Head's Blog

02
Dec

Challenging the shift to gated communities of the mind

p1250697croppedWould you spot a large, potentially life-threatening animal standing in front of a shop window as you walked along the high street?  If this sounds like a foolish question, think again.  Researchers have found (and I owe this insight to Kenneth Tharp, our excellent guest speaker on Awards Evening) that the majority of people who walk down the street talking into their mobile phones fail to notice an actor in a gorilla suit standing in plain sight as they pass by and have estimated that the walker’s perception of the outside world in such a situation is reduced by 90%.

 

 

gorillaShould we be concerned by this? It might be argued on the other side of the coin that, while reducing our appreciation of the world around us, we are actually giving our proper attention to the world the mobile is beckoning us into – a world which may well be more congenial than the one we find ourselves in physically.  Perhaps the sound of a friendly voice, the sight of a welcoming face or simply the influx of information from Google or Outlook does more to help us to negotiate the next stage of the day than the sights and sounds of the street.  Surely, too, the likelihood of encountering a real killer primate in the high street may be safely discounted (though the chance of meeting a life-threatening large mammal in the shape of a mugger may not, of course).

 

I wonder.

 

donald-trumpReflecting on the turbulent events in the news recently, including of course the outcome of the US presidential election, I have been struck by the evidence of increasing fragmentation in the societies we know well in the West.  The power of Mr Trump’s campaign sprang, in large part, from the force of his unreasoned attacks on his political opponents in what he characterised as a complacent political elite.  His self-professed virtues as a politician were his identity as an outsider, with no attachment to what he presented as outdated liberal views, and his very unwillingness to engage in conventional debate.  These traits have incensed his liberal critics.

 

melanie-phillipsOn the other hand, Melanie Philips, in a deliberately provocative article in ‘The Times’ in the immediate aftermath of Mr Trump’s shock victory, argued that the opponents of the Republican president-elect, by vocally despairing of a democracy which allows such a candidate to gain power by placing voting power in the hands of the uneducated and unfit, were showing themselves to be as bigoted and illiberal as the man they were criticising.

 

 

A liberal democracy, such as that of the USA or Britain, depends for its health and strength on two things which are currently being undermined:

 

– an absolute belief in the importance of one-person-one-vote, even if this means allowing people with unpalatable views an equal say in the electoral process with people with whom one happens to agree, and even if this means losing to them in an election.

 

– an equally absolute belief in the power of reasoned argument and debate to overcome false, flawed and wicked ideas with reason and truth.

 

 

If, as citizens and voters, we arrange our lives in such a way that we only ever encounter people who are like us and agree with us, people whom we are happy to like and be liked by on social media, whose shopping and leisure tastes and interests resemble our own, we will quickly lose our appreciation of the value of genuine diversity.  Moreover, the application of algorithms to our searches and preferences online quickly reinforces the synapses of our tight social networks.  Pretty soon, we will find ourselves inhabiting a self-referencing echo chamber and calling it the world.  From here it is a short step to losing our faith in the power of reasoned argument – and, with it, our attachment to democracy itself.

 

T S Eliot remarked that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’ and it is often true that the real world – what Ken Robinson has described as ‘the world that exists whether or not you exist’ – with its crises and conflicts, its brutality and banality can often seem too ugly to engage with.  Yet, by filtering out the real world – whether literally by staring at our mobiles (ear plugs in) as we walk down the street or metaphorically by limiting ourselves to associating only with people who don’t challenge us –  we risk losing 90% of the grandeur and excitement to be found in the world too.  We may prefer not to engage with that stranger standing on the street corner but, in acting on that instinct, we lose the chance to hear and appreciate the busker’s voice and we are deaf to the lyrics of her poetic protest song.

 

‘Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing either your temper or your self-confidence.’  As Robert Frost’s aphorism reminds us, our purpose in school is to challenge the creation of what I call the gated communities of the mind.  The events of 2016 have shown that our mission is more important and urgent than ever before.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

 

Sources

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/but-did-you-see-the-gorilla-the-problem-with-inattentional-blindness-17339778/

 

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/trumps-opponents-are-the-bigots-and-

01
Nov

Entertainment or exploitation – what should we make of modern Halloween?

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p1250224The latest of Mr Attwood’s now-legendary Pumpkin Assemblies on 3 October heralded the start of preparations for Halloween while the switch back to Greenwich Mean Time last weekend has created the early dusks which best suit Halloween rituals.

 

 

The popularity of Halloween as a festival in the UK has increased exponentially since the start of the millennium, largely as a result of growing American influences on our popular culture. For several reasons, however, Halloween has as many detractors as enthusiasts.  Some deplore the apparently unquestioning adoption of a transatlantic festival as just another example of the British susceptibility to American cultural borrowings.  Others decry the flagrant commercialism of an event which provides opportunistic retailers with a chance to cash in during the traditional shopping lull between the summer holidays and the pre-Christmas spending spree (beginning now, of course, on ‘Black Friday’).  Some practising Christians condemn Halloween as a form of dabbling with the occult and some psychologists have argued that it is too frightening for young children and causes them psychological damage.

