Head's Blog


University life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– learning how to make good decisions when making important choices

– mastering basic cooking and budgeting skills

– practising networking in a social gathering

– understanding the laws about consent and coercion

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

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

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






The power of the network behind Northampton High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Think globally, act locally

I recently had the great good fortune to attend the Global Forum for Girls’ Education in Washington DC as part of a GDST heads’ delegation.  This international conference, organised by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools of America, was only the second such event of its kind.

Reflecting on the first day of proceedings at day’s end, I was aware of a strange sensation of light-heartedness, which seemed at odds with the seriousness of much of the content of the speeches I had heard.  The opening session, for example, featured Azar Nafisi, an academic and writer whose work in championing educational opportunities for girls was driven by her experiences in post-Revolution Iran, where censorship limited the scope of study for the young women who attended the university where she taught.

Puzzling about how to account for this, I wondered whether the venue was important.  The Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, founded a century ago, has certainly known its share of drama and glamour.  A home to several past presidents (and Marlene Dietrich), it was also the centre of a spy ring during the Second World War.

Or perhaps the setting was the key factor.  Washington DC is a beautiful city.  (Or, perhaps more accurately, it is a city with an attractive centre, elegant and green – the suburbs may well be a different matter.)  It is an exciting world metropolis and a place where global power lines converge.   The location undoubtedly added an exciting vibe to the occasion.

Perhaps, too, it was the company I was keeping.  With over 750 delegates from as far afield as Australia and Afghanistan, the delegate list had the perfect blend of friends, including a sizeable contingent from the UK’s Girls’ School Association as well as GDST colleagues, and of strangers, each with an interesting and unfamiliar perspective to share.  The line-up was star studded with the leading experts in their field – such as Rachel Simmons on wellbeing and Gail Kelly on leadership.  Billie Jean King rounded off the conference in her own inimitable style.

The break out workshops were led by educators from an astonishing range of backgrounds.  Some topics were niche, such as gender-specific strategies for teaching geometry, while others had such mass appeal that, as in the case of Rachel Simmons’s talk, the organisers had to take down a wall to accommodate all the attendees.  What they (I should say ‘we’ as I co-presented a session on sustaining success beyond the school gate with my counterparts from Putney High and Wimbledon High) had in common was a passionate belief in the importance of girls’ schools to providing the best education for girls.

All of these ingredients played a part, I think, but it was only when I studied the programme in more detail that the full explanation dawned on me.  Among the seven keynotes and dozens of breakout sessions on offer, not one was devoted to A Level or GCSE reform, the quality (or otherwise) of public exam marking, value added stats, EBacc, school league tables or regulatory compliance.

The very fact that it was a global forum completely changed the perspectives and priorities.  It meant that every moment of this three-day event on girls’ education was devoted to listening, talking and thinking about girls and education.  It sounds obvious – but it isn’t.  The challenge of communicating with education professionals from 22 different nations and education systems imposed upon us the discipline of speaking to universal themes and concerns.

  • Gender parity in school, higher education, the workplace and public life
  • Female leadership
  • Balancing work and family life
  • Physical and mental health
  • The pressures of popular culture and social media

So, what did I take away?

Too much to summarise in a few sentences.  I learnt that the Australians are doing some interesting work on wellbeing and that we can learn from them.  I learnt that the Americans are streets ahead of us in their work on alumnae links and that the Icelanders are great role models for educating out gender stereotypes.

Above all, I learnt that thinking globally enriches my understanding of my task in the school that I lead, provoking me to lift my gaze from the straitened path of national concerns and emboldening me to act locally to ensure that the education the High School girls receive is not just first class but world class.


Time to take the plunge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Why Sat when you can swim, swing and sing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

The full article on Sats can be found at





Looking Beyond – The new Higher Education landscape


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

Seismic changes have radically changed the landscape:

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

– the introduction of university tuition fees

– A Level reforms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Further reading



International Women’s Day 2018

‘We have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling.’

In her speech conceding defeat in the US presidential election in 2016, Hillary Clinton reminded us that there are still many milestones for women to reach and cross on the road to full political equality. But the fact that she ran Donald Trump so close – winning more votes, in fact, than her rival – speaks to me of the winds of change blowing through Washington, Westminster and the world’s legislatures.

On International Women’s Day (yesterday), a month after celebrating the centenary of Votes for Women in the UK, it was timely to celebrate the progress made in that 100 years and remind ourselves of the lessons learnt in 150 years or more of struggle for true political equality between the sexes.

The latest UN stats show that around 23% of MPs worldwide are women. This may not sound too impressive but the fact that the percentage has roughly doubled in the last two decades gives cause for hope that growth will accelerate with the increased prevalence of role models.

