Head's Blog

15
Nov

Awards Evening 2019

This week we had the pleasure of coming together to celebrate the academic year 2018-2019, to recognise and applaud the achievements of our students and to thank all those who had contributed to making the three terms so successful.

The theme of the evening was ‘Fearless Individuality’ and, although we rightly mentioned the excellent headline examination figures of 59% A*-A grades at GCSE and 70% A*-B at A-Level, the focus was very much on the stories of the individuals – on the risks that they had taken, the hurdles that they had overcome and of the opportunities that they had been given along the way.

Our guest speaker was Sasha Roseneil, Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science and Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences at UCL. As a High School alumna, she was able to take us on a journey from Derngate to London via Yorkshire and Essex as she spoke about her ‘Places of Learning’. In an entertaining and informative speech that touched students and visitors alike, Sasha outlined her academic and professional journey, discussed memories of school, and –  picking up on the theme of the evening – spoke of her own relative strengths and weaknesses, her interests and passions and of the unexpected events that have made her the person that she is today.

Being an individual – especially in one’s teenage years – can take real courage, but we pride ourselves in knowing and valuing each of our girls and they are encouraged to take risks, to trust in and develop their own skills and character and to avail themselves of the myriad opportunities on offer. These include extracurricular offerings, with sessions as diverse as Debating Club, Ukelele Group, Language Leaders, Femsoc, Cafe Sci, Yoga and the Sewing Bee, and volunteering opportunities, including the Big Bear Little Bear and Big Sister Little Sister mentoring schemes. Girls have the opportunity, too, to provide academic support as Language Leaders or Number Partners and to be involved in outreach work as Young Philanthropy Ambassadors or Community Sports Leaders.

Opportunities for personal and intellectual growth in the classroom are a given at the High School,

and the Awards Evening is a perfect opportunity to appreciate this as girls receive recognition for their public examination results, scholarship, and academic excellence and achievement. This year, we also celebrated the individual successes of a student who won a gold medal and a trip to a prestigious award ceremony in the Biology Olympiad and another who won a much-coveted place at the Newnham College Summer School for Mathematics in Cambridge. We considered, too, the two students who were selected for the English Schools Athletics Competition at Alexandra Stadium, the girl who won gold at the World Para Swimming European Championships and the former pupil who was nominated by the British Film Industry as one of 2019’s ‘faces to watch’.

Personal growth is not simply about solo recognition, though, and all of our students – including those mentioned above – understand the importance of bringing their peculiar skills and character to a group or team setting. The ability to think creatively and to work collaboratively are deemed as essential skills for future employment and lifelong learning and girls are encouraged in these, and in appreciating the value that they can add to a group.

Not surprisingly, therefore, there have been numerous opportunities to work as a group over the past year and we remembered in particular the trips to the University of Leicester for a Brain Awareness Day, Warwick University to track exotic particles using real data from CERN and the Victoria & Albert Museum for the ‘Dior Designer of Dreams’ exhibition. Longer excursions, too, including outward bounds courses, Duke of Edinburgh hikes, the World Challenge expedition to Cambodia and other overseas tours, including language exchanges. A particular highlight here was the Erasmus+ project, which involved four other European Schools and had a focus on creativity and digital competency. We are delighted and honoured to be holding the grand finale of this here in Northampton in the spring.

Group achievements include the Young Enterprise company who won the award for the best customer service and best teamwork at the county final and there was a plethora of team successes, especially in sport. The U16 badminton team represented Northamptonshire in the regional finals, where they were runners-up, and the U16 Netball team reached the national finals, finishing an astonishing 12th in the country. Meanwhile, the U13 and U15 hockey teams were once again division champions, the U13 swimming team repeated their success in qualifying for the IAPS National Finals and the equestrian team won a place at the prestigious national finals at Hickstead.

Considering the team that was the staff, student and parent body of 2018-2019, it was impossible not to mention the whole-school celebrations and achievements, including sports days, the Gym and Dance Extravaganza, the production of CATS the Musical and the hosting of BBC’s Question Time. For many, however, the 140th Birthday Gala Concert at All Saints’ Church was unforgettable. This event marked the culmination of a year of celebration and brought the whole High School community –  both past and present – together. Professor Roseneil spoke of her memories of the centenary celebrations when she was a High School pupil, yet she delighted in her ex-form tutor and language teacher being present for her Awards Evening speech this week. She will be back at least once a year, to give of her time and expertise and to remember and absorb the very special atmosphere that is Northampton High School. Others will return, too, as they always do, and we will continue to celebrate the individuals who constitute our unique community.