 

While noticing the retailing frenzy building up and watching the ping-pong of opinion play out in the news media (as I write, for example, the newspapers carry headlines about the latest attacks in the clown craze), I ask myself ‘what might the educational value of Halloween be?’

 

Looking again at the four lines of attack, a counterpoint for each is ready to hand.  While we may feel uneasy at the speed with which fashions in popular culture change, especially when they do so through imports, we may remind ourselves that one generation’s import becomes the next generation’s tradition.  Just think of the Christmas tree, for example. Halloween has overtaken Guy Fawkes’ Night in popularity in the UK, which – by upstaging a festival with its roots in anti-Catholic xenophobia – may have its positive side in today’s multi-faith society.

 

pumpkinsTrue, Halloween is a bonanza for sales of the tacky and the synthetic, with UK spending on its paraphernalia increasing about 30-fold since 2001.  On the plus side, however, it brings with it opportunities, increasingly rare in our time-poor lives, for families to share a crafting session together as they construct jack o’lanterns and for children to go and play outside after dark – and even to meet the neighbours.

 

While some extreme excursions in Halloween mayhem undoubtedly tap into dangerous undercurrents of occultism, the festival itself has its roots firmly planted in mainstream Christianity – in the vigil on the evening (or ‘even’) before All Hallows or All Saints Day, which marked the beginning of a two-day period dedicated to remembering the dead.

 

And this dimension of Halloween may be the most valuable to us, beyond the mere pleasure of the party. As Atul Gawande has so persuasively argued in his recent book ‘Being Mortal’, we live in an age when dying and death have become taboo subjects, banished from sight in a sanitised world.  Might it be that Halloween provides a unique shared cultural forum in which fears and feelings about death can be safely explored?

 

The recent backlash against Sainsbury’s ‘Dark Side’ promotion of axeman costumes for three year olds reminds us that for retailers, as for writers and film directors, there is a fine line between entertainment and exploitation in the world of ghosts and ghouls, and the potential for things to be taken too far is ever-present.  However, provided the tall tales and antics, the imagery and the influences at work remain true to the feast’s time-honoured traditions, the customs of Halloween can provide the kind of serious fun, with a message and a meaning, that we associate with the best lessons.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

 

Sources

http://www.cityam.com/227637/halloween-2015-could-be-worth-as-much-as-400m-to-retailers

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/holydays/halloween_1.shtml

http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/721389/Sainsburys-customers-horrified-at-shocking-and-offensive-Halloween-kids-costumes

http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/10/29/halloween-have-things-gone-too-far/

Atul Gawande, ‘Being Mortal’

09
Sep

Time and False Noses


helen-with-girls
The summer holiday has about it a different quality from all other times of the year.   While the school premises team are, if anything, busier than ever in the summer break when most of the development and major maintenance work gets done, there is still a feeling of ‘powering down’ in July and August.

 

There has, of course, been much debate about the pros and cons of the long summer break for schools with Mr Gove’s bid in 2013 to cut short the summer holiday being one of his few reforms not to be achieved.  It is certainly true that, in one sense, it is a throwback to a long-past society with different priorities.  Michaelmas in September, traditionally the time to celebrate the harvest coming in, is nowadays a minor punctuation mark in the Christian calendar but, at one time, it was a major event in the year.  The effective start of the farming year, it became the time to employ new staff, begin a rental on a new property – in effect the start of the ‘official’ year.  It made sense for university terms to fall into line with this rhythm and, in time, schools duly followed suit.

 

Most children nowadays do not have to help bring the harvest home in the summer (although I know of at least a handful of girls locally who help on the family farm and am pleased to take this opportunity to congratulate Louise Penn as she prepares to start a degree course in Agriculture at Newcastle University).

 

It is understandable, too, that parents feel keenly the pressure of finding childcare for younger and meaningful activities for their older children and also resent the fact that flight and package holidays suddenly soar in price immediately after term ends.  Equally, teachers learn, as part of their training, to smile benignly while keeping their thoughts to themselves when ribbed by friends (and sometimes even slight acquaintances) about ‘those long holidays.’

 

edmund-leachAs I began to gear up for the new term after a wonderful summer break, I found myself reflecting on this topic and asking myself whether the special quality of the summer holiday goes beyond the obvious benefit of a rest when the weather is generally fine.  Revisiting an essay, entitled ‘Time and False Noses,’  written in the 1960s by Cambridge-based anthropologist Edmund Leach, reminded me that there is much more to a school’s ‘summertime’ than easy living.

 

Anthropologists long ago noticed that all cultures divide time into ‘ordinary’ time and ‘extraordinary’ or ‘sacred’ time, when all work stopped and time was dedicated to special events and activities such as feasts and rituals. Our holydays/holidays – that extended break when we can turn off the alarm clock, and forget about bells and rules, lessons and homework – is a good example of ‘sacred’ time in this sense. Time set aside to do extraordinary things – perhaps extraordinary in the sense of exotic, or maybe just lying around doing little or nothing, in a way we cannot normally get away with.

