Archive for January, 2016


29 Jan

jonathan-williams-300x239 Change is of course a deeply emotive subject and one which has challenged and inspired humanity since time immemorial. Whether it be from politicians, leaders, or philosophers- or anyone with an electronic device these days- search Google (I prefer it in standard format rather than ‘tilt’ or Star Wars scrolling) for ‘quotes about change’ and you will easily while-away half an hour in satisfied reflection.


As I write this blog, on a fruit-derived branded device, in between a hockey tournament and swim training- my daughter’s activities not mine- I am reminded of ‘Here’s to the Crazy Ones’ and Apple’s ‘Think Different’ advertising campaign: Think Different


Perhaps a little sadly from my own point of view, but maybe reassuringly from a parent’s, my crazy days are well behind me. I tend to find the familiar rather comforting. Still, I get a little tickle of excitement at the idea I could be crazy, if I wanted to be; and that’s the point. Change can be thrilling.


Not in any way to diminish the achievements of millions of students on the legacy GCSEs, or the modular AS and A2 qualifications, nevertheless I have to admit that education was in danger of becoming, for many people at least, something of an elaborate show; hamsters on not-particularly-merry-go-rounds. That is why I am enjoying the new, non-coursework GCSEs and linear A-Levels so much. They are fresh, with the air of novelty, but they are also far more demanding and actually sensible. They are qualifications worthy of being taught and learnt. They do not have arcane instruction manuals and ritualistic hoops to jump through. They require prolonged, deep learning. They demand independent thought; they expose students to the ‘Pit’- see Mr Urquhart’s earlier blog (November 2015) entry on Learning Pit Theory. There is also room to breathe; there is not an endless cycle of assessments worth 7.5% or 12.5% or 25% of the final grade- there is less stress, more time to grow, and that is a very positive change to my mind.


All of these benefits are achievable on any course, with excellent teaching and careful planning, and are a staple diet for the High School. It is pleasing, however, when the courses expect it, and when I predict that our students will be able to stand out even further from the crowd because of it.



I offer you an anecdote, from my own recent teaching of the new GCSE. With the Lower Fifth, last lesson, I played Mozart- rather loudly- while girls planned a poetry essay, comparing Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ and Gillian Clarke’s ‘Catrin’. Why? It was P1&2 on a Monday morning and no-one wanted to think too hard, myself included if I’m honest. “Can we listen to music with our headphones on please?” I was asked. “Nooo,” was my slightly apologetic drawn out monosyllable. The disappointed, imploring eyes drew an elaboration: “there is no proven link between music and enhanced cognitive performance, with the possible exception of Mozart.” It seems obvious now, but it was a daring thunderbolt at the time. After a quick search on YouTube, Mozart’s greatest works were swaggering through the classroom and we swaggered too. Within moments I was tapping my feet, knitting my brow and scribbling furious plans of my own on the whiteboard. I felt liberated. I was having fun.


Was it a good lesson? I believe so. It was certainly memorable… and there were good plans shared, useful notes taken. Unambiguously though, from my perspective, it happened because challenging change is coming towards me and I will overcome it, as will our girls; actually, we will all hopefully thrive on it.


So, rather strangely from a teacher’s mouth perhaps: “Here’s to Michael Gove.” I did not mention the word ‘crazy’.


Jonathan Williams, Head of Faculty, English
Inspiring Women

Inspiring Women

22 Jan

img_0326lr-200x300 It has been fascinating to read the BBC’s list of Inspiring Women for 2015 which was published before Christmas. The list features 100 amazing women from across the world who have made a real difference in a whole range of ways. The BBC chose to focus the list on octogenarians sharing life lessons, film makers discussing expectations and pressure in their field, nursing, five high-profile women and ’30 under 30 entrepreneurs’.


This March we will be celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD) and in school  we will be focusing on the ‘women who inspire us’.  IWD has been observed since the 1900’s, over a century ago, going from strength to strength over that time. We welcomed more than 100 girls to our year 7 Entrance Exam last Friday which despite the assessments in the morning saw girls by the end of the day leave us happy and smiling having made new friends and enjoyed a fun afternoon working together to create the tallest tower, using just a few items such as straws, a paper plate, a sheet of A3 paper and a roll of stickytape; quite a challenge!file_005-300x224 These girls are in a world very different from when the first International Women’s Day took place but I had no doubt looking round the room that they will become some of our inspiring women of the future. Many of the girls in 6-2 have already received offers from their university choices and the huge range of courses and locations reflect the diverse passions and talents of the girls as they go off to make their mark on the world.


This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Pledging for Parity!’ so I have chosen five British women from the BBC’s Inspiring Women list to share with you who have made a difference in accelerating gender parity in their field.



clare-fox-300x300Writer, broadcaster and columnist, Clare Fox is the Director of the Institute of Ideas. Clare set this up in order to challenge “established orthodoxies” and the Institute organises public debates on controversial topics.  Clare took part in the BBC ‘Is media failing women?’ debate.





alice-gray-300x300 Alice Gray, graduated from Cardiff University with a BSc in Neuroscience in 2013 and has been blogging ever since. Her blog,, discusses issues which women face in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. She aims to improve the number of women in the industry .





dame-tina-lavender-300x200 Dame Tina Lavender, is one of the world’s top experts in midwifery, specialising in the management of prolonged labour and the use of the partograph – a tool designed to help midwives monitor births. She acts as an advisor to the World Health Organisation and developed a board game designed to increase the use of the tool in Africa.






jessy-mccabe-300x180 Jessy McCabe, Jessy is in her final year of school and is currently studying for her A Levels in music, maths and history. After realising she was not studying even one female composer as part of her music A Level, she successfully petitioned the largest exam board in the UK to change the syllabus.






baronness-patricia-scotland-201x300 Baroness Patricia Scotland is currently Britain’s trade envoy to South Africa, a barrister and was former UK attorney general. She was appointed Britain’s first black female Queen’s Counsel in 1991 and is the founder of the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence.














sophie-walker Last but by no means least, Sophie Walker  is the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, a new collaborative force in British politics, which believes women should enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men. She worked as an international news agency journalist for nearly 20 years and is also an ambassador for the National Autistic Society, campaigning for better support and understanding of autism, particularly in women and girls.


I leave you with a quote from the International Women’s Day website from world-renowned feminist, journalist and social and political activist Gloria Steinem “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”


Mrs Jo Fitzroy-Ezzy, Development Director


‘Life in a Day’ at Northampton High

5 Jan


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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



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


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


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


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


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


Dr Helen Stringer