I recently had the great good fortune to attend the Global Forum for Girls’ Education in Washington DC as part of a GDST heads’ delegation. This international conference, organised by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools of America, was only the second such event of its kind.
Reflecting on the first day of proceedings at day’s end, I was aware of a strange sensation of light-heartedness, which seemed at odds with the seriousness of much of the content of the speeches I had heard. The opening session, for example, featured Azar Nafisi, an academic and writer whose work in championing educational opportunities for girls was driven by her experiences in post-Revolution Iran, where censorship limited the scope of study for the young women who attended the university where she taught.
Puzzling about how to account for this, I wondered whether the venue was important. The Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, founded a century ago, has certainly known its share of drama and glamour. A home to several past presidents (and Marlene Dietrich), it was also the centre of a spy ring during the Second World War.
Or perhaps the setting was the key factor. Washington DC is a beautiful city. (Or, perhaps more accurately, it is a city with an attractive centre, elegant and green – the suburbs may well be a different matter.) It is an exciting world metropolis and a place where global power lines converge. The location undoubtedly added an exciting vibe to the occasion.
Perhaps, too, it was the company I was keeping. With over 750 delegates from as far afield as Australia and Afghanistan, the delegate list had the perfect blend of friends, including a sizeable contingent from the UK’s Girls’ School Association as well as GDST colleagues, and of strangers, each with an interesting and unfamiliar perspective to share. The line-up was star studded with the leading experts in their field – such as Rachel Simmons on wellbeing and Gail Kelly on leadership. Billie Jean King rounded off the conference in her own inimitable style.
The break out workshops were led by educators from an astonishing range of backgrounds. Some topics were niche, such as gender-specific strategies for teaching geometry, while others had such mass appeal that, as in the case of Rachel Simmons’s talk, the organisers had to take down a wall to accommodate all the attendees. What they (I should say ‘we’ as I co-presented a session on sustaining success beyond the school gate with my counterparts from Putney High and Wimbledon High) had in common was a passionate belief in the importance of girls’ schools to providing the best education for girls.
All of these ingredients played a part, I think, but it was only when I studied the programme in more detail that the full explanation dawned on me. Among the seven keynotes and dozens of breakout sessions on offer, not one was devoted to A Level or GCSE reform, the quality (or otherwise) of public exam marking, value added stats, EBacc, school league tables or regulatory compliance.
The very fact that it was a global forum completely changed the perspectives and priorities. It meant that every moment of this three-day event on girls’ education was devoted to listening, talking and thinking about girls and education. It sounds obvious – but it isn’t. The challenge of communicating with education professionals from 22 different nations and education systems imposed upon us the discipline of speaking to universal themes and concerns.
- Gender parity in school, higher education, the workplace and public life
- Female leadership
- Balancing work and family life
- Physical and mental health
- The pressures of popular culture and social media
So, what did I take away?
Too much to summarise in a few sentences. I learnt that the Australians are doing some interesting work on wellbeing and that we can learn from them. I learnt that the Americans are streets ahead of us in their work on alumnae links and that the Icelanders are great role models for educating out gender stereotypes.
Above all, I learnt that thinking globally enriches my understanding of my task in the school that I lead, provoking me to lift my gaze from the straitened path of national concerns and emboldening me to act locally to ensure that the education the High School girls receive is not just first class but world class.