 

This is about more than just rest.

virginia-woolfVirginia Woolf said ‘It is in our idleness…that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.’ And it is true that we need some time of idleness on occasions just to allow our minds to wind down and to get below the surface of what we feel about things, to think about them more deeply than we can ever hope to do day to day.

 

croppedWhere ordinary days are dedicated to work and routine, holidays are dedicated to the opposites – leisure and play, or feasts, gatherings and performances.  Traditionally, these were the main festivals of the calendar and, in our modern, secular society, the concept has been reappropriated as a social, musical or cultural event.  One thinks of Glastonbury or Edinburgh.  The GDST’s inaugural Multitude Festival, which many of our U4s enjoyed in Ipswich in July, was in the same tradition.  Leach noticed that these times were also associated with either dressing up, dressing down or even a foray into fancy dress –  what he meant by ‘false noses.’  (Think Red Nose Day.)

 

Extraordinary time makes no sense without ordinary time just as ‘holiday’ assumes ‘workaday.’  If every day were a holiday, then no day would be in fact.   Or, as Leach put it, ‘the interval between two successive festivals of the same type… is usually a named period e.g. “week”, “year.” Without the festivals, such periods would not exist, and all order would go out of social life.’  We need that contrast and, indeed, we are hard-wired at some level to thrive on it – as I was keen to emphasise to the girls in our first Assembly of the year together!

 

Incidentally, Leach also noticed that we use rituals to help us negotiate psychologically the transition from ‘sacred’ time back to ‘ordinary’ time (and vice versa) – which puts a whole new complexion on that vital purchase last week of a new pencil case when there was nothing very much wrong with the last one…

 

Whatever your summer break brought you, I hope that it was an extraordinary time and that, setting false noses aside for a while, you are ready to enjoy the marvels of the ordinary time to come.

 

Dr Helen Stringer

 

Sources

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/18/michael-gove-longer-school-day-holidays

http://hiebertglobalcenter.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Reading-8-Two-Essays-Concerning-the-Symbolic-Representation-of-Time.pdf

 

08
Jul

Living out loud

helen

The demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament on Monday by supporters of Bacc for the Future, a group campaigning for the EBacc (English Baccalaureate) to give greater prominence to creative arts GCSE courses, has brought back to the forefront of political debate the role of the creative and performing arts in our society.

 

The issue boils down to one question – do the arts matter?  At Northampton High School visitors were left in no doubt about where we stood on it last Thursday as they toured our annual Arts Festival and experienced a dazzling showcase of art, fashion textiles, food, drama, dance and music.

 

Yes, yes and yes, again!

 

First, the arts matter – to our girls at Northampton High.

 

The range and quality of art work on display – from the sea-themed tiles made by the Nursery girls to the complex 3D pieces by the GCSE and A Level students, from the feel-good fortissimo of the ‘Lion King Medley’ to the gothic horror of the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired promenade theatre installation – made the strongest possible statement about the power of the arts in their lives.

 

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We are delighted that four members of the Class of 2016 are going on to do arts-related degree courses (Shona Guha to Musical Theatre, Leonie Robertshaw to Fine Art, Su Shuang to Fashion Textiles and Emma Dutton to English with Music) and we look forward to seeing how their careers unfold.

 

Second, the arts matter – to all girls.

 

Watching Year 6 painting Georgia O’Keeffe flowers in their Art lesson on Monday, I was reminded that, historically, women have been few and far between among artists, whether in the visual or performing arts.  And, even today, women are under-represented in the highest echelons of many areas of creative endeavour.  Only just over a year ago, Tracey Emin, herself a trend-bucking figure in many ways, raised a furore in the art world by remarking –  ‘There are good artists that have children. They are called men.’  The backlash against her, however, suggested that hers is now becoming a minority view.  Far from being an arena where women cannot shine, the arts world – an area of the UK economy, incidentally, earning almost £10 million an hour according to government statistics – is a happy hunting ground for creative women.

 

14_traceyeminThink art, think Bridget Riley, Marlene Dumas and Emin herself.

 

 

 

vivienne-westwood-collects-her-obe

Think fashion, think Vivienne Westwood and Donatella Versace.

 

 

 

 

Adele's new albumThink music, think Adele or Enya (in one tradition) or Judith Weir and Joan Tower (in another).

 

 

 

 

 

 

helen-fraser  gdst-logo-cropped

Even our artistic heritage, long seen as barren ground for women, has started to be reclaimed, partly through the campaigning efforts of Helen Fraser and the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST).  Following a petition masterminded by Twyford student, Jessy McCabe, and backed by the CEO of the GDST, the exam board Edexcel reformed its A Level Music syllabus recently to include Clara Schumann and Kate Bush among the composers studied.

 

Finally, the arts matter – to our world.

