Time and False Noses

9 Sep

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






Living out loud

8 Jul


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.





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










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.)





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.’



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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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

‘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

Teaching effectively and with integrity in a time of educational climate change

23 Nov


As we embarked upon a new school year, I found myself surveying the landscape of a teacher’s world with the degree of objectivity that only viewing against the backdrop of a few weeks of holiday can bring.  As always, it is the extraordinary value of the work that stands out, alongside its peculiar pressures.


To understand why this is so, we need only contemplate the fact that our youngest learners, joining Nursery or Kindergarten this term, will probably enter the world of work, if they choose to go to university, in approximately 2033.


And it is our challenge – and privilege – as professionals in school communities across the country  to prepare them for that world.

But what will it look like?  That is, surely, very hard to say.  All we know is that it will be very different from today’s world.  To give us an idea of how different it will be, let’s go back an equivalent number of years.  That will take us to, say, 1997. Or, in other words, to the year when the domain name for Google was first registered and  Apple had just appointed Steve Jobs as its CEO. It was years before Facebook was thought of (Mark Zuckerberg was 13.) In 1997,  the pay gap between men and women stood at 27.5%. It is now down to 9.4%.  The gap should be zero, of course, so the work of educating for gender equality remains a work-in-progress.


The scale and speed of changes in the context in which education is now taking place – what I would describe as ‘educational climate change’ – mean that our work as educators matters more than ever before. Working, as we do,  in a more dynamic and volatile environment than ever before means that the young people in our care, and their families, need us more than ever before.



This ‘educational climate change’ derives from four main sources, all interacting upon each other.

First of all, we are working through a period of permanent revolution in the sphere of emerging technology.  How do we help young people navigate through the temptations and torments which they encounter in their social media-saturated universe?  How do we as teachers, many of whom have scarcely left the nursery slopes of the soon-to-be-obsolete interactive whiteboard, navigate its rapids ourselves without losing confidence or competence?


Allied to this, we are working in a context of societal fragmentation as increasing geographical mobility and time impoverishment accentuate inter-generational divides. How should we advise parents who are struggling to connect with their daughters, and support girls who are struggling to connect with their parents in an increasingly atomised social landscape where youth culture has an all-consuming life of its own?

In many cases,  families are dealing with the additional strains that the aftershocks of an economic recession have imposed on top of the routine pressures of modern life.


Third, we are working in a context of rapid globalisation in both the higher education scene and in employment markets.  Our students are now competing with the best from the rest of the world for places at the most prestigious UK universities and our programmes of support and guidance for them must be able to compete on a global scale.  Moreover, schools must master not only the intricacies of a whole raft of additional threshold testing systems (BMAT, UKCAT, LNAT, HAT etc etc) introduced to discriminate among a plethora of A* candidates but also to get up to speed on the applications regimes of US and Canadian colleges and English-language universities in Europe as our students set their sights on courses overseas.  Careers advisors can no longer rely on the eternal verities of the professions and the milk round but must advise for an era of graduate unemployment, the multi-phased career and the emergence of new jobs in previously non-existent fields.


Finally, we are working in a time of tumultuous curriculum reform, with an overhaul of both GCSE and A Level courses and exams taking place over a three-year period.  How can we ensure that none of our pupils becomes an unhappy statistic in a guinea pig generation during a time of rapid change in the national education system whose expressed aim is paradigm shift?


Faced with such a barrage of competing pressures, it is tempting to withdraw into convergent thinking, focusing on box ticking and prioritising the measurable and examinable.  However, for the current and coming generations of students, the truth of  Martin Luther King Jr’s maxim, that ‘intelligence plus character – that is the true goal of education,’ is as compelling as ever, perhaps even more so.


The challenge for the teacher in a time of educational climate change, then,  is to equip young women for success in the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-will-be without creating a generation of anxious perfectionists who are afraid to put a foot wrong or  social media junkies who lose sight of the things that matter in life or utilitarian careerists who never remember to look left and right to see how other people are getting along in their ascent of the ‘greasy pole’?


Will the reality of educational climate change, with its implications for our current thinking and future practice, receive more unanimous acknowledgement than its ecological counterpart has among those with the ability to shape opinion?  We can only hope so.


Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

Time for some ‘plane’ thinking?

17 Sep

helen-stringer-high-res-2-200x300 Beginnings matter.  They are much in my mind, of course, as I embark on my first term as the leader of the School and, from the vantage point of a fortnight into term, I behold a diorama of impressions from a myriad encounters and events.


Beginnings matter because they set the tone, create expectations and establish our trajectory.  They encompass the preparations we make, the parameters we map out for ourselves (and, often, also for others) and the attitude of mind which we adopt in the face of challenges and opportunities.  We may think of them as the foundations for the work to come.  The depth and strength of these footings will set the limits on what is built above and, in the same way, the range and sophistication of the tool kit with which we embark on a new project will determine the reach and scope of what we can achieve.


