School Blog


Celebrating achievement in an unpredictable world

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence” –  Helen Keller

 Our annual Events and Achievements celebration, held earlier this month, is without question the single event that best sums up Northampton High School’s ethos and philosophy for me. This is partly because it is designed to fulfil that role, although my perception of why it performs the function so well is broader and more personal. As the event draws nearer each year I am filled with a sense of apprehension and pride, because I know that I will be called on again to list the glittering achievements of so many students. A privilege and also a serious responsibility in anyone’s book. The achievements are extensive and varied, from academic awards to ballet grades, but perhaps the most notable are those we celebrate with the students who left us in the summer and are now busy starting the next stage of their journeys through life. Into higher education, apprenticeships or travelling, but above all into adulthood.

What does our awards ceremony mean then, if it is adequately to do justice to the young people whose lives have been channelled through the school? This is not an easy question to answer, because the breadth of achievement in schools is arguably only matched by the range of human endeavour in the world at large. However, I think that Helen Keller’s words go some way to explaining why this particular event means so much to the students receiving prizes, as well as to the wider community of the school.

Some might say that young people in the UK have little reason to be optimistic. Looking towards an erratic and changing workplace, students are naturally concerned – more so now perhaps than ever before. The vast majority of people under 25 did not want to leave the EU, with over 80% saying they would vote to remain in any future referendum, according to research by Survation. Their freedom to find work has without doubt been affected by Brexit, indeed, according to Ernst & Young, 34% of companies monitored have ‘publicly confirmed [..] to move some of their operations and/or staff from the UK to Europe’.

Yet the catalogue of destinations and courses our Sixth Form leavers have chosen, and the sheer range of prizes given for academic, musical and artistic achievement, tell another story altogether. One of optimism of the purest kind. There is opportunity for those who know how to find it and success will increasingly be defined by how well people are able to match their skills to the changing needs of employers. Striving for new and better achievements throughout life at school feeds the fire of ambition, encouraging flexibility and developing pools of resilience when things do not quite go as planned.

Success at Northampton High is not simply defined by elite performances. We reward pupils for serious academic progress as well as those who have achieved the highest results. Furthermore, our prizes for contributions to school life and to the wider community are given the same priority as those for students winning gold awards in national scientific and mathematical competitions. Beyond the actual awards in our ceremony, however, it was the recent Sixth Form Academic Scholarship that confirmed to me the confidence inherent in our students. This year well over half of Upper Fifth students entered the competition, in spite of the limited number of awards on offer. This shows huge self-belief and the realisation that there is much to be gained from the experience itself – an opportunity to give of one’s best and to learn about responding to pressure.

Helen Keller was right. Through hope, confidence and optimism, our students consistently come up with amazing achievements, no matter how uncertain our world may be.

Mr Rickman, Deputy Head Academic


Autumn reading at Northampton High School

With the temperature dropping and the leaves beginning to turn autumn has now well and truly arrived. The glorious summer we enjoyed is now an increasingly distant memory along with summer reading, which always seems to have a lighter feel. One of the good things about the change in season are the opportunities to curl up with a good book. Our new U3s have been in school for over a month now and are well into their reading lessons with Mr Viesel; the year 6 girls who visit the Senior Library on a weekly basis with Mrs Fordham are also very much enjoying their reading. One factor the girls mostly have in common is their love of the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens, we all enjoy pouncing on the next book in a favourite series. Part of our job in school is to encourage the girls to read a variety of authors (feeding directly into achievement at GCSE) and the publishing world offers a fantastic range of choices.

Helena Duggan’s first book A Place Called Perfect is a favourite with the year 6 and 7 girls at the moment. A mixture of fantasy and adventure, the story revolves around Violet who moves to Perfect with her parents but soon begins to hate living there. It’s too clean, the people are too friendly and too nice. Violet begins to question things. Why does everyone have to wear special glasses to stop them going blind? What are the strange noises in the night? And why is Mum acting so weird? The second title in the series, The Trouble with Perfect, has recently been published.

Ross Welford, TV producer turned author, has become very popular in school over a short period of time. His latest title The 1,000 Year Old Boy is the story of Alfie Monk, who can remember the last Viking invasion, though of course no one would believe him if they knew. This is not a story about wanting to live forever but about a boy who would like to stop, which means finding a way to make sure he will eventually die…Time Travelling with a Hamster (about the dangers of time travel; ideal for Dr Who fans) and What Not to Do If You turn Invisible (being invisible sounds fun, but only if you can become visible again) are also popular titles in the Library, well-written and very entertaining!

Onjali Q. Raúf is a new author to the Library at NHS, founder and CEO of Making Herstory, an organization which works to end the abuse and trafficking of women and girls.

Told with heart and humour, The Boy at the Back of the Class is a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis, highlighting the importance of friendship and kindness in a world that doesn’t always make sense.Told with heart and humour, The Boy at the Back of the Class is a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis, highlighting the importance of friendship and kindness in a world that doesn’t always make sense.Told with heart and humour, The Boy at the Back of the Class is a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis, highlighting the importance of friendship and kindness in a world that doesn’t always make sense.Told with heart and humour, The Boy at the Back of the Class is a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis, highlighting the importance of friendship and kindness in a world that doesn’t always make sense.Told with heart and humour, The Boy at the Back of the Class is a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis, highlighting the importance of friendship and kindness in a world that doesn’t always make sense.

