Head's Blog

08
Dec

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

01
Dec

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.

17
Oct

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

08
Sep

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

22
Jun

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

09
Jun

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

 

Sources:

www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1358985/Sept-11-a-good-day-to-bury-bad-news.html

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

www.searo.who.int/srilanka/areas/malaria/sri-lanka-defeats-malaria/en/

www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/01/colombias-government-formally-ratifies-revised-farc-peace-deal

 

12
May

A (birth)day to remember

The topic for my blog this month chose itself.  Tuesday 2 May was the School’s 139th birthday and, reflecting on the day, I was struck by how, though in many ways (as birthdays tend to be) it had been a special day, in essence it was a typical day in my life as head of this extraordinary school.

 

Here, then, are my reflections about ‘life in a day’ at Northampton High.

 

Kick-off ushered in a celebratory Assembly and, this year, I chose to present 78 slides with 78 facts about 1878 for the school, town, country and world.

 

What surprised us?

 

In the first place, how long ago 1878 seemed in some ways – perhaps most telling was the fact that school fees were £1.40 per term!  Other aspects, however, seemed surprisingly modern or, at any rate, familiar – the first recorded music and the first movie were made in that year, for example.

 

We marvelled at how much has changed in those 139 years – most notably perhaps in the role and status of girls and women within British society.  How astonishing, for example, to learn that it would be another four years before a law was passed to allow married women to own property.  The central role of the High School, a pioneering girls’ school, and also of the GDST, founded six years earlier still, is something that a birthday gives us a timely reminder to recognise and feel proud of.

 

We were struck, too, by how little has changed, in other ways (in 2017, as in 1878, Afghanistan is a region of conflict which preoccupies Britain).

 

One thing that is eternally unchanging is the girls’ love of cake!  And, with that in mind, we invited our new Head Girl, Sally Croker, and the youngest senior pupil Olivia Russell plus birthday girl Lilli Trimble to cut a cake while all the girls knew that they could look forward to a cupcake at break.

 

Besides eating cake, at break time I met two U4 students to talk about their Open Homework. The theme of the year for this much-loved annual custom – dreams – had been chosen by the girls and it allowed free rein to creativity and imagination as well as analysis and speculation.  Several of their impressive pieces are currently on display in the Science foyer and they make a fascinating exhibition.

 

Another reason for me to feel proud of our work.

 

At lunchtime, I welcomed Miss Yvonne Chapman into school.  Miss Chapman was Deputy Head under Miss Lightburne, retiring in 1993.  She was instrumental in preparing the new site for occupation and remembers battles to ensure sufficient space for lockers for all the girls.  On such apparently small but actually significant details, the ease of school life depends.

 

Afternoon tea (and I should emphasise that my day is not always a catalogue of meals!) was spent with Mrs Makoni and Ms Shawatu, who were visiting us from Arundel School for Girls in Zimbabwe, on a visit coordinated by Ms Heimfeld.  It was fascinating for us to compare notes on the challenges and excitements of being involved in girls’ education in Zimbabwe and Britain respectively.

 

In many ways our situations are very different, with the economic problems in Zimbabwe dwarfing our difficulties.  However, there were also a surprising number of commonalities.  Uncertainties over Brexit, for example, are reverberating as much in Harare as in Hardingstone, as Mrs Makoni considers the ramifications for her school of changes in relations within the Commonwealth in a post-Brexit world.  Her mission – to prepare young women for the world-as-it-will-be – is the same as ours and requires her, like me, to keep an eye always on the unfolding future.

 

The evening brought the annual Sports Presentation Evening with a rich line-up of performances (Molly Roberts-Crawford giving a dazzling display on trampoline and Y4 dancers showing their moves with panache and joy), inspiring stories (not least from our guests Caitlin McClatchey and Fran Wilson, and from our own home-grown star Ellie Robinson) and awards.  Here was a celebration of guts and determination as well as talent and skill.

 

By the time of the final whistle, then, I could look back and enumerate  the vital ingredients of my ‘life in a day in school’ – the interplay between history, the Here and Now and visions of the future, the power of innovation blended with the guiding light of tradition, the daily routines and endeavours which propel us forward with the help of so many dedicated individuals, the big picture pixelating into the small but vital details, the work of looking beyond our walls and borders and of making connections, of honouring old friends and forging new friendships to build a powerful network to underpin the future success of our girls.

 

Tuesday 2 May 2017 was, for me, a day to remember – just like every other.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

27
Apr

We live in hope

This poem by Caroline Nderitu beautifully captures the essence of what it is to have hope:

 

Why does the sun rise,

why do we get up every morning,

why is there breath in our lungs,

why are we here,

hope, for hope we live.