 

As last Thursday’s event demonstrated so emphatically, the arts enliven and enrich our lives.  The fact that the earliest humans painted animals on the walls of their caves, as in Chauvet, over 30,000 years ago and made flutes from bird bones over 40,000 years ago confirms for us the knowledge that self-expression through the arts is as fundamental to human nature as language.  Or, as Emile Zola put it, ‘if you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud. ‘  The fact that children in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt during WWII drew paintings of life before capture, such as Ruth Cechova’s picture of sunbathing, suggests that the arts are forms of language, because they communicate universal human ideas and emotions.

 

Like language, artistic fluency may wither away and become extinct for lack of practice.  If that were to happen, we would lose the ability to ‘live out loud’ – and we would all be much the poorer for it.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

 

Sources

http://www.baccforthefuture.com/latest-news

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/mother-tongue/10584193/Tracey-Emin-Why-Im-celebrating-not-having-children.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/tracey-emin-is-wrong-being-a-mother-doesnt-mean-you-cant-be-a-good-artist-too-9775997.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11841976/Britain-schools-Exam-boards-must-stop-writing-women-out-of-curriculum.html

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/dec/16/a-level-music-female-composers-students-campaign-jessy-mccabe-edexcel

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/creative-industries-worth-almost-10-million-an-hour-to-economy

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-26987720

01
Jul

Lessons of democracy

croppedWe are living in interesting times… throughout June, the School has been pulsating with debate – whether it was the DASH inter-house debating competition (in which Artemis emerged as winners in a very closely-fought final) or, more recently, the growing controversy over Britain’s membership of the European Union. Our mock EU referendum campaign began with a quiz in Assembly, led by Mrs Tansley and contested via mobile ‘phones using Kahoot, about how much girls and staff really knew about the EU.

 

 

 

(FILES) This file photo taken on August

Some of the most intelligent debating I heard, in a national campaign tarnished by spin and smears on both sides, was in the formal referendum debate on Monday 20 June when Daisy Lambert and Amy Goldup (Remain) pitched their case against Hannah Simmonite (Leave). A few days before, over a picnic in Shropshire with Year 7s, I overheard one pupil say, with impeccable logic, that under-18s should be allowed to vote in this referendum because the result would affect their future more than the older generation. (Whether, applying the same reasoning, the over-80s should be disenfranchised was, to the group, a moot point.)

 

 

 

eu-results

The result in school (66% for Remain, 31% for Leave and 3% spoilt ballot papers) – while clearly out of step with the national verdict and with the vote in Northamptonshire – was in line with other GDST schools which, overwhelmingly, recorded anti-Brexit results. In this, as in the national picture, a clear generational divide emerged, adding yet another fracture line to the socio-economic and geographical chasms that have long been familiar contours in the British political landscape.

 

The school referendum highlighted one of the stark but salutary lessons of democracy – that having your say is not the same as having your way. It teaches us how to cope with losing. For some, the fact that searches in Google about the impact of Brexit surged after the outcome was announced, suggesting that the result rather than the campaign was what prompted many voters actively to seek the facts about the question, prompted some political pundits to mutter darkly about the ‘tyranny of majorities.’

 

churchill-2

This, however, is missing the other major lesson of democracy that the referendum teaches us. This is not that democracy is flawed (though we know it is). As Churchill said, ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ It is that democracy, to be effective, relies on an informed citizenry. The fact-lite hyperbole and mendacious mud-slinging which dominated the national debate made it difficult for any but the most assiduous and critically-minded voters to reach a well-informed judgement about the issue.

 

The story of Britain and Brexit 2016 reminds me, yet again, of the paramount importance of Citizenship education in school.  That ‘c’ word – nestled in one of the least glamorous of educational acronyms, PSHCE – is so easily paid lip service to rather than fully embraced, so often tracked perfunctorily in the interests of compliance with guidance about promoting Fundamental British Values rather than genuinely embedded in a school’s culture.

 

As the girls reasoned thoughtfully about the ethics of the franchise, tapped their ‘phones excitedly in our quiz, discussed with their teachers the pros and cons of EU membership in class and walked down corridors deep in earnest debate, I felt proud to know that the education of our girls in the lessons of democracy is a cherished part of daily life at Northampton High.  And this is why, regardless of the future direction of the UK, whether in the EU or outside, I am filled with hope for the future.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

 

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To follow Dr Stringer on Twitter please click on the icon

 

 

 

Sources

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36619342

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/what-happens-if-we-leave-the-eu

 

24
Feb

Reversing Gender Stereotyping may be childs play after all

helen-head-and-shoulders

The launch this month of a new-look, curvaceous Barbie model has reignited the long-running debate about the effect of such (role) models on our girls.  For many of the 57 years in which Barbie has been a major part of the doll-collecting scene, her proportions have been a subject of controversy.  Does she contribute to the ‘thin’ culture which encourages an impossible ideal of femininity and drives girls and young women into extremes of self-consciousness and risky behaviour with food?  Some experts believe so, and, on Barbie’s 50th birthday seven years ago,   Professor Janet Treasure,  an expert on body size and image at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London gave her expert opinion that, “The promotion of dolls with such a body shape, and other things like size zero, have wider public health implications, like an increased risk of eating disorders.”