21
Jun

Lost words, lost worlds

Do you think that things need a name in order to exist in our minds?

This was the question I posed to the senior girls in Assembly last week. Many philosophers would argue that things for which we have no name do not exist as fully in our minds as things that have a name.

‘What’s in a name?’ says Shakespeare’s Juliet

But the fact that she is called Capulet and he is a Montague makes all the difference in the world to this couple, and seals their fate.

‘That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet’ she adds.

But when planting my garden, I need the word rose.  More, I need the name of the rose – the taxonomy of roses, no less.

If you lose the word, then, you lose the world of which it is a part.

Seven years ago, a big thing happened in the naming industry of this country, when OUP published  a new Junior Dictionary.  To make space for newly-emerging words – analogue, broadband, chatroom – the publishers removed words which they thought had fallen into disuse, including acorn, buttercup and conker.

A furore followed; not because the technology-related words were seen as bad but because many people felt that losing the nature-orientated words would mean that the link between the future generation and the natural world would be lost.

In fact, many people believe that the link has been lost already and that the natural world has become a lost world to the young. For example, Tanya Byron’s influential report ten years ago concluded that the radius of activity outdoors for children had declined by almost 90% in a generation. The term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ – coined by Richard Louv, in 2005 – has now been widely taken up to describe the detrimental effects, on physical and mental health, of children’s disengagement from nature.  Louv defines it thus,

Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses

The stats paint a concerning picture – with a third of under-16s being overweight or actually obese and an ‘epidemic of mental illness’ afflicting the young (leading to around  35,000 children in England being prescribed anti-depressants).  In response, many organisations and individuals have sought to re-engage children with the Great Outdoors. The National Trust’s ’50 things to do before you are 11 ¾ ’ programme aims to ignite a love of nature in children before they reach the age when it is too late while an illustrated book of poems, entitled ‘The Lost Words,’ has taken the literary world by storm, scooping the Kate Greenaway Award and inspiring a campaign across Scotland to get a copy placed in every primary school nationwide.

Schools are, of course, crucial to the success of this endeavour.   At a time when many are struggling to hold onto their green spaces, as a result of funding pressures, and other agendas are vying for attention, we are fortunate at the High School to enjoy superb resources, physical and human, for outdoor learning and can make good on the promise to keep the words and the worlds of nature alive and vivid for our students.

Forest School, led by Mrs Waters, is a brilliant starting point.  Much more than an outdoor education programme, it is a fully integrated and structured programme of activities, underpinned by research and risk assessment, and combining elements of bushcraft, skills-building, environmental awareness, character education and personal well-being.   Beyond that, in junior school, flower beds and vegetable patches, mud kitchens and bug hotels, sensory beds and sandpits, bird feeders and barometers present endless possibilities for exploration.  For the seniors, the tranquil gardens of Cripps Courtyard provide a sunny haven in summer and an arena for snowballing in winter while Derngate Courtyard hosts intriguing biology experiments and offers shady nooks. By the time they are 11 ¾ our girls have enjoyed yearly residentials focused on outdoor learning and have cut their teeth on the Confidence and Challenge Programme amid the splendours of Snowdonia and the Carding Mill Valley.

This week the U4s have been in Cumbria, braving the elements and drinking in the fabulous scenery on Outward Bound.  The calendar says summer but the barometer says monsoon.  No matter – our motto remains ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing!’  Before the year is through, we shall have seen L5 and U5 through D of E Bronze and Silver expeditions while groups of our most adventurous seniors will have had an encounter with the wonders of Zanzibar, Thailand and Cambodia.

In these, and countless other ways, the High School ethos and experience encourage girls to embrace citizenship of the natural world and to gain fluency in the words of its language.  The rewards are rich indeed – and will last a lifetime.

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/50-things-to-do

Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris ‘The Lost Words’ [2017]

http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/book-list/the-lost-words-a-spell-of-words-by-robert-macfarlane/

14
Jun

Sports Day 2019

What will be the lasting memories of Sports Day 2019? Let me share with you my top 5.

The sound of school records tumbling, with new records in the U3 200m, L4 Long Jump, 100m and 800m, U4 Javelin, L5 100m and Relay, U5 100m and the 6th Form Long Jump being set.  2019 was a record-breaking year for breaking records! Well done to all our record-breakers, Arianna Hay, Janice Huang (twice), Phoebe Haynes, Lilli Trimble, Isabelle Kaspruk, Artemis relay team, Georgina Forde-Wells and Hollie-Megan Mullen respectively.

