Head's Blog


Why the Holocaust remains relevant today

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

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

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

A second story

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

A third story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Now’s the Time

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

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

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

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

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

For that, we need imagination.

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

How can we get there?

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

If this sounds powerful, it is.

But what does it look like in practice?

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

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

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

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


Lost without translation

A skill deficit that costs the UK economy an estimated 3.5% of GDP.

A knowledge vacuum that 74% of business leaders identify as a major barrier to career success for graduates in today’s world of work.

You may be forgiven for thinking that I am talking about science, technology, engineering or maths – subjects which occupy so many headlines, especially where opportunities for girls and young women are concerned.

But, no.

These stats relate to Foreign Languages, an area which rarely attracts comment and stands pretty low on the national educational agenda at the moment.  And yet, I would argue that Britain is in danger of sleepwalking into an employability crisis, as many educators continue to turn a deaf ear to the research and the warning signs highlighting a comparative skills gap for our graduates that will materially harm their employment prospects in the coming years.  We are in danger of nurturing a generation of global consumers who are incapable of flourishing as global citizens, earners and opinion-formers.

The figures are eloquent – and concerning. Only a third of Britons report that they are able to hold a conversation in another language. A 2016 review of language teaching in English secondary schools found that a mere 34 per cent of pupils obtain a good GCSE in a foreign language, and less than five per cent do so in more than one language.  As language learning in schools and universities continues to shrink – with French and German A Level declining by 17% and 12% respectively in the past six years, for example,  it looks unlikely that the situation will improve for the next generation.

Many people seem to be assuming that the problem will decline after Brexit.  After all, they say, many of our trading partners are Anglophone (such as, the USA) and (American) English is the lingua franca of the global economy.  This overlooks the reality that post-Brexit Britain will inevitably turn more outwards towards non-European markets and, hence, into more difficult territories for business in countries, such as Russia and China, where the linguistic scales are even more drastically balanced against monolingual Britons than in European countries.

Professor Bianco of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Language and Literacy Education has put it in a nutshell: There are two disadvantages in global language arrangements: one of them is not knowing English; and the other one of them is knowing only English.

We must not rely on the fact of the first (a reality which many, many young people in non-Anglophone countries are working hard to address) to ignore the truth of the second.  Nor does this mean radically reorientating language-learning in the UK away from European languages towards Russian or Mandarin, say, a suggestion which may well leave policy-makers in education and head teachers shrugging their shoulders in impotent despair. Language-learning is about more than mastering a single language.  It is about mastering the skills for language acquisition, which can be transferred to other languages in the future.  No surprise, then, that French, German and Spanish remain in the top five languages recommended by the British Council as threshold languages for study.

It is also, and crucially, about developing the cultural awareness that opens the way for a more sophisticated understanding of other ways of doing things.  This, in itself, is a vital transferable skill, which is indispensable in international business negotiations.  It should be part of the armoury of any ambitious professional leaving education today.

With 39% of employers surveyed in 2017 expressing dissatisfaction with the global cultural awareness of UK graduates (up by 9% in just one year), the imperative facing responsible school leaders is clear.  Making the study of a Foreign Language to GCSE level as part of the core curriculum should be an absolute minimum and internationalism must be a golden thread woven through school life.

What does this look like in practice?  At the High School, for example, language exchanges, a compulsory residential in Year 8 to Normandy, cultural visits every year to a rich selection of destinations (recently Berlin and Granada), a thriving eTwinning programme and an exciting Erasmus + project, collaborating with schools in Germany, Hungary, Latvia and Portugal, provide a myriad opportunities for girls to develop a global perspective.  Last Tuesday, we hosted the European Universities Consortium for a workshop on European degree applications to feed the growing curiosity among our students about overseas study.

Whatever Brexit brings, we know that the future for our students is unlikely to be defined by the lines of national borders.  That is why igniting the fires of interest in language-learning and internationalism at school is as important as stoking the flames of STEM.








University life

There was an interesting  synchronicity to my spending the day on Wednesday of last week (National Mental Health Awareness Day) at Bristol University at a meeting of the HMC/GSA Universities Committee.   Undergraduate mental health was right at the top of our agenda, on the back of research which showed that  the suicide rate among UK students has risen by 56% in the ten years to 2016 and a recent report that there were 95 suicides in English universities in the twelve months to July 2017.

These worrying statistics have given rise to calls among some educationalists to redefine the start of full adulthood in the UK from 18 to 21, thereby giving parents a greater say in the lives of their children through higher education.  In practice, some moves in this direction are already being seen ‘on the ground.’  Bristol, which has faced adverse press coverage in the recent past on this topic, now invites students to opt into a system, which allows the university to initiate contact with parents if there are concerns about a student’s mental well-being.