There used to be an empty chair at the back of my class, but now a new boy called Ahmet is sitting in it. He’s nine years old (just like me), but he’s very strange. He never talks and never smiles and doesn’t like sweets – not even lemon sherbets, which are my favourite! But then I learned the truth: Ahmet really isn’t very strange at all. He’s a refugee who’s run away from a War. A real one. With bombs and fires and bullies that hurt people. And the more I find out about him, the more I want to help. That’s where my best friends Josie, Michael and Tom come in. Because you see, together we’ve come up with a plan.”

Recently published and sure to be under many a Christmas tree is The Restless Girls written by Jessie Burton and beautifully illustrated by Angela Barrett. Based on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” by the Brothers Grimm, The Restless Girls has been updated for the 21st century. When their mother, the Queen dies, the princesses’ father decides to keep his daughters safe at all costs, a price which includes their lessons, possessions and most importantly their freedom. The eldest daughter, Princess Frida, has a strong will and imagination; together with her sisters they fight for the right to live! There used to be an empty chair at the back of my class, but now a new boy called Ahmet is sitting in it.

Another potential Christmas stocking filler is Doctor Who: The women who lived. Meet the women who run the Whoniverse.

“From Sarah Jane Smith to Bill Potts, from Susan Foreman to the Thirteenth Doctor, women are the beating heart of Doctor Who. Whether they’re facing down Daleks or thwarting a Nestene invasion, these women don’t hang around waiting to be rescued – they roll their sleeves up and get stuck in.

Scientists and soldiers, queens and canteen workers, they don’t let anything hold them back. Featuring historical women such as Agatha Christie and Queen Victoria alongside fan favourites like Rose Tyler and Missy, The Women Who Lived tells the stories of women throughout space and time.

Beautifully illustrated by a team of all-female artists, this collection of inspirational tales celebrates the power of women to change the universe.”

And finally, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Set during the American Civil War, the story of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, has an enduring popularity. Poor from a monetary point of view the sisters have lives rich in love, colour and kindness whilst learning from their mistakes and disappointments. The perfect autumn read.

He’s nine years old (just like me), but he’s very strange. He never talks and never smiles and doesn’t like sweets – not even lemon sherbets, which are my favourite!

But then I learned the truth: Ahmet really isn’t very strange at all. He’s a refugee who’s run away from a War. A real one. With bombs and fires and bullies that hurt people. And the more I find out about him, the more I want to help.

That’s where my best friends Josie, Michael and Tom come in. Because you see, together we’ve come up with a plan. . .

With beautiful illustrations by Pippa Curnick

Told with heart and humour, The Boy at the Back of the Class is a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis, highlighting the importance of friendship and kindness in a world that doesn’t always make sense.

There used to be an empty chair at the back of my class, but now a new boy called Ahmet is sitting in it.

He’s nine years old (just like me), but he’s very strange. He never talks and never smiles and doesn’t like sweets – not even lemon sherbets, which are my favourite!

But then I learned the truth: Ahmet really isn’t very strange at all. He’s a refugee who’s run away from a War. A real one. With bombs and fires and bullies that hurt people. And the more I find out about him, the more I want to help.

That’s where my best friends Josie, Michael and Tom come in. Because you see, together we’ve come up with a plan. . .

With beautiful illustrations by Pippa Curnick

Then Violet starts to question other things… Like why does everyone have to wear special glasses to stop them going blind? What are the strange noises in the night and why is Mum acting so weird

Miss Buxton, School Librarian


Are the arts in trouble? Not if we take a 360 degree perspective

The apparent decline of the arts subjects in many schools across the country appears to be an unintended consequence of the coalition government’s decision to champion a more overtly academic regime, with its related reforms to the exam system. With hindsight, this decline does not seem so remarkable, perhaps, particularly in the light of the dissolution of local authority control in favour of independent academies and multi-academy trusts, and the consequent loss of long-established networks of advisory specialists.  Furthermore, according to a new report funded by the Nuffield Foundation, faced with the inspectorate’s (Ofsted’s) focus on national test outcomes as the key measure of school success, headteachers have been forced to react restrictively to avoid the disastrous impacts that failure on these metrics can have on pupil and staff recruitment, as well as the wider reputation of their schools (1).

The narrowing of the curriculum that has been the result of all this has only relatively recently been recognised as a potentially damaging trend in economic terms. The creative industries contribute in excess of £90bn to our GDP and account for 1 in 11 jobs. These numbers have been rising at a rate faster than all other parts of the economy in the recent past, reliant to a large extent on immigrant talent attracted to our creative hubs. However, the danger that a large gap in the supply chain for future employees in these industries might emerge following Brexit is now very real, according to John Kampfner, CEO of the Creative industries federation, with ‘17 defined skills shortages in areas such as animation and special effects’ (2).