 

 

 

 

classic-barbie-167x300

 

Surprisingly little research has been done on the actual impact of dolls’ shapes on attitudes among girls and young women to gender and to their sense of themselves.  It is easy to see the ethical problems with any experiment designed to test such a hypothesis using real children as ‘lab rats.’  However, a growing body of evidence is accumulating to confirm a link, such as the 2006 study, reported in the journal ‘Developmental Psychology’. In this study, 162 girls, 5 to 8 years old, were told to look at images of Barbie dolls, Emme dolls (which have more realistic body shapes) or no dolls.  Later, they answered questions about body image.  The younger girls who looked at Barbie reportedly had lower body esteem and a “greater desire for a thinner body shape,” after playtime, the researchers wrote.   Certainly, campaigning groups, such as Let Toys be Toys, have claimed that the persistence of deeply gendered attitudes in the workplace – highlighted in studies such as the 2013 survey which found that two thirds of those questioned thought men make better mechanics, electricians and plumbers than women, and 64 per cent would rather buys flowers from a female florist – is rooted in the blue-for-boys-pink-for-girls segregation of the nation’s toy shops and the prominence of the classic Barbie, with her cinched waist and feet moulded to require high-heeled shoes, as a must-have element of a girl’s collection.

 

I asked a group of Year 10 (L5) girls, who happened to be taking tea with me this week, for their thoughts on the topic.  While they welcomed the idea of broadening the range of Barbie types, they were reassuringly robust on the question of influence.  They saw no evidence, either in themselves or in each other,  of any lasting impact of skinny Barbie on their self-image or their values.  Grace summed it up nicely; ‘when I was young I wanted my Barbie to be a mermaid but that didn’t mean I wanted to grow up to be a mermaid!’  Another point made was that it was the influence of the media, rather than Barbie herself, which had made the doll into a symbol of warped and warping femininity.  Barbie, after all, began life as a toy for a real girl, Barbara Handler, and was created to replace two-dimensional paper dolls in a bid to add greater realism to the dressing-up experience but her life, after launch, as it were, was not her own.

 

barbie-doll-300x282 While this is surely too important a question to be left to the vagaries of the marketplace, there are positive signs that, even there, a change is in the air.  Admittedly, the launch of the range of new Barbies – with four body shapes, including curvy, seven skin tones and 24 hairstyles – may be a shrewd commercial move to create a larger-than-ever range of dolls for consumers to collect.  Could it also be, though, a sign of a new, healthier attitude to the contents of our daughters’ play box?

 

 

 

 

 

 

lego-300x225 The fact that manufacturer Mattel’s redesign comes after a 43% decline in sales for the classic Barbie models since 2013 suggests that parents are increasingly voting with their credit cards against the impossible perfectionism embodied in classic Barbie’s physique and, in 2014,  Lego, which has recently put great effort into diversifying its products, overtook Mattel as the leading toy manufacturer.

Only time will tell whether curvy Barbie will capture the imagination of girls as completely as her skinny classic cousin has done for decades.  Anecdotally, the case looks promising;  “These ones look like people that walk down the street,”  observed 8-year old Lela in a recent focus group on the new range presented by The Guardian.  And her verdict? “They’re funner.”

 

Perhaps the launch of new Barbie – codenamed ‘Project Dawn’ by Mattel – really will herald the dawn of a new age of sanity in doll design.  In a month which also saw the release of figures showing a sharp increase in recourse by women to cosmetic surgery (with record numbers of procedures being carried out in the UK last year, 91% of them on women), we can only hope so.

 

Sources

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7920962.stm

http://www.livescience.com/53617-why-barbie-doll-lego-diversity-matters.html

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/28/barbie-curvy-makeover-mattel-sales-diversity

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10498316/Nows-the-time-to-end-the-boys-and-girls-toys-gender-divide.html

http://www.scotsman.com/news/uk-cosmetic-surgery-figures-reach-record-level-1-4023744#ixzz40SBQZATD

05
Feb

Lessons From The Holocaust

helen-stringer It is 71 years since the Holocaust was first uncovered to a war-weary world – on 27 January 1945, to be precise, when the 322nd Rifle Division of the Soviet Army liberated the Concentration and Extermination Camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau from the retreating Nazi forces.   Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of a network of camps established by the Nazi occupying forces across Eastern Europe in the early 1940s, contained only about 7,500 prisoners on that day but it had been the site of the death of over 1 million men, women and children, most of them Jewish.

 

Other camps existed in the region –  including Treblinka and Sobibor – but Auschwitz is the most famous.  Why? Because it had the highest survival rate.  From Treblinka and Sobibor, there was, almost literally, no one left to tell the tale about what life was like there.  So it is that Auschwitz has become the symbol of the Holocaust and, since 2005, 27 January has been marked as International Holocaust Memorial Day.

