A (birth)day to remember

12 May

The topic for my blog this month chose itself.  Tuesday 2 May was the School’s 139th birthday and, reflecting on the day, I was struck by how, though in many ways (as birthdays tend to be) it had been a special day, in essence it was a typical day in my life as head of this extraordinary school.

 

Here, then, are my reflections about ‘life in a day’ at Northampton High.

 

Kick-off ushered in a celebratory Assembly and, this year, I chose to present 78 slides with 78 facts about 1878 for the school, town, country and world.

 

What surprised us?

 

In the first place, how long ago 1878 seemed in some ways – perhaps most telling was the fact that school fees were £1.40 per term!  Other aspects, however, seemed surprisingly modern or, at any rate, familiar – the first recorded music and the first movie were made in that year, for example.

 

We marvelled at how much has changed in those 139 years – most notably perhaps in the role and status of girls and women within British society.  How astonishing, for example, to learn that it would be another four years before a law was passed to allow married women to own property.  The central role of the High School, a pioneering girls’ school, and also of the GDST, founded six years earlier still, is something that a birthday gives us a timely reminder to recognise and feel proud of.

 

We were struck, too, by how little has changed, in other ways. (In 2017, as in 1878, Afghanistan is a region of conflict which preoccupies Britain.)

 

One thing that is eternally unchanging is the girls’ love of cake!  And, with that in mind, we invited our new Head Girl, Sally Croker, and the youngest senior pupil Olivia Russell plus birthday girl Lilli Trimble to cut a cake while all the girls knew that they could look forward to a cupcake at break.

 

Besides eating cake, at break time I met two U4 students to talk about their Open Homework. The theme of the year for this much-loved annual custom – dreams – had been chosen by the girls and it allowed free rein to creativity and imagination as well as analysis and speculation.  Several of their impressive pieces are currently on display in the Science foyer and they make a fascinating exhibition.

 

Another reason for me to feel proud of our work.

 

At lunchtime, I welcomed Miss Yvonne Chapman into school.  Miss Chapman was Deputy Head under Miss Lightburne, retiring in 1993.  She was instrumental in preparing the new site for occupation and remembers battles to ensure sufficient space for lockers for all the girls.  On such apparently small but actually significant details, the ease of school life depends.

 

Afternoon tea (and I should emphasise that my day is not always a catalogue of meals!) was spent with Mrs Makoni and Ms Shawatu, who were visiting us from Arundel School for Girls in Zimbabwe, on a visit coordinated by Ms Heimfeld.  It was fascinating for us to compare notes on the challenges and excitements of being involved in girls’ education in Zimbabwe and Britain respectively.

 

In many ways our situations are very different, with the economic problems in Zimbabwe dwarfing our difficulties.  However, there were also a surprising number of commonalities.  Uncertainties over Brexit, for example, are reverberating as much in Harare as in Hardingstone, as Mrs Makoni considers the ramifications for her school of changes in relations within the Commonwealth in a post-Brexit world.  Her mission – to prepare young women for the world-as-it-will-be – is the same as ours and requires her, like me, to keep an eye always on the unfolding future.

 

The evening brought the annual Sports Presentation Evening with a rich line-up of performances (Molly Roberts-Crawford giving a dazzling display on trampoline and Y4 dancers showing their moves with panache and joy), inspiring stories (not least from our guests Caitlin McClatchey and Fran Wilson, and from our own home-grown star Ellie Robinson) and awards.  Here was a celebration of guts and determination as well as talent and skill.

 

 

 

 

By the time of the final whistle, then, I could look back and enumerate  the vital ingredients of my ‘life in a day in school’ – the interplay between history, the Here and Now and visions of the future, the power of innovation blended with the guiding light of tradition, the daily routines and endeavours which propel us forward with the help of so many dedicated individuals, the big picture pixelating into the small but vital details, the work of looking beyond our walls and borders and of making connections, of honouring old friends and forging new friendships to build a powerful network to underpin the future success of our girls.

 

Tuesday 2 May 2017 was, for me, a day to remember – just like every other.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

We live in hope

27 Apr

This poem by Caroline Nderitu beautifully captures the essence of what it is to have hope:

 

Why does the sun rise,

why do we get up every morning,

why is there breath in our lungs,

why are we here,

hope, for hope we live.

 

Not because the grass is green beneath our feet,

not because the skies are calm above our heads,

not because the wind is cool and the breeze calm on our sides,

but for hope we live.

 

Not because mangoes hang ripe up on the tree

but because there is seed in the ground, there will be a harvest,

not because the well is wet 

but because the clouds are gathering

and there will be rain and rivers will flow,

rivers of joy, rivers of peace, rivers of life,

hope, for hope we live.