 

Not because the grass is green beneath our feet,

not because the skies are calm above our heads,

not because the wind is cool and the breeze calm on our sides,

but for hope we live.

 

Not because mangoes hang ripe up on the tree

but because there is seed in the ground, there will be a harvest,

not because the well is wet 

but because the clouds are gathering

and there will be rain and rivers will flow,

rivers of joy, rivers of peace, rivers of life,

hope, for hope we live.

 

Hope is a sparkle in our eye,

hope is a twinkle in our smile,

hope is a glow on our bow, joy in our hearts, music in our laughter,

for hope we live.

 

Why does a baby crawl,

why does a widow hum,

why does a fisherman cast his net upon the bare ocean,

why does a builder place brick on brick on brick, hope,

for hope we live.

 

Not because yesterday was fresh,

not because tomorrow is full but because tomorrow is fertile, hope,

for hope we live.

 

Whatever else we lose, we never lose hope,

As long as we have hope, we have something and hope does not let us down,

hope, for hope we live.

 

On a day-to-day basis we often use the word ‘hope’, but what is the actual meaning behind the word ‘hope’? Not just the English dictionary definition but what does it mean to have hope and to live in hope. Hope is not something that is just some airy-fairy concept; it is a psychological need to believe that we can endure. A psychological need to believe that we cannot only endure but that we can succeed and thrive and we can have our way in the world, so that we can accomplish our dreams, make influence and make our own difference. Have hope.

 

In a time where Donald Trump is the newly elected President of the United States, we are Brexiting and wars and other worldly events are filling our TV screens, many people would say they have no hope left for what is to come for humanity.  Michele Obama recently said ‘Now we are feeling what not having hope feels like…hope is necessary.’ Although the former First Lady is correct in some ways, she has made a rooky error in assuming that we have lost all hope!  I hope (see what I did there?) to demonstrate exactly why we continually and unconsciously live in hope. To do this, we need to strip back the layers and explore hope in its simplest form as well as asking the question; what can we do to sustain hope?

 

 

Where there is no hope, there is no life; hope is a combination of desire and expectation for something uncertain, something unguaranteed. Whether strong or faint, all a hope needs to be sustained is a want and the belief that it might possibly happen.  If you live in hope you can’t die in despair, of the many struggling in the current economic and social climate, hope may seem like the only thing left, possibly even a figment of imagination but hope is optimism and faith, something every human encompasses within themselves even if it may seem deep down inside. Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.

 

Religion is faith. Religion is a glimmer of hope in your God or gods. The Bible, Jeremiah 29;11, ‘for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ The Quran 18:110 ‘So whoever would hope for the meeting with his Lord – let him do righteous work and not associate in the worship of this Lord alone.’ As well as these holy books, many other religious scripts preach and instill the idea of hope.

 

Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable; few things are more ethereal than hope. The positive physiological effect of hope is well documented in Jerome Groopman’s ‘The Anatomy of Hope.’ Groopman’s research shows that during illness, belief and expectation (two key elements of hope) have a significant impact on the nervous system which, in turn, sets off a chain reaction that makes improvement and recovery more likely; this process is fundamental to the widely accepted ‘placebo effect’ which is created by a hopeful outlook. Not only are the positive effects of hope documented physiologically, but mentally too. A study done by two professors who set out to study hope amongst children suffering from end-stage renal failure, recorded some interesting findings but what stood out to me was something that a patient said to one of the professors, ‘I’m normal. Hope makes me normal.’ This simple statement speaks volumes about the importance of hope.

 

Although you would imagine that hope is not measurable, there is something called ‘The Hope Scale’ – a 12 question questionnaire that helps determine how much hope a person has. The hope scale is split into four categories,

 

  • Goals = valuable/uncertain goals are the anchor of the hope theory; they provide an end point and direction to the hope.
  • Pathway thoughts = create routes for achievement
  • Agency thoughts = create motivation to go down these routes
  • Barriers are things that block attainment and the person must either give up or create a new pathway.