 

In my Assembly at the beginning of last week, I recalled a visit I made to Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 2008, travelling by train through the birch forests of Poland to the small town of Oświęcim and by bus from the rail station to enter the gates of the Auschwitz complex, with the infamous legend ‘Arbeit macht frei‘ (‘work will set you free’) still emblazoned overhead.  The Assembly was an invitation to the girls to consider some of the abiding questions that the event and the site pose for us.

 

 

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Let us begin, then, with the site.  A visit such as this, one might object, is just an example of thanatourism (the form of tourism that focuses on sites of death and killing) – an unhealthy form of  tourism ‘motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death.’  The late Professor Gillian Rose,  a British philosopher and a member of the committee chosen to advise the Polish authorities on how best to present the site of the camp for the benefit of visitors, wrote about this dilemma.  Should Auschwitz-Birkenau be a monument or a museum?  It is a delicate balancing act; to leave it as a monument, untouched and unrestored, preserves its integrity but renders it difficult for visitors to interpret but to develop it as a museum, while increasing its educational potential, risks the ‘Disneyfication’ of the site of one of the most atrocious episodes in human history.  The biggest danger, Rose believed, was that Holocaust memorialising would become an industry – that morbid voyeurism would take over.  Auschwitz would become ‘The Auschwitz Experience’ – with photo-opportunities, coffee shops and souvenirs.

 

The Holocaust Memorial Trust has done much valuable work in arranging for school students in the UK to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau on subsidised study tours, enabling the generations who are too young to have a very strong direct connection with events through living relatives to gain a better understanding of the Holocaust in its physical setting.  However, the recent incident when two British school pupils were arrested for attempting to remove items from the site as memorabilia reminds us that it is difficult to ensure access without risking the degradation of the site and the trivialisation of the events it exists to memorialise.

 

What, then, of the event itself?  Last weekend, the BBC reported that the Parliamentary Education Select Committee had concluded that, although the Government had made teaching about the Holocaust and the lessons it holds for us today a key priority,  too few teachers were trained to teach the topic in England.  We might think that, given the wealth of information about it available to us now  (a Google search yielding over 47 million hits and 23,857 books on the subject being currently available through Amazon) and its relatively high profile in contemporary culture (for example, in film and literature), the deficiency noted by MPs has been over-stated.

 

Perhaps, though, the very quantity of material is, in fact, part of the problem.  Just as it is hard now to see the physical remains of the camp at Sobibor among the trees planted to hide the evidence of the atrocities committed there, so it is hard to see ‘the wood for the trees’ among the plethora of representations of the Holocaust at our fingertips.  This is especially true when a number of writers and speakers use the platform of the internet to promote their theory that the Holocaust never took place and was, in fact, the product of an elaborate conspiracy.  Last November, for example,  a speaker at an anti-capitalist rally in Belfast used the event as a platform to deny the Holocaust.  Only one member of the audience had the courage to challenge him.

 

This raises the important question of how far freedom of speech should extend.  Should we censor those people calling themselves historians (as David Irving, British author of website RealHistory!,  does) and those organisations with reputable-sounding names, such as the Institute of Historical Review, which argue in public that the Holocaust didn’t actually happen?  In some parts of the world, it is against the law to deny the Holocaust.  In Austria, for example, David Irving was imprisoned for a year in 2006 for denying the Holocaust in that country and, earlier this month a Hungarian, Ferenc Oroshazi, was sentenced to 3 years’ probation in his home country for the same offence.

 

UK universities have traditionally been arenas where ideas of every political and confessional complexion could be freely aired and debated, with the idea, fundamental to liberalism, that flawed thinking would not long survive the debating process.  In recent years, however, we have seen increasing censorship in UK universities.  According to a recent survey, UK institutions have enacted 148 bans, or actions, over the past three academic years. The vast majority have been put into place by Student Unions – 125 bans compared with just 23 put into place by universities – and the most common ones have included the banning of newspapers, songs and societies.

 

What is particularly disturbing about this trend is the conclusion of the survey’s authors that some of the censorship stems from a fear that students are too impressionable to be exposed to controversial views.  If this is so, then schools must begin to ask urgent questions about what they (that is, we) are doing to nourish critical thinking and academic resilience in the face of stridency based on nothing more solid than prejudice and strong emotion or the lazy thinking which relies on unthinking acceptance of generalisations and stereotypes.

 

Genocide, the Holocaust teaches us, is only possible when a group of people succeeds in reducing another group of people to numbers, objects, a sub-human category.  The purpose of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau as a witness is to reverse that dehumanising process, albeit posthumously.  The purpose of remembering the victims of the Holocaust is, literally, to re-member them, to put them back together again, as individuals rather than as nameless, faceless statistics so that they cannot be reduced to generalised abstractions or stereotypes.