The sight of so many girls giving their all in their events – whether because they were going for those records in their chosen elite sport or because they just wanted to do their bit for their House.  I spent some time helping at the High Jump and came away filled with admiration for the pluck of the girls who made that leap of faith in an event they didn’t normally excel in, as well as marvelling at the explosive energy of the natural adepts.

The beaming faces of the Junior School girls as they carried away an array of stickers – and, again, it was a pleasure to see how a ‘Well done’ badge meant as much to some girls as those ‘First’ rosettes did to others.  Whether it was the 100m or the egg-and-spoon race, the pleasure of achievement was the same – and all the points counted in the competition.

The magnificent team spirit – exhibited in countless ways.  Most notable were U5 girls coming hot-foot from their GCSE Maths Paper 2 exam to the track to take part in the races and the wealth of volunteers (from whatever house) running alongside the strugglers in the 800m races to encourage them through the final furlong and across the line.

Finally, the turnout of so many family members – making another record-breaking year, we think. Impressive picnics and seating arrangements brought a hint of Glyndebourne style to the High School fields for the day while active contributions – whether physical on the track (with Ms Taylor and Mr Peng in the forefront) or verbal from the sidelines (with a little bit of armchair coaching, of course!) – added a festive feel to a much-loved school tradition.

A very big ‘thank you’ to everyone – led by Mrs Hackett, Mrs Littlewood and all members of the Sport Faculty – who contributed to making it such a special day.

03
May

Celebrating the School Birthday

Whenever I tell people that I am a teacher, they almost always make the same reply.  They tell me about a teacher they remember from their own school days.  They repeat to me verbatim what that teacher said to them – often something inspiring or encouraging but sometimes, alas, the opposite.  Their school days may have been many, many years ago but the memory of what their teacher said stays very fresh.  (A comment to me by the teacher in charge of Careers at my school –  ‘well, of course, it is easier for girls because you can either be a success or marry a success’  – still has the power to annoy me!)  This reminds us what a big impact teachers can have and what an important job teaching is.

Currently, though, the standing of the teaching profession is lower than it has ever been in my career – and recruitment levels to the profession are correspondingly depressed.  Time, then, to redress the balance in a small way by celebrating the joys of teaching – and what better opportunity than our School Birthday?

For 141 years, the High School has been a magnet for talented teachers and, though some of them have passed through its classrooms and corridors uncommemorated (except in the hearts and minds of their pupils at the time), others have left a permanent legacy.  I think of Miss Straker with her motto – ‘work or go!’ – or the formidable Mrs Gee, immortalised in legends and a Bryan Organ portrait.  I think of KM Peyton, Art teacher turned prize-winning author, and Mrs Wanda Davies – the lady with the famous bicycle.

Currently there are 77 teachers at the High School.  Their teaching roles are as varied as one can imagine, from Mrs Waters in Pre-School to Mrs Hymers and Mrs Tansley, who specialise in A Level Business and Economics for the Sixth Form.  Some are relative newcomers, while Mrs Dadge has been at the High School since it opened in Hardingstone in 1992.  Many of us have been lifelong members of the profession while others, such as Mrs Forsyth and Mrs O’Doherty, have had other careers (engineering and librarianship respectively), besides.

Whatever our many difference, we all have one thing in common – our love of the work we do.  This is what we celebrated in our Assembly.  Our speakers (Miss Brandon-Jones, Mrs Dadge, Mr Donaldson, Mrs Forsyth, Mrs Halstead, Mrs Hill and Mrs Petryszak) entertained us with their stories, inspired us with their philosophies and moved us with their tributes to the job they love.  Everyone in the room, from the Reception girls to the 6.2s, could take something of lasting value away.  Many doubtless will.

The contributions of past generations of teachers form the geological underpinnings of our remarkable school. The contributions of the current generation are building a launch pad from which our students will take off and fly.  Some of them – who knows? – may become teachers.

 

05
Apr

Day in the life of a Head

Pondering my parting message to you for the spring term, my mind travelled down the list of my appointments for just one day of this week (Wednesday, as it happens) and it struck me that my Day in the Life of a Head made a very suitable Life in a Day of the School.