 

With these four points in mind, I go on to ask the very important question of ‘How do we sustain hope?’  Well, I’ve got a few tips and tricks for you:

 

  1. Remember this simple metaphor – the power plant does not ‘have’ energy, it transforms and generates it. So think of yourself as a big power plant who transforms and generates hope rather than ‘having it’.
  2. Keep perspective: a lot of people ‘lose’ hope because their focus goes off. They become very myopic to their own ego, their own emotional reality, their own tiny little world and they miss the joy, abundance, the connection, the incredible energy of this buoyant and jubilant world all around them, even when sometimes the immediate people in their lives or their immediate tribe or culture is not so good.
  3. Keep your strength: if you’re down right now and struggling, don’t forget to pull forth and integrate those successes that you’ve had before; those times in your life when things did go well, those times in your life when you surprised yourself with how well you did something or how kind you were or how much you cared or how good of a piece of art you created. Remember those strength times, those times that there was success, those times that good things did happen. Pull them, feel them, sense them and bring those things to the moment at hand where things do feel frustrating, challenging, disappointing or dark. You have had beautiful days before. They will come again. It’s believing in that that sustains our hope.
  4. Make a plan: it’s easy to feel you’ve lost hope if there’s no plan. If there’s no vision the people perish, right? So you have to have a vision for your life. What is it you see out there for yourself? What is your plan to go and get it?
  5. Stay persistent: keep at it no matter what. If we’ve got our perspective in mind, if we have our plan then we have to be persistent, to keep working towards it.
  6. Be patient: sometimes we lose hope in other people, actually we don’t lose hope… we just forgot to be patient. You need to give a lot of patience to the people in your life if you’re going to sustain hope for them and for your relationships with them. Patience is a critical element. It’s not discussed a lot, but it’s so fundamental to having hope: to be patient with it.

 

Holding onto these simple tips throughout your life will make a significant difference to how you live your life and in turn view hope and its importance in today’s society.

 

The purpose of enriching you with all this great information on hope is not to force you into believing ‘’we live in hope’, but instead to prove to you why we do. Therefore, I leave you with this thought; the great Martin Luther King told us ‘we must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.’ So I ask you this, if there is ‘infinite hope’ why do we feel it can be lost?  Really, hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness, we live in darkness, the unknown. We live in hope.

 

 

 

 

Mariam Ziada, U5

10
Mar

Whose Story….?

‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’  So said Thomas Carlyle, famous Victorian man of letters, putting into words what has been, for many, the received idea about history and their experience of studying it at school and beyond.

 

But what of ‘herstory’?

 

The very concept of ‘herstory’ (history, one might say, with the women put back in) –  a product of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and ‘80s – was attacked and even ridiculed at the time (and since) as tokenistic or ideological.  True, herstorians, in rejecting history as ‘his story’, have missed the true etymological roots of the word (historia = a knowledge-based enquiry).  However, even a passing acquaintance with the History curriculum in British schools will make clear how few female voices are heard and, as a career teacher of History, I have always been struck by the paucity of women on the syllabus.  Beyond Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell and Rosa Luxemburg, the textbooks are largely silent.

 

The (missed) chance of having a woman in the top job in the White House as well as in Number 10 and Berlin has raised the profile of women in public life in our own day and helped to stimulate research into the many heroic women of the past whose stories remain largely untold.  In truth, this work of retrieval has been going on for years, though it has yet to make much impression on the school curriculum.  In 1979, for example, the American artist Judy Chicago created an art work called ‘The Dinner Party’ which identified and commemorated 1,038 great women from the past.  These were the women, Ms Chicago said, who deserved an invitation to her dinner party (rather than being consigned to the kitchen, as so many women had been in the past).

 

 

 

 

International Women’s Day (IWD) provides a perfect opportunity to take stock of how far we have come in this work of unearthing remarkable female deeds and voices.  Embracing this theme, at Northampton High, we decided to mark IWD 2017 with a debate on the herstoric women who have done most to change our world.   Characteristically, we had several willing volunteers to stand up and promote their chosen candidate – Kate Harrison and Jess Picot nominated Rosa Parks, Zoya Bilal chose to speak about Coco Chanel, Lexy Daly and Sabrina Sheikh introduced us to Lotfia ElNadi, a pioneering aviator, while Kate Jameson and Ezri Mannion staked a claim for Eliza Shuyler Hamilton, philanthropist and abolitionist.  It was exciting to learn about women whom I had never heard about before alongside more familiar individuals. All our speakers spoke with passion and conviction about their choices.  Ultimately, only one nominee could be chosen and the winner was Rosa Parks.

 

 

IWD 2017 marks a very important anniversary – the centenary of the protest march by the women of St Petersburg which was instrumental in bringing down Tsar Nicholas II and setting in train the events of the Russian Revolution.  These women – we do not know their names – were change-makers on a seismic scale.  They never achieved the fame of a Lenin or Trotsky but their actions set in motion a revolutionary movement that changed the course of history and helped to shape our modern world in ways which we are only just beginning to understand.

 

We will never be able to do more than pick out a few bare threads in the narrative of world history to delineate the contribution, enterprise and sacrifice of women.  However, by taking the lead from our IWD speakers this week, we can bring at least some of the great women of the past back into their rightful place in the sweep of our national and global heritage, to invite them, so to speak, to the global dinner party, and offer them a place at the table and a vote of thanks for all that they achieved.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

10
Feb

On not having the time to read…

The arrival in the White House of a man who, by his own account, ‘doesn’t have time to read’ (or, if he does, ‘reads chapters’) in place of a President well known for his love of reading has prompted me to consider the place of book-reading in our changing world.

 

Does it matter if you don’t have (or perhaps we should say ‘make’) time to read books?

 

Our annual Book Week in school last week invited us to consider the importance to us of reading books.  This, in the context of rising evidence of reading culture being under pressure.  For example, Kevin Stannard, in a recent blog for TES about book culture, drew upon recent research which found that 10% of the UK population do not own a single book, even as the average household was found to have eight devices connected to the internet, suggesting that reading is in decline and book culture is on the retreat nationally.  The drastic decline in public libraries in recent years is surely both a cause and a symptom of the same trend.

 

To look around me in school, however, suggests a very different story and evidence of the continuing vibrancy of a book culture is writ large all around us.  Witness just a few examples from the last fortnight; Mrs Farrar’s Class Assembly with Reception focused on the power of story-telling as a threshold into reading, moving from pictures to words, while Miss Buxton’s Assembly to Senior School shared with us the life and work of a favourite author of the seniors, the late Siobhan Dowd, as a launchpad for our annual Book Week.  Jodie Welton’s contribution to the latter, reading aloud an extract from Dowd’s ‘The London Eye Mystery’, conjured up for us the pleasure, probably now experienced only as a memory for most, of being read to.

 

Reading is all-too-easy to characterise as an unsociable activity, in contrast to more collective endeavours, such as team sports or social networking.  But this is not really the case.  As C S Lewis is heard to say in ‘Shadowlands’ – ‘We read to know that we are not alone.’ In reading what someone else has written, we enter into the mind of another, forging powerful connections with the writer – even if that writer is long dead or far distant from us and our lives.  Our favourite authors become like companions to us on life’s journey –  and how often have we read a passage describing the thoughts, feelings and experiences of a book’s character and been struck by the feeling that ‘ah – that is exactly how it is for me too’?

 

Or else, reading, by connecting us with the unfamiliar, nourishes our powers of empathy.  Barack Obama has said, recalling his own experience, ‘When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president…the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels.  It has to do with empathy.  It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with someone even though they’re very different from you.’
Identifying with characters from books is surely a universal experience.  So, the annual Harry Potter party for Y5-U3 on 2 February gave girls the chance to take on the identity of their favourite HP character while Nursery girls (and their teachers) had plenty of fun earlier in the week dressing up as their favourite story-book characters –  from Cinderella to Wally.

 

Reading also connects us with other readers.  When I think of the great array of human pursuits that revolve around the shared enjoyment of reading – book groups, literary festivals, reviews, blogs, book prizes, recommendations, literary quizzes – it is clear that, even as we have witnessed theexponential growth of digital networks, book culture remains as durable as ever and part of the very bedrock of our society.   Only consider the appeal and success of Emma Watson’s feminist book club and media platform ‘Our Shared Shelf.

 

Robert Macfarlane’s excellent essay ‘The Gifts of Reading’, published just before Christmas, is a moving meditation on the ability of book-giving and -exchange to bring us closer to each other, as well as enriching our minds along with our bookshelves.  Junior School pupils sampled this pleasure last week when Year 3 shared their favourite stories with Year 1 while Year 5, in turn, offered their book recommendations to Year 3.

 

    

 

Access to reading is not, alas, a birth right – UNESCO estimates that nearly 17% of the adult population globally is illiterate, with 493 million women and 122 million young people being unable to read.  Inevitably, illiteracy is both a symptom of inequality – with non-readers concentrated among the poorest and most underprivileged segments of the population – and also a cause of its perpetuation, being a major barrier to employment and social mobility.

 

Mark Twain, an author who has stood high on many a list of favourite authors among past generations, observed, ‘the man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.’  I pause to consider how this observation will strike the millions of our world’s citizens in the developed world, including the current President of the United States (POTUS), who believe that they don’t have time to read.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

 

Sources:

R Macfarlane ‘The Gifts of Reading’ https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/294596/the-gifts-of-reading/

http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/education-building-blocks/literacy/resources/statistics

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/will-e-reading-spell-extinction-bulky-perishable-non-interactive

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/10-of-people-do-not-own-a-single-book-b0bl35qbj

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/07/emma-watson-to-start-feminist-book-group-on-twitter-our-shared-shelf