 

We do not need to make a journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau to witness the continuing effects of racial and religious hatred.  Genocidal violence was not abolished by the events of 27 January 1945, alas.   At a time when racism has re-entered the bloodstream of popular culture and national and global politics, it is more important than ever for us to engage with the crucial questions and debates the Holocaust provokes for our own times.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

 

Sources:

Gillian Rose Mourning becomes the Law chapter 1

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35384417

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/11106163/Gas-chambers-discovered-at-Nazi-death-camp-Sobibor.html

 

http://insideireland.ie/2016/01/22/opinion-since-when-did-holocaust-denial-became-part-of-the-million-mask-march-107318/

 

Independent 18 January 2016

05
Jan

‘Life in a Day’ at Northampton High

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Part of the challenge of being new in a school is that so much is unfamiliar and has to be learnt – and one of its great joys is, well, exactly the same thing!

 

In a bid to get to know the School – in 360 degrees, as it were – I have spent many fascinating hours in my first term talking to colleagues about their journey to where they are now at Northampton High, asking them what they love about the School – and what they would change.  I have also had interesting times, over tea and biscuits, conversing with students in U5 and the Sixth Form about an enormous range of topics, ranging from the meaning of dreams to terrorism.  (I look forward to picking up with the younger girls, starting with L5 in the Spring Term.)

 

To get ‘under the bonnet’ and view the workings of the teaching and learning engine, there is really no substitute for getting into the classroom and, with that in mind, I gave myself the chance, on the first Wednesday in December, to spend a whole day visiting lessons.  The emphasis was on immersing myself in the experience of pupils, from U3 to Sixth Form, rather than scrutinising or analysing the lessons I saw.  This meant that I could stay for twenty minutes or leave after two (as I did, for example, when I found a 6.2 class doing a timed essay in class).

 

I made a point of carrying with me neither paper nor pen, thus ensuring that any impressions I took away with me remained fluid and suggestive.  Colleagues were aware of my intention to visit lessons on that day but, otherwise, were forewarned only by my face in the doorway.  I hope (and trust) that no demonstration lessons were laid on that day.

 

What impressions, then, did I take away from my experience of ‘life in a day’ – a day which began with U3 Art and ended, eighteen classes later, with an A Level discussion about sport conducted entirely in French?

 

The first was that learning is extraordinarily stimulating – and, hence, very tiring.  Admittedly, I spent time in just over twice as many different lessons as any pupil could be expected to sample in an average day but the sheer number and range of new things entering my head made me look with fresh eyes at the U3s, who leave school at day’s end with a bag full of homework looking listless or else over-excited, especially in the first weeks of the school year.

 

The second is to be reminded just how much – physically, emotionally as well as intellectually – goes into teaching good lessons.  The stereotype of the teacher standing serenely in front of the board (just google ‘teacher’ in images or clipart and you will see what I mean) could not be further from the mark.  Virtually all the teachers I saw must have chalked up some miles in a week as they paced the room, weaving among the desks or equipment.  All the faculties are deployed; eyes and ears are trained to sense whether anyone has lost the thread or fallen behind, the voice is a vital tool for setting the tone while the face can signal encouragement or dismay with just a fleeting glance that is intended for one pair of eyes only.

 

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To watch the same Maths lesson being taught to two different sets is an object lesson in the power of subtle variations in pace, style and vocabulary to meet the learners where they are.  The Chemistry teacher must be comfortable with the prospect of the class of twelve-year-olds setting fire to things just as the Drama teacher must be prepared for some raw emotions to come out when directing a role play about Victor Hugo’s Underworld, where the inhabitants are called upon to explain why they are damned.

 

In teaching, nothing can happen on autopilot and nothing can be taken for granted; for every ladder of progress, where an idea works like a dream, there is the snake of regression, where it feels as if all your skills and experience have deserted you.  That, and the fact that the teacher is a human being working at any one time with ten or twenty other human beings, each with a brain and heart beating to slightly different rhythms, is what makes it such an emotional job.

 

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Every lesson I observed was informed by specialist subject knowledge that was not available to me as an educated layperson and underpinned by a form of conceptual scaffolding, whether that was the design inspiration of the ceramicist Elizabeth Shriver or a practical method for identifying the functions of the different features of a leaf, that allowed the raw knowledge to be transformed into a meaningful learning experience.  I observed a veritable panorama of techniques – demonstration and discussion, questioning and quizzes, role plays and races, exposition and enquiry-based learning.  It is good to be reminded that teaching is an art and a craft.

 

Finally, I stepped back from specifics to reflect on the act of observing itself. It will be obvious from everything I have said that I gained an enormous amount from the experience of observing, coming away with a number of new ideas which I could apply to my own teaching and gaining a better understanding of the dynamics at play within individual year groups and classes.

 

Equally importantly, though, I am convinced that the teachers whose classes I observed also gained from the experience, even though they may not have been overjoyed at the prospect of my coming.  The key here is that I came as a witnessnot as a judge.  Staying for twenty minutes at most, there was no possibility that I would be tempted to form a judgement of the lesson and I made it clear that this was not part of my intention.