The proposal to change radically the definition of adulthood has to be seen in the context of a much larger and very confusing picture.  Just think of the many anomalies in the status quo.  On the one hand, the law has relatively little to say, for example, concerning the corrosive effects of permissive immersion in social media among children far younger than 18.  On the other, 18-year-olds are sent to fight (and possibly die) for their country and, if employed, are made to pay taxes.  A broader public debate on the correct thresholds between childhood, adolescence and adulthood is greatly overdue.

In the meantime, as the Universities Committee recognised, schools play a very large part in preventing crises developing when students go to university, both in the application process itself and in the broader guidance offered.  Prompted by the debates held around that table in Bristol, I offer here a few reflections on what we do at the High School to prepare our students for university life.

First and foremost, we offer tailored application advice and this is essential to ensure that students end up on the right course at the right place for them.   Bristol’s Pro-Vice Chancellor observed how often, in her experience, mental health problems occurred when students were there ‘for the wrong reasons.’  Knowing our students really well is key to this and negotiating the labyrinth of choices is best done with teachers and tutors who know the girls, have seen where they have come from and understand their capabilities and interests.

Besides this, helping students develop a versatile toolkit to help them cope with the pressures and setbacks of university life is a vital ingredient in an excellent Sixth Form programme.  In reality, at the High School, it begins long before Y12 and has many dimensions to it, ranging from the personal and psychological to the purely practical, via the social and sexual:

– gaining self-knowledge through tutorial, coaching and mentoring programmes

– learning how to make good decisions when making important choices

– mastering basic cooking and budgeting skills

– practising networking in a social gathering

– understanding the laws about consent and coercion

– building the confidence to negotiate ambiguous or potentially threatening social situations.

Finally, the emotional element is huge.  And this, above all, is about managing expectations.  Experience has taught me, for example, to avoid telling students that my university days were the best of my life.  Not because they were not (they were not) – but because I have come to think that it is unhelpful to them.  Hearing this from the adults in their life puts a terrific pressure on them to find university life wonderful from day one – a recipe for disillusionment and self-doubt.  Actually, the first few weeks of university can be disorientating and lonely.  Not everyone finds herself living in a scene from ‘Brideshead Revisited’ in Freshers’ Week.  Equally, the later weeks (and months and years) can be quite challenging, at least at times.  This does not mean that the whole experience will not be immeasurably valuable in shaping her as a person, extending her sphere of understanding and expanding her horizons.

Talk of finding one’s passion, ubiquitous in education, can lead students to feel as though there is something wrong with them if they haven’t been transported onto a higher emotional plane by a subject by the time they are 17.  Reassuring them that they can (and will) have fulfilling lives at university and beyond without the need for a daily diet of ‘peak experiences’ but simply by spending time with people they like studying something they find interesting may be the best encouragement we can give as they prepare to press ‘send’ on those UCAS forms.






The power of the network behind Northampton High School

It is always exciting to see your name in lights and on Sunday 2 September that was what happened, metaphorically at least, as the Girls’ Day School Trust’s new national ad campaign shone a spotlight on its 25 schools, 20,000 students and 8,000 staff (with particular help from our own Chelsea Hikwa, one of the featured personalities).

This has set me thinking about the role the Trust plays at the High School – a role which is perhaps larger than we realise when we take into account all that goes on ‘behind the scenes’.  At the opening of a new academic year, with all its energy and promise, I can think of no better way to start than by describing that broad, bold backdrop to school life.

In an age where trusts of all kinds (multi-academy trusts or MATs, say) are commonplace in education, it is easy to forget how special the GDST is as a Trust among trusts. First and foremost it is far older than most, with a much longer and more distinguished track record.  Founded in 1872, at the very dawn of girls’ education in this country, it has played an integral part in the proud struggle to achieve education for girls on the same basis as for boys.

Second, is the ambition and inclusiveness of its mission.  From its inception, the Trust has sought to provide ‘education in the true sense of the word’ for all its pupils, rather than narrow training, and to ensure ‘first-rate teaching for all’ regardless of background.  This was a groundbreaking vision in Victorian society, with its rigid class system, and continues to be a relevant manifesto for our own day.  Another way of putting it would be ‘girls learn without limits.’

What does all this mean in practice for us in Northampton?