And what a day it has been!  A Class Assembly from Year 4 on Water was a model of cross-curricular learning, featuring science, ecology, oracy, singing and (a first for me) tanka poetry.  A few steps across the Dining Hall, the Sixth Form Rock Band were centre-stage for a very different sort of Assembly, going through their paces with covers from, among others, Arctic Monkeys.  This was closely followed for me by a visit to Reception, finding out more about how the girls use the outdoors for their learning.  The flower beds in their garden are ready for planting and – more joined-up learning here – Mrs Shaw is hoping that the class can make soup from the carrots that they grow this season.  A spell with Year 2 practising number bonds through an Easter Egg Hunt in the grounds completed a deep dive into the many ways in which junior girls can learn through adventure and exploration.

Late morning brought a planning meeting for our visit from BBC’s Question Time team.  Interest in current affairs is at an all-time high among our students and so great excitement greeted the news that we had been selected as the venue for the 9 May Show.  We are keen to make the most of the opportunity for them to gain insights into the logistics of the programme as well as introducing them to the cut and thrust of contemporary political debate.  All the budding TV producers, journalists or politicians out there – this one is for you.

The afternoon brought a final meeting with a 62 student whom I have been supervising for the Extended Project Qualification, as she prepared to submit her final product.  It is always a pleasure to take part in this programme, as individuals take on ambitious projects, juggle their many commitments and wrestle with ethical and methodological questions to reach their final goal.  It has also been particularly stimulating for me to supervise a project on mathematics, quite a long way from my specialism, in a programme that encourages the demolition of subject barriers in the pursuit of original intellectual inquiry.  A better preparation for university research would be hard to find.

If I stretch a point and include the full 24 hours since tea-time on Tuesday, the line-up of events becomes even more remarkable. Four o’clock found me at a Private View we  hosted at the University of Northampton of ‘Yuli’ – an extraordinary film about the life of Cuban ballet phenomenon Carlos Acosta.  Not only did we premiere the film a day before it was shown in Covent Garden but we were also able to meet the Director, Icíar Bollain (a Madrilenian living in the UK), who had generously accepted Ms Diez’s invitation to take part in a Q&A with our students.  (This they did in Spanish, naturally.)  With our GCSE Language oral exams kicking off and the German exchange visit winding down (and planning for the finale of our Erasmus+ project continuing in the background), this has been an intense week for building European links and has taken us several steps forward in our bid to increase the international awareness of all our students as they head towards a global workplace.

Minutes after the film credits rolled, it was a quick change of scene as we began our annual Sports Awards Evening in the Senior School Hall.   With a new format and a dazzling line-up of prize winners and guests, the evening reminded us what a very successful year this has been in sport – culminating in the U16 netball team being placed 11th in the National Finals.  International netballer, Eboni Usoro-Brown, had earlier in the evening delighted girls in the Junior Awards with her story of playing for England, and her 5 tips for success (including ‘enjoy the journey’) hit the mark exactly for her eager audience.  With the summer season yet to start in earnest, it is clear that huge numbers of girls are ‘enjoying the journey’ of their life in sport.

That, then, was my day (and what a privilege to be able to call this work!).  From Reception to 62, rock music to ballet – via netball and number bonds, politics and poetry – school is a kaleidoscope of experiences and opportunities.  Every girl, every day.

Little wonder, then, that we are ready for a break when the end of term comes.  Whatever the spring break brings for you, I hope that it is happy and healthy.

08
Mar

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day (IWD) offers an unmissable opportunity to shine a light on an area of human endeavour where women’s role has traditionally been too much in the shadows.  This year, with our recent Music Department refurbishment in mind, we have chosen to celebrate the contribution of women to music composition.  The hashtag for IWD 2019 – #Balance for Better –fits beautifully with this.  IWD is not about claiming that women are better than men are but, rather, proclaiming that balance (or diversity, to put it another way) is better than narrow exclusivity.

Men have, it almost goes without saying, achieved amazing things in music. (Just think of Byrd, Bach(s), Buxtehude, Beethoven, Brahms, Bizet, Bruckner, Berlioz, Bartok, Barber, Britten, Bernstein, Birtwhistle, the Beatles and Bowie – without moving from one letter of the alphabet!)  Women have, however historically found it very difficult to get any of their music heard.  This has been true for all sorts of reasons – to do with the way money, power and time were distributed in society and to do with deep cultural attitudes, which disapproved of women taking the limelight.

It has been easy, then, to study and enjoy music (especially classical music) without ever meeting any women composers and easy to believe that women just aren’t there in the tradition. Jessy McCabe, the student whose high-profile challenge, a few years ago, of Edexcel on its exclusion of any women composers from its A Level Music Specification, hit a chord (ouch!) with a mass audience and, since then, change has come rapidly.  Jessy’s action (backed by our own CEO, Cheryl Giovannoni) was a brilliant example of the power of persuasion – which we can all take inspiration from – and opened a doorway into a new world in which women composers, past and present, are popping up everywhere.

From Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century nun, writer, composer and a true pioneer, to the current luminaries of the composing scene, many of whom (Anne Dudley, Rachel Portman and Anoushka Shankar, for example) we have been celebrating in school over the last few weeks, we have discovered a plethora of prodigies to counterbalance the traditional canon.

Allied to this, IWD is also a perfect platform to celebrate the wealth of composing talent and originality we have in our midst, as our own students enjoy the opportunities in school to express their ideas and hone their skills, assisted by the recent addition of a state-of-the-art Music Technology Studio.  We were, for example, delighted to hear Théa Deacon’s own original composition, inspired by a masterclass with Kerry Andrew at a Summer School at the Purcell School, in Assembly a few weeks ago.

Finally, Mrs Care’s specially created film focusing on the many women in key roles within the contemporary scene was a timely reminder of just what a vibrant professional field the British music industry is for young women to enter, at a time when many schools are easing music and other creative arts into the margins of their curriculum.

When sharing my own personal A-Z of women composers with the girls today, I left Y blank – with a challenge that said ‘Y could stand for You!’

01
Mar

Friendship

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl starting a new school must be in want of a friend.

Little wonder, then that the topic of friendships dominates much of life in school in the first year, and often periodically in the years beyond.    Sometimes, especially when we are growing up and exploring our identity, things go awry and, when this happens, it can be hard to avoid being engulfed by the emotional fall-out.   ‘Girls on Board’ – our programme for tackling these issues (which Mrs O’Doherty wrote about in her High News article recently)  – starts from the premise that, while we all need friends, managing our friendships can be tricky.  It works towards the goal of empowering girls to manage the ups and downs of their friendships  – building them, keeping them, salvaging them, changing them, leaving them behind  – while also staying focused on the bigger picture of school life and its many demands and delights.

With the Annual Alumnae Reunion Lunch still fresh in my memory, though, I want to focus on the other side of the equation and consider the gifts that friendships, especially lifelong friendships, bring.  The din of talk and laughter in the Dining Room on Reunion Day, Saturday 26 January, spoke volumes (literally, one might say) for the wonderful gift of friendship.  Dozens of women, some regular attenders, others first-timers or decade specials, converged at school to reconnect and reminisce.  They came from all over the country (as they always do) to be there.  Some, who left school perhaps sixty years ago, were given lifts.  Some, from far-flung places, were offered space in spare rooms and on sofa beds so that they could make a weekend of it.  All were drawn by the power of friendship –  the bonds that begin in childhood and are forged in the vivid milieux of our schooldays.   The years peeled away as memories (of misdemeanours, as often as not) and jokes were aired and traded, and stories ripened by years of retelling, like vintage wines.

The Ancient Greeks, whose subtlety of thought in such matters has not persisted into modern times, recognised friendship as a form of love and called it  philia – a love based on shared goodwill.  The inherently reciprocal nature of philia – in contrast to other forms of love, such as passion, which can be one-sided – marks out the root of its special character.   It is never asymmetrical or based on power, even if one friend becomes richer or more successful than the other.  I believe that the essentially equal and reciprocal nature of true friendship is vitally important to young women as they leave school to enter a competitive and often unforgiving world where disinterested support can be hard to find.

Friendship comes at a price, though, both in effort and in forbearance.  Gaining the full benefits involves taking the long view to surmount bumps in the road of relationships.  It entails looking beyond the superficial transactionalism of social media likes to a deeper mutual regard.  It means not sweating the small stuff.  There may be differences of opinion.  Ride them out. There may be quarrels.  Patch them up.  You may feel you are drifting further and further apart.  Travel further.  Make the effort to bridge the gap – going to your School Reunion is a great way to do this!

The push-me-pull-you dynamic of friendship will surely even out across shared lifetimes.   Your A Level results were better than mine, I’m now getting paid more than you.  I help you today with a work experience opportunity for your daughter.  You gave me a helping hand with a loan for my start-up when I was made redundant ten years ago.  We both visit Janet, whom we met when she joined the School in Year 4, because she is having a hard time with her ill partner.

Elizabeth Jennings, a poet and practitioner of friendship, summed it up exactly when she wrote:

Two people, yes, two lasting friends.
The giving comes, the taking ends
There is no measure for such things.
For this all Nature slows and sings.

This is the sort of friendship I see in evidence every year at our Reunion and it is one of the reasons that the event has an energy and an atmosphere about it that is unmistakable.  This is the sort of friendship I wish for, for all the girls whose start in life is spent at Northampton High – the Alumnae of the future.  To whom I conclude by saying – don’t measure it, just treasure it.

24
Jan

Why the Holocaust remains relevant today

‘Somebody, after all, had to make a start.’

These words – spoken by a young teacher – echo down the years.

The start she spoke about was distributing home-printed anti-Nazi leaflets in her home town of Munich in the early 1940s.  Within a short time, perhaps inevitably, the government’s agents spotted her.  Sophie Scholl was arrested, tried and sentenced to death.  On 23 February 1943, she was executed.  She was 21 years old.

A second story

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a minister in the German Church, went on radio to denounce Nazi policies two days after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.  His broadcast was cut off mid-sentence.  During the war, he volunteered in the resistance and this work landed him in prison in 1943.   Eventually, evidence of his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler was discovered.  On 9 April 1945, he was hanged in Flossenberg concentration camp, just a few days before the camp was liberated.

A third story

Raoul Wallenberg was a wealthy Swedish banker working in Budapest.  Following the Nazi occupation of Hungary, he led a network, which helped Jewish Hungarians flee persecution by forging passports and providing safe houses.   The work was dangerous – Wallenberg slept in a different house every night to escape detection – but effective.  His network saved at least 4,500 people – and possibly even twice that number.  When Hungary was liberated by the Russian army, Wallenberg vanished – probably into a Russian prison – and was never seen again.

You may well have heard one or all of these stories before.  Sophie Scholl’s life has been immortalised on film, Bonhoeffer’s letters to his fiancée published and Wallenberg’s mysterious disappearance aired in many a conspiracy theory.  We are all familiar with ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ and ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’, and perhaps ‘The Reader’ and ‘The Pianist.’

If another retelling seems to add little, then surely, you may think, the lessons of the Holocaust have been learnt.  What good does it do, we might feel, to focus on an event of such horror that happened well before most people alive today were even born?

There are many possible answers to that, but one thing I know.

It is that, every time I go back to the Holocaust, I find out something new – a fresh perspective – about humanity.  For example, when I first began to study the Holocaust, it was believed that there was very little resistance to it.  Sophie Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Raoul Wallenberg were glorious exceptions – heroes in a world full of villains and passive bystanders.

This, it now transpires, is a massive over-simplification.  Wherever you look in Nazi Germany and the occupied territories in WWII, you find people ‘making a start’ in their own way to resist Nazism and its atrocities.  Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum collects the names of such people – known as the Righteous of all Nations.  Their current roster contains the names of 26,973 people from 51 countries – ranging from over 6,000 Poles to one Cuban, one Egyptian and one Vietnamese.  Twenty-two British people are named – 12 of these identified only in the last 20 years.

Sophie Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Raoul Wallenberg are, in fact, the tip of an iceberg – an iceberg of people, from all countries and walks of life, who helped to sink the Titanic of Nazi terror. They did this, not usually by bold acts of derring-do – manning the barricades, storming the battlements – but by small, deliberate acts of non-compliance or defiance or kindness.

The saying goes that ‘it is enough for evil to triumph that the good do nothing.’  And I ask myself – where would I have stood in their place?  Would I have stood on that street corner to protest about a wicked regime?  Or made that radio broadcast?  Or volunteered for that rescue mission in Budapest?

Remember that, at the time no one was expecting them to do it.  Often no one was even noticing.  True, History has garlanded them with honours – and labelled them the Righteous.  But at the time when they made their decisions, their choices offered them only danger, social ostracism, humiliation, a criminal record, hardship, pain, even death.

Holocaust Memorial Day invites us to answer that question for ourselves – faced with a similar choice, where would I stand? Would I ‘make a start’ or would I be a passive bystander?  The question is far from hypothetical.  Our times are also blighted by racism and anti-semitism.  Indeed, these toxic forces are on the rise again.  And genocide didn’t end when the Holocaust was over.  Indeed, it haunts some corners of our world as I write.

Why keep returning to the Holocaust?  Because we find out something new every time we do so. Something new about humanity, yes.  But, just as often, what we find out is something new about ourselves.

 

11
Jan

Now’s the Time

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

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

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

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

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

For that, we need imagination.

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

How can we get there?

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

If this sounds powerful, it is.

But what does it look like in practice?

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

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

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

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