 

Hope is a sparkle in our eye,

hope is a twinkle in our smile,

hope is a glow on our bow, joy in our hearts, music in our laughter,

for hope we live.

 

Why does a baby crawl,

why does a widow hum,

why does a fisherman cast his net upon the bare ocean,

why does a builder place brick on brick on brick, hope,

for hope we live.

 

Not because yesterday was fresh,

not because tomorrow is full but because tomorrow is fertile, hope,

for hope we live.

 

Whatever else we lose, we never lose hope,

As long as we have hope, we have something and hope does not let us down,

hope, for hope we live.

 

On a day-to-day basis we often use the word ‘hope’, but what is the actual meaning behind the word ‘hope’? Not just the English dictionary definition but what does it mean to have hope and to live in hope. Hope is not something that is just some airy-fairy concept; it is a psychological need to believe that we can endure. A psychological need to believe that we cannot only endure but that we can succeed and thrive and we can have our way in the world, so that we can accomplish our dreams, make influence and make our own difference. Have hope.

 

In a time where Donald Trump is the newly elected President of the United States, we are Brexiting and wars and other worldly events are filling our TV screens, many people would say they have no hope left for what is to come for humanity.  Michele Obama recently said ‘Now we are feeling what not having hope feels like…hope is necessary.’ Although the former First Lady is correct in some ways, she has made a rooky error in assuming that we have lost all hope!  I hope (see what I did there?) to demonstrate exactly why we continually and unconsciously live in hope. To do this, we need to strip back the layers and explore hope in its simplest form as well as asking the question; what can we do to sustain hope?

 

 

Where there is no hope, there is no life; hope is a combination of desire and expectation for something uncertain, something unguaranteed. Whether strong or faint, all a hope needs to be sustained is a want and the belief that it might possibly happen.  If you live in hope you can’t die in despair, of the many struggling in the current economic and social climate, hope may seem like the only thing left, possibly even a figment of imagination but hope is optimism and faith, something every human encompasses within themselves even if it may seem deep down inside. Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.

 

Religion is faith. Religion is a glimmer of hope in your God or gods. The Bible, Jeremiah 29;11, ‘for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ The Quran 18:110 ‘So whoever would hope for the meeting with his Lord – let him do righteous work and not associate in the worship of this Lord alone.’ As well as these holy books, many other religious scripts preach and instill the idea of hope.

 

Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable; few things are more ethereal than hope. The positive physiological effect of hope is well documented in Jerome Groopman’s ‘The Anatomy of Hope.’ Groopman’s research shows that during illness, belief and expectation (two key elements of hope) have a significant impact on the nervous system which, in turn, sets off a chain reaction that makes improvement and recovery more likely; this process is fundamental to the widely accepted ‘placebo effect’ which is created by a hopeful outlook. Not only are the positive effects of hope documented physiologically, but mentally too. A study done by two professors who set out to study hope amongst children suffering from end-stage renal failure, recorded some interesting findings but what stood out to me was something that a patient said to one of the professors, ‘I’m normal. Hope makes me normal.’ This simple statement speaks volumes about the importance of hope.

 

Although you would imagine that hope is not measurable, there is something called ‘The Hope Scale’ – a 12 question questionnaire that helps determine how much hope a person has. The hope scale is split into four categories,

 

  • Goals = valuable/uncertain goals are the anchor of the hope theory; they provide an end point and direction to the hope.
  • Pathway thoughts = create routes for achievement
  • Agency thoughts = create motivation to go down these routes
  • Barriers are things that block attainment and the person must either give up or create a new pathway.

 

With these four points in mind, I go on to ask the very important question of ‘How do we sustain hope?’  Well, I’ve got a few tips and tricks for you:

 

  1. Remember this simple metaphor – the power plant does not ‘have’ energy, it transforms and generates it. So think of yourself as a big power plant who transforms and generates hope rather than ‘having it’.
  2. Keep perspective: a lot of people ‘lose’ hope because their focus goes off. They become very myopic to their own ego, their own emotional reality, their own tiny little world and they miss the joy, abundance, the connection, the incredible energy of this buoyant and jubilant world all around them, even when sometimes the immediate people in their lives or their immediate tribe or culture is not so good.
  3. Keep your strength: if you’re down right now and struggling, don’t forget to pull forth and integrate those successes that you’ve had before; those times in your life when things did go well, those times in your life when you surprised yourself with how well you did something or how kind you were or how much you cared or how good of a piece of art you created. Remember those strength times, those times that there was success, those times that good things did happen. Pull them, feel them, sense them and bring those things to the moment at hand where things do feel frustrating, challenging, disappointing or dark. You have had beautiful days before. They will come again. It’s believing in that that sustains our hope.
  4. Make a plan: it’s easy to feel you’ve lost hope if there’s no plan. If there’s no vision the people perish, right? So you have to have a vision for your life. What is it you see out there for yourself? What is your plan to go and get it?
  5. Stay persistent: keep at it no matter what. If we’ve got our perspective in mind, if we have our plan then we have to be persistent, to keep working towards it.
  6. Be patient: sometimes we lose hope in other people, actually we don’t lose hope… we just forgot to be patient. You need to give a lot of patience to the people in your life if you’re going to sustain hope for them and for your relationships with them. Patience is a critical element. It’s not discussed a lot, but it’s so fundamental to having hope: to be patient with it.

 

Holding onto these simple tips throughout your life will make a significant difference to how you live your life and in turn view hope and its importance in today’s society.

 

The purpose of enriching you with all this great information on hope is not to force you into believing ‘’we live in hope’, but instead to prove to you why we do. Therefore, I leave you with this thought; the great Martin Luther King told us ‘we must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.’ So I ask you this, if there is ‘infinite hope’ why do we feel it can be lost?  Really, hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness, we live in darkness, the unknown. We live in hope.

 

 

 

 

Mariam Ziada, U5

Whose Story….?

10 Mar

‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’  So said Thomas Carlyle, famous Victorian man of letters, putting into words what has been, for many, the received idea about history and their experience of studying it at school and beyond.

 

But what of ‘herstory’?

 

The very concept of ‘herstory’ (history, one might say, with the women put back in) –  a product of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and ‘80s – was attacked and even ridiculed at the time (and since) as tokenistic or ideological.  True, herstorians, in rejecting history as ‘his story’, have missed the true etymological roots of the word (historia = a knowledge-based enquiry).  However, even a passing acquaintance with the History curriculum in British schools will make clear how few female voices are heard and, as a career teacher of History, I have always been struck by the paucity of women on the syllabus.  Beyond Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell and Rosa Luxemburg, the textbooks are largely silent.

 

The (missed) chance of having a woman in the top job in the White House as well as in Number 10 and Berlin has raised the profile of women in public life in our own day and helped to stimulate research into the many heroic women of the past whose stories remain largely untold.  In truth, this work of retrieval has been going on for years, though it has yet to make much impression on the school curriculum.  In 1979, for example, the American artist Judy Chicago created an art work called ‘The Dinner Party’ which identified and commemorated 1,038 great women from the past.  These were the women, Ms Chicago said, who deserved an invitation to her dinner party (rather than being consigned to the kitchen, as so many women had been in the past).

 

  

 

 

International Women’s Day (IWD) provides a perfect opportunity to take stock of how far we have come in this work of unearthing remarkable female deeds and voices.  Embracing this theme, at Northampton High, we decided to mark IWD 2017 with a debate on the herstoric women who have done most to change our world.   Characteristically, we had several willing volunteers to stand up and promote their chosen candidate – Kate Harrison and Jess Picot nominated Rosa Parks, Zoya Bilal chose to speak about Coco Chanel, Lexy Daly and Sabrina Sheikh introduced us to Lotfia ElNadi, a pioneering aviator, while Kate Jameson and Ezri Mannion staked a claim for Eliza Shuyler Hamilton, philanthropist and abolitionist.  It was exciting to learn about women whom I had never heard about before alongside more familiar individuals. All our speakers spoke with passion and conviction about their choices.  Ultimately, only one nominee could be chosen and the winner was Rosa Parks.

 

 

IWD 2017 marks a very important anniversary – the centenary of the protest march by the women of St Petersburg which was instrumental in bringing down Tsar Nicholas II and setting in train the events of the Russian Revolution.  These women – we do not know their names – were change-makers on a seismic scale.  They never achieved the fame of a Lenin or Trotsky but their actions set in motion a revolutionary movement that changed the course of history and helped to shape our modern world in ways which we are only just beginning to understand.

 

We will never be able to do more than pick out a few bare threads in the narrative of world history to delineate the contribution, enterprise and sacrifice of women.  However, by taking the lead from our IWD speakers this week, we can bring at least some of the great women of the past back into their rightful place in the sweep of our national and global heritage, to invite them, so to speak, to the global dinner party, and offer them a place at the table and a vote of thanks for all that they achieved.

 

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

On not having the time to read…

10 Feb

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

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

13 Jan

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

Challenging the shift to gated communities of the mind

2 Dec

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-

Entertainment or exploitation – what should we make of modern Halloween?

1 Nov

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’

Time and False Noses

9 Sep


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

 

Living out loud

8 Jul

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.

 

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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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

Lessons of democracy

1 Jul

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.)

 

 

 

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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