For our girls, it means extended opportunities during their school career in every facet of life – sports rallies and scholarships, competitions and conferences, placements and performance platforms.   The menu of events grows year by year.   Last year, for example, our keenest Y6 mathematicians enjoyed a conference at Oxford University while budding cricketers benefited from elite coaching from a national player and coach.

The power of the network also extends far beyond the school gate, with the largest Alum organisation in the UK standing behind our leavers as they stride out into higher education and the world of work.  University groups provide friendly support, from Freshers’ Week to graduation, while professional contacts offer a helping hand or a wise word of advice at crucial points on the professional journey.

For staff, the GDST offers access to a central training and professional development programme that is second to none – from subject-specific workshops to bespoke leadership training courses and everything in between.  We can draw on the services of experts at HQ in legal affairs, finance, health and safety and IT as well as educational matters and plug into the support of a network of fellow professionals, united by a common purpose, eager to share their skills and experiences.  The support I gain from the other Heads in the Trust – always just an email or ‘phone call away – is simply priceless and my colleagues each have their equivalent circles to call upon.

And for parents?  Because the GDST is more than the sum of its parts, each of its schools can ‘punch above its weight’.  As a charity, with Trustees but no shareholders, it can commit every penny of its income to the development of its schools.  Providing very good value for money has always been a major part of its mission and excellent stewardship remains a top priority.

This is a reassurance that parents prize greatly.  Some of the benefits are easy to see, such as the major refurbishment project for our swimming pool completed over the summer and the Inspire East conference for our 6.1s in Cambridge last Friday.  Others are less tangible but equally important.  The relative attractiveness of Trust schools as employers and training bases means they draw the highest calibre staff, which matters greatly at a time of a national recruitment crisis in education.  Access to the highest echelons of educational expertise and debate not just nationally (for example, the Annual Summit) but internationally, such as the Global Forum for Girls’ Education in Washington DC I recently had the privilege of attending as part of a GDST delegation, ensures that we keep abreast of new thinking and help to shape the broader educational debate.

Shouting from the rooftops has never been our style – we are always too busy focusing on putting the girls first.  However, this national campaign reminds us that we are stronger together,   it raises the curtain on all that we achieve together in the unique GDST community.




Think globally, act locally

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.


Time to take the plunge

Why should a dip in a cold lake help prepare us for GCSEs?

Fair question – and one which naturally got aired by some members of U4 as they battled uphill, soaked to the skin, at the end of the ‘jog and dip’ at Outward Bound in Ullswater recently. I was too wet and out of breath myself at the time to answer the question properly, so here is a fuller explanation.

In the first place, experts agree that encounters with the Great Outdoors are very good for you but the Great Outdoors has become the Great Unknown for most young people.  According to a study commissioned by the National Trust six years ago, in the past generation, the ‘radius of play’ for children outside has declined by c.90% while the percentage using their local patch of nature for play has gone down from over a half to under a quarter.

Evidence of the detrimental effects of this ‘move indoors’ on their physical and mental health is stacking up alarmingly. The cardio-respiratory fitness of children has, for example, declined by about 10% in a decade while the increase in mental health problems among 5-16 year olds (to a current incidence of about 10%) has provoked calls to action from across the caring professions. Fresh air, the aesthetic balm of interacting with greenery and the emotional impact of connecting with wildlife, by contrast, help to build physical and mental strength.

More specifically, outdoor education is especially good for you.  Just a week before we travelled to Ullswater, an important piece of research, based on the outdoor-orientated curriculum at Gordonstoun, was published.  It showed that outdoor experiences, such as hiking and wild camping, have an ‘overwhelmingly positive influence’ on students’ personal growth and development as well as on academic attainment. There are many reasons for this – foremost being the emphasis on self-reliance coupled with team-work, the strengthening of resilience through physical challenge and the development of healthy attitudes towards risk-taking.

Outward Bound was founded by Kurt Hahn, who also founded Gordonstoun.  It is a programme backed by a serious philosophy as well as 77 years of research into the field.  This meant that key elements of the U4 course were tailor-made as an induction to GCSEs and beyond.

Allocating groups randomly for rooming and working, while posing some challenges (though none that proved unsurmountable), gave enormous scope for building teamwork and resilience under pressure when tempers were fraying and roles not meshing seamlessly.  This is the bread and butter of leadership training and will pay dividends when things aren’t going to plan on the biology or geography field trip or during drama practical rehearsals.

The digital detox element, though daunting for many, provided a vital opportunity for every participant to assess how far her phone served her rather than the other way around.  After getting through the ‘pain barrier’ of separation, the reality that life without the digital ghost limb was possible and might even (in small quantities) be desirable could be calmly considered.