What those foundations should consist of precisely has been a topic of enduring interest – and controversy – in the education world.  Mercifully, the old ‘knowledge versus skills’ debate seems now to have run out of steam, with all but a handful of protagonists (and those confined to the margins of the field), being able to agree that both are essential and that they are inseparably intertwined.  Teaching knowledge without skills? Pointless.  Teaching skills without knowledge? Impossible.


de-bono-hats-explained However, defining which skills should be taught, and how, remains a fertile area for discussion.   From de Bono’s hats to Bloom’s HOTS (or Higher Order Thinking Skills),  a veritable fusillade of theories awaits the teacher (or parent) who wishes to help young people build those learning foundations and it is important (if not always easy) to distinguish the worthwhile from the whimsical.  While the neatness of an alliterative trinity might, in itself, invite scepticism, the fundamental importance of creative, critical and collaborative thinking has now achieved a high level of acceptance.





united_airlines_aircraft_taking_off_at_schiphol_airport Professor Matthew Lipman, a leading thinker in this field, illustrates the interplay of the first two aptly using the analogy of a pilot flying an aircraft, where creative thinking is acceleration and critical thinking is the application of the brakes.  The pilot, he says, must accelerate to keep the plane going forward but, from time to time, she must apply the brakes to maintain balance and stay on course.  We could add to this that collaborative thinking is equally vital – with the co-pilot, air traffic controller and ground crew all having to play their part to ensure a safe take-off and landing.


To this, in recent years, has been added a fourth C – caring thinking.  Caring thinking calls upon us to recognise the extent of our inter-dependence and the force of the impact our words and actions can have.  It emphasises the social and ethical dimensions to every sphere of human activity and refuses to see humane values as the price we are willing to pay for advantage in any quarter. While this strand has not yet, perhaps, achieved the currency of the other three as a key ingredient in a thinking skills curriculum, its relevance to education for the world as-it-is and the world as-it-will-be is very clear.  A simple example, extending Lipman’s analogy, will suffice. In the long shadow of 9/11 (and with the tragedy of Andreas Lubitz and the Germanwings Airbus still fresh in our minds), the consequence of licensing pilots who know how to fly but who do not care about their passengers has made an impression on every one of us.


With all this in mind, what better way to start the school year than with a hands-on, mind-expanding Skills Day which would bring all four of these crucial thinking skills into play?  This is exactly what the Senior School girls enjoyed on their first day in school – in a brilliant warm-up to the new term and an opportunity to polish up the contents of their thinking tool kit to go alongside the (newly-purchased?) pencil case and pristine school planner.  And, how pleasing it was to see CARING thinking given prominence in the programme for the day.  In a house-based, collaborative project, the girls were challenged to work in teams to create a money-making proposal which would pass the test of feasibility and viability – all in support of a charitable cause of their choosing.




Mrs Hill, who, with Mrs Peck and Mr Martin, coordinated the event, wrote as follows about her reflections on the day:

The charity deputies have been marvellous; they liaised with me and their charities during the holidays…  Everyone was fresh and full of enthusiasm on Thursday…   [This year], we altered the format of the day, with less time to come up with ideas, prepare and deliver a pitch so that a decision could be made before going to the various workshops, which meant girls could focus much more on specifics rather than a notional idea of a charity event; for example we now have a relevant risk assessment and finance plan from these workshops.


She paid tribute to the entire House leadership team for their energy and enthusiasm in directing the activities and helping the girls negotiate the many challenges of the day.


The final outcome for each House was:


House & team Chosen Charity Proposal
Artemis – Kate Clayson, Emily von Widekind, Sky Trenfield Carefree Northants Bag packing
Demeter – Jasmine Smellie, Rebecca Rayif, Vicky Eden Rethink Mental Illness Photo Booth Service
Hestia – Pankti Patel, Imogen Coningsby, Els Parton MND Christmas Fayre
Selene – Alice Malin, Louise Penn, Shona Gunn MIND Selene’s Salon


I had the good fortune to witness the final presentations of the day and was impressed by the passion and articulacy of the speakers, and the ingenuity and cogency of their proposals.



Meanwhile, for U4, Ms Heimfeld had lined up a very different – and equally holistic – challenge with the help of the Young Film Academy. Based in teams, the girls were asked to generate ideas for a film, refine these down to an achievable project and then work together to script, rehearse and enact their piece in a single day.  The caring dimension came through their conscious consideration of their target audience in choosing a theme and imagery, and in their attention to high production values at the editing stage, where the glamour of the film set seems far away.  The fruits of their endeavours were showcased in our very own Young Academy Awards event last Thursday, complete with Oscars, red carpet and glamorous gowns.  ‘Daddy’s Girl’ – a sensitive exploration of love and loss in wartime – emerged with the Best Picture award in an evening which celebrated the high calibre of work across the range.


Seeing the school year take off in this way – with serious fun in pursuit of deep learning and with caring thinking at the heart of the enterprise – I look forward with eager anticipation to seeing how the rest of the journey aboard Flight NHS 2015/16 unfolds.


Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress


Sources and further reading

Sarah Davey Chesters ‘The Socratic Classroom’

C J Simister ‘How to Teach Thinking and Learning Skills’ (aimed at teachers)

C J Simister ‘The Bright Stuff’ (aimed at parents)