The 208 women MPs in the House of Commons (a record high of 32%), for example.

Or the 106 women (20%) currently sitting in the US Congress.

Or the 18 female presidents or Prime Ministers (9%) holding office across the world at the moment.
For some, the pace of change is simply too slow and more radical action, such as positive discrimination, is needed. Jess Phillips MP, for example, has called for quotas of female representatives to be set for local councils. But the bitter legacy of affirmative action on race relations in the USA, all-too-evident in that country today, should give pause for thought when considering relying on artificial levers to crank up the rate of progress.

A cultural shift is a more powerful driver than a formal change to the rules of engagement. And there are encouraging signs of change. Until 2010, for example, the Houses of Parliament had a rifle range but no crèche. That situation is now reversed. Perhaps Jacinda Ardern’s announcement in January that she is preparing to give birth while serving as Prime Minister of New Zealand may encourage other women to see politics and pregnancy as compatible.

The years since Vote 100 have also shown the naiivety of thinking that women politicians per se make better decisions than men. From Nazi Germany’s Trude Mohr to Winnie Mandela via Madame Mao in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, there are plenty of examples of power corrupting women at the top. And more recently, it has been sobering to see that Dilma Rousseff of Brazil failed to transcend the corrupt culture of her country while Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s policy towards the Muslim minority in Myanmar has tarnished her reputation internationally.

Armchair critics have greater access than ever before to a public platform, through social media, and our challenge is to avoid falling under the spell of their siren voices. Anyone with a proper education in the art of politics knows that exercising power justly and wisely, especially in hard economic times, is even harder than gaining it in the first place. That is why political education is such a vital part of our modern curriculum, though it is often overlooked or marginalised.

The rise in interest in current affairs, in political engagement and in the pursuit of politics as an academic study among High School students has been one of the most exciting developments of my time in the School. Through debating, in-school activism and student journalism as well as in lessons, a true renaissance in political engagement is in play.

Never was this more apparent than on International Women’s Day itself. In Assembly, Femsock members introduced us to the pioneering young women who are inspiring them to go out and make a difference in the world, ranging from Rupi Kaur to Emma Gonzalez. The #PressforProgress pledge stand in the Foyer was a hive of activity, girls and staff proudly wore their purple, green and white and the School was buzzing with discussion and debate. The Junior School girls got into the act with their hand-made Vote 100 sashes and rosettes and a group of students from Y6 to Sixth Form were interviewed for Radio Northampton about their views, impressing the journalist with their knowledge and articulacy.

Barack Obama, himself a convention-busting politician, said ‘truth isn’t about who yells the loudest, but who has the right information.’ In the end, that hardest, highest glass ceiling will be broken, not by the blunt force of aggressive populism, nor by the gimcrack trickery of media manipulation but by the resonance at high frequency of many well-informed, truth-speaking voices.



Love, actually

As the retail frenzy in preparation for Valentine’s Day next week reaches a crescendo, it is time to ask a question that in schools perhaps we don’t ask often enough – how do we tell the truth about love?

Readers may be surprised to learn that, until now, education about relationships and sex (RSE) has not been compulsory in schools outside local authority control. The announcement by Justine Greening recently that this will change from September 2019 has sharpened debate about what exactly should be taught to young people about the R and S in RSE, and at what stage of their lives. Many column inches have been devoted to the question but I have yet to see any of them devote any serious attention to telling the truth about love. The nature and power of love – its joys and pains – are, it seems, generally confined to literature lessons and the outer margins of the humanities curriculum. (Indeed, as I reflect on it, history in school has little to say about love beyond the repercussions of Henry VIII’s crush on Anne Boleyn and the political embarrassment surrounding Edward VIII’s passion for Wallis Simpson. Hatred on the other hand…)

Now, this is odd, because one may fairly say that our understanding of love is one of the rare examples of a topic on which our ancient antecedents could knock us Moderns (or post-Moderns) into a cocked hat. Only consider, as the cultural historian Roman Krznaric has put it, that, while we have six different words (at least) for our daily cup of coffee (Americano, cappuccino, espresso, flat white, macchiato and mocha), we have only one word for love compared with the six (or more) variations in Ancient Greek.

Could it be that ‘our impoverished language of love’, which Krznaric likens to ‘the emotional equivalent of a mug of instant’, is at the root of many of the difficulties, from sexting to porn addiction, that our new-look RSE is supposed to address?

By failing to distinguish between eros, the sexual passion and desire we associate with falling in love, and ludus, the playful affection which can fuel flirtation between strangers, a frisson of excitement between dancers or banter between friends, for example, we may find ourselves in relational hot water very quickly. Understanding, too, that eros is likely, with time, to mellow into pragma, the deep mutual understanding (often mixed with patience with and tolerance of each other) which characterises successful long-standing relationships, may help us by tempering our expectations at the outset of a marriage, civil partnership or other open-ended commitment of the kind.