The expedition – calibrated to take everyone to the edge of their comfort zone – offered the kind of rite of passage that psychologists say is important in every journey from childhood into young adulthood.  Some of the experiences were, in the immortal phrase of one of the instructors, ‘type 2 fun’ (where ‘type 1 fun’ is when something is fun at the time) but, taken together, they built a memory that will be treasured and shared for years to come.

Finally, the ‘solos’ – short intervals of solitary contemplation built into the day’s activities – threw us back upon our own mental resources. The benefits of periods of solitary thought – even day-dreaming – to our cognitive and emotional development are only just beginning to be widely appreciated but, once sampled, they are palpable.

They also opened our senses to awe and wonder in the face of nature’s immensity.  In those moments we learn that nature is impersonal (just think of the weather). It cannot be negotiated with, no matter how much we wish it.  In a similar way, many aspects of the public world which young people are preparing to enter are impersonal and won’t bow to our preferences – including the public exam system and the employment market.

Outward Bound proves to us that preparation, practice and perseverance will help us to meet nature’s challenges.  And much more.  It teaches us that those same skills and qualities will bring us safely through the rough terrain and heavy weather of life as well.  As U4 start to look forward to ‘taking the plunge’ into the GCSE years, their experiences in Ullswater will arm them with an array of precious memories – and so much more.





Why Sat when you can swim, swing and sing?

A week can seem a long time in education, to borrow a phrase.  A prime example of this, for me, is last week – in a very good way.  Let me explain.

On Monday, catching up with the latest edition of the TES, I read the results of the latest survey about testing in primary schools.  Sats, as the standardised tests are known, have been around for many years but this survey provides comprehensive feedback to reflect the impact of the call for a ‘rigour revolution’ in testing by the then-Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, in 2015.

The results came as a shock to everyone and, looking at the key stats, it is easy to see why.

Only 2% of education professionals responding to the survey believed Sats for Year 2 were beneficial to the children’s learning while an astonishing 73% believed the tests to be actually detrimental at Year 6.  Even more worryingly, the percentage of respondents who believed the tests to be harmful to the mental health of the pupils was 56% and 83% for Year 2 and Year 6 respectively.

Statistics such as these, plus the welter of anecdotal evidence accompanying them about the impact of intensive preparation and the pressure to achieve good results on teachers, have fuelled a debate within schools which has the potential to drive the sort of soul-searching that occurred 13 years ago when similar concerns about the impact of Sats on children’s stress levels was revealed.  We shall see.

Thursday came around and I found myself, in turn, listening to plenty of screams and groans from Year 6.  But they were screams of delight as new skills were mastered in our kayaking session under brilliantly sunny skies in Weymouth’s beautiful marina.  They were groans of frustration as kayaks overturned, paddles drifted out of reach and wet shoes filled with chilly water.  Evening found us back at the Outdoor Activity Centre at Osmington Bay and a chance, in the disco, to try out new dance manoeuvres and sing songs at top volume (not just for the girls, I might add!).

Early May and perfect weather for a week of outdoor learning, you would think.   An ideal time to explore the many benefits of adventure learning – for resilience, risk-taking and collaboration, to name only the most obvious.  It seemed strange to me that the Centre was relatively quiet, with many of the residential lodges empty and the beach otherwise almost deserted during our beach exploration session.

The explanation was, of course, simple – this is the ‘high season’ for Sats and the majority of pupils were revising and sitting exams in school.  Driving home on Friday and reflecting on the experience of the week, it gave me no small amount of pleasure to think that High School girls get to swim, swing and sing (and abseil, beach-comb, climb etc etc) rather than sit Sats – with absolutely no impact (beyond the positive) on their progress, either now or later.

And this is true for two reasons.  The first is that we are an independent school and this gives us the enviable freedom to choose which testing regime to follow.  It is something that we talk about often (and constantly refine in response to experience and new thinking).  We can achieve that much-needed ‘rigour’ in the learning without the need for Sats.  The second is that, as an all-through school, we are able to gather the knowledge and understanding of each of our pupils – and not simply on basic competencies in literacy and numeracy but through 360 degrees – over weeks, months and years.  This means that our girls can enjoy their last term in Juniors to the full, with rites of passage, such as Osmington Bay and their summer production, which they will remember for a lifetime (and for the right reasons).    They can begin life in the Seniors with confidence and a sense of belonging without the need for a Sats label to carry with them.

And what about Year 2?  Last week found them making pig and wolf masks for their fairy-tale role play.  Fairy tales instead of tests.  A nice thought to end on…

Further reading:

The full article on Sats can be found at





Looking Beyond – The new Higher Education landscape


Often, the most challenging changes are the ones where transformation is disguised by a veneer of ‘business as usual’. This is certainly true in the case of higher education. While parents may be forgiven for thinking that the system – with UCAS form-filling, the personal statement, and firm and insurance offers – looks very much like the (good?) old days, nothing could be further from the truth.

Seismic changes have radically changed the landscape:

– the globalisation of higher education and its impact on UK universities

– the introduction of university tuition fees

– A Level reforms

Together, they have altered beyond recognition the nature of the HE guidance students need if they are to negotiate the process successfully.

The globalisation of HE has opened up new vistas for our students. Take as a case study our 2017 Leaver, Lauren Cunild.  Armed with stellar A Levels in Geography, Maths, Further Maths and Spanish, Lauren went in pursuit of her dream of a place at an American university and has landed the Woodruff Scholarship to study Liberal Arts at Emory in Atlanta.  Beating the competition (and there were over 10,500 applicants for the Woodruff) required a first-rate application backed by impeccable references as well as drive and determination, which Lauren has in spades, but her example shows what can be done, with the right guidance, by ambitious students who want to look beyond the borders of our shores.

The flip side of this, of course, is that competition from international students has intensified pressure on places at Britain’s elite universities.Across the country last year, 19% of the undergraduate population came from overseas.At the London School of Economics, the figure was 68%. The idea that the exam halls of British schools are the seed bed of the next generation of British undergraduates is a thing of the past and the guidance that schools provide for the sixth-formers making their way through the system must address this barely-recognised new reality.

Excellent A Level grades are, in this context, necessary but not sufficient.This is why, at the High School, we take a ‘portfolio approach to a portfolio world’, with students building individually-tailored programmes, adding elective courses, EPQs, MOOCS and experiential or service strands to their A Levels, and curating their own online portfolios to present themselves to the outside world. Guidance on international applications is a standard part of the package.

While the impact of global mobility has been significant, it has been slow and gradual compared with the disruption to the HE sector caused by the introduction of tuition fees. The shift in emphasis from a providers’ to a buyers’ market, coupled with the proliferation of university-status institutions and degree-level courses, has heralded changes which no one fully predicted, let alone planned for.

Though the number of students choosing to go to university has not declined, the increasing interest in high-level apprenticeships (including degree apprenticeships, up by 27% last year) is expected to have a knock-on effect in the not-too-distant future and all good sixth-form guidance these days should include advice on these routes.  The introduction of consumer economics into the equation means that universities have entered a world of published league tables, a move which bodes ill for the bottom-ranking University of Suffolk, while Russell Group has (not entirely justifiably) set itself up as a universal marque of superior quality.  An abundance of data may appear to make the task of choosing courses easier but the reverse is actually the case, as students find it difficult to separate the wheat of meaningful information from the chaff of trivial pseudo-stats.

Target-driven admissions departments are increasingly using unconditional offers to lure candidates into the ‘certain’ category, rendering the process of managing offers even more complex. Gone are the days when one simply ‘firmed’ one’s dream choice and accepted a lower, safe offer as insurance.  Students now need an inside track on the tactics of offer management and an expert guide to the terrain of post-results adjustments. The work of matching applicants to places (with students trading up as well as down) occupies the savvy Director of Sixth Form for many days, even weeks after results day.

Finally, A Level reform.  Here, the effects, like the reforms themselves, are still unfolding but some key developments are already clear.  The demise of AS Levels as a halfway stage to A Level has put a new pressure on GCSE results as a benchmark against which admissions tutors can make their judgement. The quality of personal statements and references in presenting the applicant in the round (in a world where excellent predicted grades are commonplace) has taken on a new significance.  With this in mind, for teachers and tutors (and the Head, of course) to know the students well as individuals is highly advantageous.  Small, close-knit tutor groups, in a Sixth Form that is not too big to feel homely and familiar, are best.

Some of the highest-ranking universities have resorted to aptitude tests as a selection tool and more elite institutions are likely to go down this route, with all that this implies in terms of preparation and practice for the student and a premium on intelligence about trends and case histories in schools.  And here is where harnessing the power of the GDST network comes in.  With 24 other Directors of Sixth Form (and Heads) to compare notes with and access to the contacts and specialisms of the Skills and Alumnae Teams at Head Office, we gain strength in numbers with none of the attendant pitfalls of large, anonymous institutions.

When steering through today’s pre-HE labyrinth, nothing less is good enough.





Further reading