Head's Blog

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

13
Jan

A woman for all seasons (not just the flat season)

Clare Balding is the sort of person who makes a powerful impression.  And a brief encounter with her on her visit to school in December has, indeed, stayed in my thoughts ever since.  Granted, her celebrity status endows her with a certain charisma but, in her case, I suspect that the charisma predates the celebrity and partly accounts for it rather than the other way around.  She is a role model for our times.  What makes me say that?

 

Partly, it is about the things she said and the messages she conveys to young people.  When she visited us, for example, not only was she able to capture and hold the attention of a hall full of 5-11 year olds for an hour, telling them stories based on her recently-published children’s book The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop, she was also able to captivate an equally large audience of 11-18 year olds (not to mention the grown-ups in the room) with stories based on her life experiences.

 

Many of the things she said stuck in the mind not necessarily because they were of ground-breaking originality but because they were so pungently expressed, often with the addition of a memory-hooking anecdote – and because they were true.

 

Two examples will give a flavour.

 

  1. Stop worrying about what you look like and just enjoy being you.

As a tall and large-framed woman, Clare struggled to maintain her weight as a jockey but had the last laugh when she won as a prize her own body weight in champagne.

 

  1. Dare to be different because thinking all the time about what other people think of you and worrying about whether they like you makes you self-centred, less happy and less likable.

 

She recalled how she came close to getting expelled from school for shoplifting, which she had only done because she wanted to fit in with the gang and gain acceptance – a nasty experience but an important learning journey for her.

 

Part of her power as a role model lies in the deeds that lie behind her words.  Truly a Renaissance woman for our times, she has been a champion jockey, sports commentator, TV presenter, radio broadcaster, raconteuse, memoirist, novelist and campaigner.  And she is only 45! A pioneer in many ways, her success in breaking into traditional male sporting bastions, such as horse-racing and rugby league, plus her outspoken promotion of the rights and profile of women in sport and public life, have given her an almost unique authority in broadcasting.

 

Above all, though, the key to her impact is, simply, who she is.  She wears her fame lightly and her ability to communicate comes as much from the attention she pays to the individual standing in front of her at a book-signing as to the oratorical skills that come into play in front of a mass audience.  Always true to herself, she has been candid about the strains in her relations with her parents when she was young and comfortably open about her private life – happily married to Alice Arnold – when the prurience of the mass media, and the bigotry to be found on its outskirts, must test the resilience of even the most self-confident public figure.

 

I was interested to hear her say recently on the radio that she approaches her life as though she were still at school because she enjoyed her life at school (shoplifting episode excepting, I imagine) so much.  So, her live appearances on TV are like exams and her well-known rambles are like geography field trips.  With her customary wit and lightness of touch, she has hit upon a serious philosophical truth, I think – that a life lived as a lifelong learner never fails to be rewarding.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

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?

halloween

 

 

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.

 

p1240109    img_0275    p1240127

img_0653    cropped-11    p1240076

l1020583    img_0240    img_0191

 

 

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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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.”

 

 

 

 

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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