Recognising philia – the love that forms a golden thread through genuine friendships – is as necessary to us as the erotic or romantic love of a partner encourages us to pay more attention to cultivating and sustaining the friendships that bring us much joy and help in life rather than devoting all our energies to searching for The One. Finally, by grasping that there is a place in our moral universe for both agape, the selfless love which drops a pound in the beggar’s paper cup or pulls into the hard shoulder to let the ambulance speed by, and Philautia, the self-love that we would describe as a healthy level of self-esteem, we might avoid some of the traps of guilt and jealousy that plague the lives of many.

I suspect that the concept of ‘love, actually’ – as immortalised in the hit film of the same name – comes closest in our cultural lexicon to expressing the subtleties of love that were so much a part of everyday understanding for the Greeks. As the old song says, it is a ‘many-splendoured thing’ and I hope that, wherever you are on 14 February, you will find time in the day to celebrate and appreciate the many splendours of love, actually (agape, eros, ludus, philautia, philia and pragma) in your life.


R Krznaric, The Wonderbox (Exmouth, 2011)


Learning the new shorthand is a barrier to employability

For our fore-mothers, learning shorthand as part of a repertoire of secretarial skills was considered a vital attribute in preparing them for a world of work. Women with such skills had an advantage in many realms of the employment market.

The arrival of digital communications has rendered obsolete the conventional skills of shorthand writing. Why laboriously notate speech when you can record it and convert it into a written document at the touch of an icon? And, this done, endlessly reproduce it and publish it at will.

As with so many aspects of the digital revolution, however, we have replaced the challenges of scarcity with those of superfluity. So, the focus of difficulty has shifted away from the creation of documentation to its storage and security. The quest to locate scarce information, locked away in paper archives, has given way to the search for worthwhile information amid clouds of words free floating in the ether and all competing for our limited attention.

And what if that search becomes not an active process but a passive one –as we feed on the information we are given rather than actively seeking what we need?

Information curated for us as a result of algorithmic calculations about us as consumers. Information channelled to fit our political bias and preferences.

The age of shorthand writing has, in other words, given way to an age of shorthand reading. And, shorthand reading brings with it the ever-present risk of shorthand thinking.

We say that we know something from scanning a few characters about it on Twitter or an online post. Pictures are used allusively to add narrative force, apparently making redundant the need for actual words to define and refine the meaning or interpretation of the headline.
This is not new. In an age before mass education, the handbills of the print era summarised stories, sensationalised them and offered opinions in a shorthand form, without the need for much text at all, if any.

It is worrying. Just as the handbills of history were linked to outbursts of mass hysteria and the spread of damaging fantasies, such as the witch-crazes of the 17th century, so the digital feeds of today are linked to the rampant circulation of fake news. The widespread credence given to the story that a dead gorilla received 11,000 votes in the last US presidential election illustrates the point.

We all concur but what is harder to agree upon is what to do about it. This is an urgent question for schools, which are, after all, the training grounds for the leaders as well as voters and employees of tomorrow. The OECD recently called upon schools to do more to teach young people how to spot fake news. Readers who believe that gorillas can stand for election may end up voting a gorilla into the White House.

There are risks here of a knee-jerk reaction. Above all, this cannot simply become a campaign against the internet – or phones. Superficial reading is, after all, not necessarily purely an effect of material being in a digital form, though the size of the phone or tablet screen does lend itself to bite-sized consumption. Nor does a digital format always lead to skimmed reading. Let’s not forget that digitisation has actually made it much easier to read ‘War and Peace’ in bed.
It is much more about fostering an attitude of mind.

Courses such as the GDST’s Career Start Workshop on ‘Understanding the Media’ – which our Sixth Form students took last term and which unpacked the layers of the dead gorilla story as a case study – lay a good foundation stone. Promoting in-depth reading is also vital. At a time when many schools are doing away with their libraries and the county’s public libraries are facing closure, I see great value in maintaining a conventional library, blending books and digital materials, at the heart of the High School (both literally and metaphorically).

But nothing less than a culture shift, in opposition to the prevailing currents pushing students towards shorthand reading and thinking, is needed. I end with a suggestion for a starting point: that we accept as a first principle that we cannot claim to have an understanding of a topic from a standing start unless we have spent at least 15 minutes reading about it. I believe that ‘longhand’ reading and the thinking habits that go with it are the key skills for employability; the challenge of developing them is one that schools neglect at their peril.


Karen Kimura of GDST has kindly shared details of her Career Start Workshop and the following sources

Dr Stringer, Head Teacher