Archive for February, 2016

Reversing Gender Stereotyping may be childs play after all

24 Feb


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.”







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.



Lessons From The Holocaust

5 Feb

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.




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



Gillian Rose Mourning becomes the Law chapter 1


Independent 18 January 2016

Inspiring Futures – “It’s not what you know….”

5 Feb


One of the biggest issues in today’s world is the constant requirement for future planning of your career. Ultimately, being able to support yourself and afford life’s luxuries, or even just life’s necessities, requires a considerable about of money; money which can only be obtained through the world of work.


When I think about my role as Head of Careers, I often wonder how it was that I managed when I was at school. Careers advice in the 1990’s consisted of a small collection of mediocre University prospectuses and a compulsory work experience period in year 10. There were no in-depth interviews with my parents and careers advisor, or large agencies that could offer school students advice. At least, if these did exist, as a school girl, I was never made aware of any. My one resounding memory of ‘Careers advice’ at school was filling out an online survey that was supposed to be able to tell me the career that would be perfect for me. Questions such as ‘Do you like working with children?’ were the main focus of this process. Ironically, I vividly remember answering NO to that particular question! Other questions about your preference for working inside or outside led to results of ‘Park Warden’ or in one particularly unlucky case, ‘Grave Digger!’, neither of which were particularly inspiring aspirations to be presented with when you are fifteen years old. The only useful Careers education that I received when I was at school was the work experience placement and although Careers education is very different now, and certainly very different at NHS, work experience is still one of the most useful resources in school.


The sole purpose of the work experience that I was sent on was probably a way of hitting a government target and getting an entire year group out of school on mass during an ordinarily busy time of year for exam groups, thus freeing up time for a group of over worked and under pressure staff in a large state comprehensive. For me, that meant two weeks at the local undertakers (cue the gasps of horror and sympathetic smiles of pity). Actually I chose that work experience and can honestly say that it was one of the most fascinating two weeks that I ever had.


The skills I learnt during those two weeks were absolutely invaluable. Skills like talking to members of the public who were dealing with the distress of bereavement, answering the phones and dealing with large sums of money have all been useful in various ways since. Engaging with new and sometimes rather daunting tasks taught me independence and resilience and although coffin making and dressing bodies is not something I have done since, the experience overall gave me something really quite valuable. The point is that not all work experience is going to inform the rest of your future, neither does it need to. Its purpose is to develop transferable skills and show individuals that no matter what career you choose, certain attributes are useful no matter what you are doing.





At Northampton High School we are exceptionally lucky to be able to offer our girls work experience that will give them transferable skills but that will also have the potential to lead to a genuine career in the future. Through our membership of the Girls Day School Trust (GDST) we are able to present our students with opportunities that other schools simply do not have access to. This term alone, we have seen six of our 6-1 students make successful applications to Nomura for a day of careers guidance and experience in London. Several of those girls were then chosen to attend an extended three day course as a result of particularly strong applications and we very much look forward to seeing how they get on later in the term. Other companies such as PwC, voted Britain’s top employer for the last twelve years, also work in close partnership with the GDST, offering places specifically for girls within the GDST.


But it isn’t just about going to a big city company for a day and realising that this is your dream job. Very often the people that the students meet through these days are people that enable them to take part in more refined work experience later on, or even who will allow them paid placements during the summer holidays, when they are at university or as graduates when they complete higher education. This is the real value of work experience through the GDST, real people working for real companies offering real careers opportunities for our girls.


The same applies to students lower down the school. In the summer term, the L5’s will take part in a whole day of careers and guidance, as part of our Inspiring Futures programme, run by Sykes and Co, a Northamptonshire Recruitment agency. As part of the day, the girls will also have an opportunity to take part in a Speed Networking session. This is rather similar to speed dating, without the unavoidable awkward silences and inevitable disappointment at the end! The girls will have the opportunity to meet a range of employers from a wide variety of backgrounds, some of which offer work experience to interested individuals and even in some cases, apprenticeships for when the girls leave school at the end of their A Levels.




The NHS Inspiring Futures programme has also been focusing on ‘making the right choices’ over the last few weeks. At the end of January, the U5’s and 6-1’s were given an introduction to the programme Unifrog. John Hillis, from Unifrog, came into school to train the students in how to use the software to help them make informed choices about university. We anticipate that this will be particularly useful for the 6-1 students who will soon embark on the UCAS journey, but also for our U5’s who are now making important decisions about A Level subjects. Most girls will already have made their choices but for those who have specific career goals already, it is a great chance to make sure that the A Levels they have chosen are appropriate for the courses that they may wish to apply for at university. Working backwards from an end goal point can sometimes be the best way of making earlier decisions. For those girls who, like me at their age, are still unsure of what path they will choose, this is a fantastic platform for exploring the possibilities, and with over 30,000 different courses on offer, narrowing that down to only 5 can be a tricky and time consuming undertaking.



At NHS we also have excellent connections through the GDST Alumnae Network. This network boasts an incredible ‘eighty thousand plus’ members and is the largest single sex alumnae network in Europe. Old girls from this school and others in the GDST are always coming back into school or making contact through events in London to offer expertise and careers advice to our current cohort. Many of our students have received work experience placements and in some cases jobs through this network.



This term the 6th form has also been involved with a LinkedIn workshop. Many of you will be familiar with this particular network and may well have used it or be using it on a professional basis quite regularly.  LinkedIn is a fantastic tool for anyone to use, regardless of which leg of their career they are currently in. For school students, it is a great way of establishing connections with friends who might one day put them in touch with their future boss, or with people that they meet through work experience, school events or family connections who may well do the same thing. Online profiling is becoming increasingly common and ensuring that our girls are giving out the right sort of information about themselves is really important for their future. It is far better for them to volunteer information about themselves through LinkedIn, than for potential employers to sift through the dregs of their Friday night ‘Selfies’ on other forms of social media. This is a theme that has run throughout the year in many of the PSHCE sessions run by Ms Margareto in the lower year groups. It has also been a theme for one of the student senior leadership team assemblies and has been talked about at skills days by Karen Kimura, who regularly comes into school from the GDST to see our students. Social media is a wonderful and powerful tool but we must wield it safely and appropriately for it to be beneficial to us.


In the UK, the average job advertisement receives over thirty applications. Having insider information or knowing someone within the company can make all the difference. Work experience places with large companies, particularly in London, can have equally high numbers of prospective applicants. In so many cases the successful candidate will have been benefitted, not by what they know, but by who they know.


Rebecca Kneen – Deputy Director of 6th form and Head of Careers