 

The benefits of being witnessed are easily over-simplified.  Assuming that the ‘Hawthorne effect’ is at work, we may say, cynically, that people do better because they try harder when they know they are being watched (though even this generalisation ignores the fact that the pupils, also reacting to scrutiny, can become less responsive in the lesson and, hence, the lesson flows less well than it would do ‘normally’).

 

What is less often recognised but equally true – and arguably more relevant – is that people feel better about what they do for the fact that someone is watching them do it.  The colleagues I spent time with that day were keen for me to see what the girls were doing and the girls, in turn, were genuinely relaxed and responsive.  I was able to see for myself what I had heard about so often in my conversations with the students I had met in my tea parties through the term – that the relationships between the girls and the teachers are exceptionally warm, making for a stimulating but also nurturing atmosphere.  This special quality – easy to witness but hard to measure – is the hallmark of the learning culture of the School.  Who could wish for a better?

 

Dr Helen Stringer

23
Nov

Teaching effectively and with integrity in a time of educational climate change

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As we embarked upon a new school year, I found myself surveying the landscape of a teacher’s world with the degree of objectivity that only viewing against the backdrop of a few weeks of holiday can bring.  As always, it is the extraordinary value of the work that stands out, alongside its peculiar pressures.

 

To understand why this is so, we need only contemplate the fact that our youngest learners, joining Nursery or Kindergarten this term, will probably enter the world of work, if they choose to go to university, in approximately 2033.

 

And it is our challenge – and privilege – as professionals in school communities across the country  to prepare them for that world.

But what will it look like?  That is, surely, very hard to say.  All we know is that it will be very different from today’s world.  To give us an idea of how different it will be, let’s go back an equivalent number of years.  That will take us to, say, 1997. Or, in other words, to the year when the domain name for Google was first registered and  Apple had just appointed Steve Jobs as its CEO. It was years before Facebook was thought of (Mark Zuckerberg was 13.) In 1997,  the pay gap between men and women stood at 27.5%. It is now down to 9.4%.  The gap should be zero, of course, so the work of educating for gender equality remains a work-in-progress.

 

The scale and speed of changes in the context in which education is now taking place – what I would describe as ‘educational climate change’ – mean that our work as educators matters more than ever before. Working, as we do,  in a more dynamic and volatile environment than ever before means that the young people in our care, and their families, need us more than ever before.

 

 

This ‘educational climate change’ derives from four main sources, all interacting upon each other.

First of all, we are working through a period of permanent revolution in the sphere of emerging technology.  How do we help young people navigate through the temptations and torments which they encounter in their social media-saturated universe?  How do we as teachers, many of whom have scarcely left the nursery slopes of the soon-to-be-obsolete interactive whiteboard, navigate its rapids ourselves without losing confidence or competence?

 

Allied to this, we are working in a context of societal fragmentation as increasing geographical mobility and time impoverishment accentuate inter-generational divides. How should we advise parents who are struggling to connect with their daughters, and support girls who are struggling to connect with their parents in an increasingly atomised social landscape where youth culture has an all-consuming life of its own?

In many cases,  families are dealing with the additional strains that the aftershocks of an economic recession have imposed on top of the routine pressures of modern life.

 

Third, we are working in a context of rapid globalisation in both the higher education scene and in employment markets.  Our students are now competing with the best from the rest of the world for places at the most prestigious UK universities and our programmes of support and guidance for them must be able to compete on a global scale.  Moreover, schools must master not only the intricacies of a whole raft of additional threshold testing systems (BMAT, UKCAT, LNAT, HAT etc etc) introduced to discriminate among a plethora of A* candidates but also to get up to speed on the applications regimes of US and Canadian colleges and English-language universities in Europe as our students set their sights on courses overseas.  Careers advisors can no longer rely on the eternal verities of the professions and the milk round but must advise for an era of graduate unemployment, the multi-phased career and the emergence of new jobs in previously non-existent fields.

 

Finally, we are working in a time of tumultuous curriculum reform, with an overhaul of both GCSE and A Level courses and exams taking place over a three-year period.  How can we ensure that none of our pupils becomes an unhappy statistic in a guinea pig generation during a time of rapid change in the national education system whose expressed aim is paradigm shift?

 

Faced with such a barrage of competing pressures, it is tempting to withdraw into convergent thinking, focusing on box ticking and prioritising the measurable and examinable.  However, for the current and coming generations of students, the truth of  Martin Luther King Jr’s maxim, that ‘intelligence plus character – that is the true goal of education,’ is as compelling as ever, perhaps even more so.

 

The challenge for the teacher in a time of educational climate change, then,  is to equip young women for success in the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-will-be without creating a generation of anxious perfectionists who are afraid to put a foot wrong or  social media junkies who lose sight of the things that matter in life or utilitarian careerists who never remember to look left and right to see how other people are getting along in their ascent of the ‘greasy pole’?

 

Will the reality of educational climate change, with its implications for our current thinking and future practice, receive more unanimous acknowledgement than its ecological counterpart has among those with the ability to shape opinion?  We can only hope so.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress