwart individual and collective progress. Take, for an example, the frequent assertions about innate gender differences in aptitude in STEM subjects we still hear – and which girls’ schools are confounding in very deed every day of the year.

A Conference keynote elaborating on the limitations of our knowledge in this field might have disappointed some delegates who were hoping for a Eureka! moment to propel their school plans forward into a bright tomorrow. For me, though, an honest acknowledgement, based on empirical evidence, of the sheer complexity of the topic rang a refreshingly different and hopeful note in an educational world over-populated with competing initiatives with inflated claims to efficacy.

When I revisit those opening questions, it is to sound a note of caution about the prospect of a quick and simple answer based on neuroscience. Avoiding grand theories and headline-grabbing initiatives, I think it preferable to rest on my knowledge and appreciation of the girls I see and spend time with in school every day. The girls I know. Girls who are larks and those who are owls, as well as those who try to burn the candle at both ends – or neither. The water-drinkers and the juice fans, and those who like nothing better than a cup of tea when they meet me. The sweet-tooths and savoury-heads, and those who get more pleasure from baking and icing the cakes than eating them, especially when a prize is at stake. The sport junkies and the sport-shy, and those who complement academic work with a spot of meditation, a good book or playing the violin.

The real revelation of neuroscience for education is that each individual is even more miraculously complicated and mysterious than we ever imagined. And, as an educator working with real girls not lab rats, that is exactly what makes the work so worthwhile.


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

‘You can’t have depths without surfaces’

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


Preparing for the labyrinth of life

Looking back at the GDST Annual Conference last week, I am spoilt for choice in possible themes to pick up on in my blog.  Under the banner ‘A good time to be a girl?’ we explored a huge range of topics – from fairy stories to the ‘Frozen’ film script, dolls to directorships, mindsets to money.


One phrase really stuck in my mind, though, courtesy of keynote speaker Dame Helena Morrissey, Boldness in Business Person of the Year and inspiration behind the 30% Club (promoting women on boards in FTSE Top 100 companies) – preparing for the ‘labyrinth of life.’


How neatly and exactly this, to my mind, sums up the message we should be imparting to young women today.


A labyrinth rather than a road – because life as we actually live it is not really linear and, too often, seeing it as an arrow point to happiness and success sets us up for disillusionment and discontent.


A labyrinth rather than a playground – because the landscape ahead of today’s young women contains harsh landscapes that must be traversed as well as picturesque plains to be relished, and to pretend otherwise is to do our students a great disservice.


A labyrinth rather than a maze – because, in a maze a wrong turn can leave you stranded and really lost but in a labyrinth you are sure to get to the heart of it (journey’s end, if you like) if you only keep going through its twists and turns, with patience and purpose.  Labyrinths, such as the beautiful example on the floor of Chartres Cathedral, are ancient devices to encourage us to pay attention and are physical representations of the idea that the truth and direction of a person’s life will unfold over time.


Where can this insight lead us?


The theme of preparing for the labyrinth offers such rich possibilities and Dame Helena was, of course, only able to offer a few of her thoughts about how it might best be done.  Three in particular really resonated most with me – the value of involvement in sport, the importance of connecting with current affairs and a tip for avoiding the ‘wall of worry’ that can hold women back.


Sport hones the character even as it tones the body, teaching us how to lose and fail, how to depend on others and become dependable, how to dig deep under pressure and set self-interest aside for the good of the team.


All of this is demonstrably good for girls and young women – ‘74% of employers say that a background in sport will assist a professional career for women’ and ‘96 % of the highest ranking female executives played sports and 55% of them at university level or higher.’


Engagement with current affairs gives us a valuable perspective on our own concerns and acts as a necessary corrective to the superficial media commentary, so prevalent in young people’s lives, that is so apt to present complex issues as simple (usually with a clear villain to blame).  By looking outwards beyond ourselves, we also develop the levels of empathy that enrich our own understanding of ourselves as fabulous – and flawed.  Current affairs are always on the agenda in school and, for parents keen to find a launch pad for engagement at home, ‘First News’ provides an excellent starting point.


Finally, Dame Helena’s advice for young women who may feel trapped in a circle of impossibility, blocked by a ‘wall of worry’ or daunted by the prospect of crashing up against a glass ceiling was beguilingly simple and brilliantly counter-intuitive– ‘leap before you look.’  For those embarking on the ascent of a career ladder, the prescription for a dose of boldness was timely indeed.  According to research commissioned by the 30% Club, ‘women’s more cautious approach to applying for jobs or promotions: 20% of men will apply for a role despite only partially meeting its job description, compared to 14% of women’ holds them back professionally.


A hesitancy about defining ambitions also limits women’s progression in the workplace relative to their male counterparts – the same report found that ‘over half (52%) of male managers had a ‘fair idea’ or ‘clear ambition’ to work in a particular role, compared with 45% of women managers. Fewer women than men (50% vs 62%) expected to become managers.’


Taking one’s courage in one’s hands and stepping out before the path ahead is completely clear – a method which, labelled as ‘act and learn’, is familiar to all educators – may be the best (and only?) way to make the most of the extraordinary journey that is the labyrinth of life.


Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress


Sources and references

Report on the GDST Conference: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/family/private-school-chief-girls-feisty-give-credit

On sport: Read Mrs Hackett’s blog from which I have taken her favourite statistics: http://seniorblog.northamptonhigh.co.uk/2016/09/30/the-rio-olympics-what-will-be-the-legacy-for-girls/

On current affairs: https://www.firstnews.co.uk

Report on ambition and gender: https://30percentclub.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/ILM_Ambition_and_Gender_report_0211-pdf.pdf


Good news is no news

The recent emergence of concerns about the prevalence of ‘fake news’ has reminded us, if we needed reminding, that the news is and always has been constructed for us to consume rather than being an objective reality that is simply reported.


What does this mean for us as parents and educators?


We urge young people to embrace active citizenship by taking an interest in current affairs and familiarising themselves with political processes and beliefs, reminding them of the importance of using their right to vote responsibly.  Exactly how we should prepare them for these vital responsibilities in an age of ‘fake news’ is far from obvious, however.


Of course, politicians have always tried to manipulate the news – I think of Henry VIII censoring Catholic broadsheets during the Reformation.  The scandal of government aide Jo Moore’s memo on 9/11 – saying that the attacks on the Twin Towers made it a good ‘day to bury bad news’-  was only the most blatant example of a tendency by the powers-that-be to massage the message.


However, the proliferation of news and commentary via social media feeds – filtered to targeted audiences but unfiltered for quality – has added new layers of complexity to the task of separating wheat from chaff in a data-saturated world where reportage, commentary, opinion and speculation are all blended together into a baffling brew.


One L5 student at a recent tea party put her finger on the crux of the problem when she said, ‘which sources can we trust?’


Let us not be nostalgic sentimentalists.  Lies were told and truths withheld in the past, of course.  In 1957, Harold Macmillan hid the truth about an accident at the Windscale nuclear plant that threatened to create a catastrophe on a par with the Chernobyl disaster of almost thirty years later.


In fact, the opening up of access to information ushered in by the internet is potentially a great force for good in the development of informed citizens.  It seems inconceivable that a cover-up on the scale of Macmillan’s could succeed nowadays.  At the same time, however, it requires of our young citizens critical faculties, which do not come ready-made.  This places a large onus on schools and parents to nurture the necessary interpretive skills to separate fact from fiction.


At school, we encourage discussion and debate – in lessons, clubs and societies, events and visits – in a bid to make school a lively Academy, just like Plato’s in his day (though more inclusive!), for the formation of an educated citizenry. An engagement with the democratic process (such as through this week’s mock General Election) promotes a better understanding of the pressures and limitations on politicians today and counteracts the sensationalists and conspiracy theorists occupying the darkest niches of the Net.


By and large, however, our students do not have much faith in the ability or even the willingness of their leaders to surmount the challenges of today and tomorrow. Moreover, they are genuinely anxious about the state of the world, seeing the threat from state-sponsored terrorism (from North Korea, say) or from randomised hate crimes, such as those recently in Manchester and London, as shadows which cloud their daily lives and threaten their futures.


Unlike their parents and grandparents, they do not have the benefit of the long view to put these events into perspective – the memory of nuclear stand-offs during the Cold War or the everyday realities of British city life during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, for example.  Moreover, they do not have the benefit of traditions of investigative reporting on the part of news producers and of sustained background reading on the part of news consumers.   (This means that, if you have got this far in my blog, you are bucking the very trend I am describing!)


Another dimension to this issue, less often remarked on but, in my view, just as problematic, is the tendency of news coverage to focus on the negative and the sensational at the expense of the positive if unglamorous.  In 2016, the battle to eradicate malaria from Sri Lanka was won and an historic peace deal was brokered in Colombia after the longest civil war in modern times.  However, these are not the things which come uppermost to mind when surveying the headlines of the world’s news last year.


Good news is simply not as compelling as bad news – and tends to be relegated to the innermost pages of the newspaper or that frothy item to round off a bulletin before we segue into the weather forecast (often another cause for gloom).  Little wonder, then, that young people see little to cheer them – or encourage them to have faith in the political process – in their news feeds.  Only by digging beneath the surface, a discipline as well as an investment of time, can we hope to reach the balance and breadth of reporting that counterbalances fakery, doom-mongering and sensationalism.


Is it over-optimistic, I wonder, to see, in the inclusion of so many column centimetres about the collective effort to help the traumatised victims by neighbours, bystanders and also well-wishers across the world in the coverage of the atrocity in Manchester, a glimmer of hope for the future?  What I am sure of is that the level of engagement among our students in the mock General Election (and I write this in the heat of debate before the outcome is known) is a reassuring sign that the kind of attachment to the democratic process, that forms the only realistic bulwark against the success of terrorism, is alive and well among the next generation of voters in this corner of the UK at least.


Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress




news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7030281.stm on Windscale