As with other independent schools, at Northampton High we have the freedom to consider developments in national education policy through the lens of our own philosophy and educational beliefs. This gives us the option of only gathering up innovations when we think they are beneficial and channeling our approach to structural changes, so that we can focus on the learning experience and help our students to find their own paths without having to compromise the breadth and balance of the choices they can make. We know that this leads to our Sixth Form students leaving us to go on to a striking range of futures beyond the purely academic or scientific, large numbers of them specifically arts related and many more very closely allied.

As befits our aim of helping our pupils come to a 360-degree understanding of what drives and inspires them, we place the arts squarely at the heart of school life and we encourage them to weave a path in and around the more traditionally academic subjects. Hence art, literature, film, music, food, textiles, dance and drama all feature in the day to day lives of the girls, both in curriculum time and in the wider life of the school. To mention but a very few examples from the last 12 months, this has been seen in our work with both an artist and director in residence, a link with the National Leather Collection, national awards for film, textiles and food collaborations with junior school girls, a dance and gymnastics celebration evening and extensive partnerships with humanities, science, maths and arts subjects across the school, including a STEAM extravaganza last month.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention our stunning annual Arts Festival which this year was bigger than ever, in honour of our 140th birthday, including 3 invited authors to suit all age groups (and parents!), a recital of music performances from girls aged 7 to 18 and arguably the most technically accomplished musical ever produced by the school, the Sound of Music. To finish off a fabulous year for the arts, we are refurbishing our Music department over the summer with the theme of female icons in music, practice rooms no longer being known as room 1 or 2, but by the name of an artist or composer, such as Beyoncé or Clara Schumann.

Needless to say, while the arts are flourishing at Northampton High and at other schools like ours, we cannot do it all. I sincerely hope that the wake-up call to government does not come too late to avoid our national influence in this vital sector being reduced beyond all recognition.

  1. Toby Greany and Rob Higham, UCL Institute of Education. Hierarchy, Markets, and Networks: analysing the self-improving school-led system agenda in England and the implications for leadership, Nuffield Foundation and IOE Press, July 2018
  2. John Kampfner. Creative industries are key to UK economy, the Guardian, January 2017

Mr Rickman, Deputy Head Academic


View Point – Think About Politics for the Moment

Think about Politics for a moment. A Conservative government struggling. Divisions in cabinet as plots swirl around Westminster and knives are sharpened as rivals jostle to satisfy long held ambitions. The issue of Europe is high on the agenda causing exasperation and confusion. The economy is still unable to generate anything remotely like a feel-good factor. We have the resignation of cabinet ministers for falling short of the required standards of professional, parliamentary behaviour. There are concerns amongst the general public that the NHS is on the verge of breakdown and that the privatisation of the public sector is serving to enrich the few and leaving the many to pick up the pieces. There exists a resurgent opposition with a populist leader allegedly more in tune with the common man and woman. There is a tangible sense of despair; a concern that society isn’t working and that something has to change.

Were you thinking of 2018 and the recent political scene? Did you picture Theresa May, Carillion, the NHS winter crisis and Brexit? Did you recognise Boris and Gove and think about what might have been on Damian Green’s internet browser? Were you running through fields of wheat or at Glastonbury with Jeremy Corbyn? Or were you thinking of food banks or whether you should have left some spare change with that homeless man or at least gone and bought the poor bloke a coffee from the Starbucks across the street?

Or were you back in the 1990’s? Was it an ailing John Major that you witnessed, shovelling peas around his plate on Spitting Image and getting greyer and greyer by the episode? Did you see a country still debating our future in Europe, contemplating the surrender of the pound and noting the arrival of UKIP on the political landscape? Did you recall Neil Hamilton, Cash for Questions, Jeffrey Archer heading to prison or David Mellor and his Chelsea shirt? There was the re-emergence of the Labour Party under Messrs Smith, Blair and Brown and the prospect of the railways, the Post Office and even the NHS being sold off to the highest bidder at some point in the future. Then there was Black Wednesday in 1992, the Bulger murder in 1993 and the unnerving feeling that things were just not how they were supposed to be.

Perhaps, some of you were back in the early 1960’s with Harold Macmillan and the Etonian gentlemen clique trying desperately to run a nation that was socially leaving the familiar world of austerity and deference behind? The stop-start of the economy and the rejection of De Gaulle as we begged to join the European Economic Community and the Night of the Long Knives where the embattled PM sacked a third of his cabinet in a matter of hours including many of his closest friends and colleagues. A much younger Harold Wilson offering a revived Britain in the white heat of the technological revolution to the accompaniment of a society falling in love with the Fab Four, reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover and entertaining the end of capital punishment and decriminalising homosexuality. Did you think of Profumo and Christine Keeler and that picture of her posing on that chair? Did you experience that feeling again that we could do better and needed something different?

We could go back further but we’ll stop there. We’ll stick to the period of Modern British History that our Sixth Form girls study at A Level. History and Politics runs in cycles, almost as if there are simple routines that are repeated and played out on a nationwide macro scale every couple of decades or so. That should not be surprising; from the moment we wake up, indeed from the moment we are born, life becomes a repetition of certain rules, practices and regimes. It would be ridiculous and somewhat naive for us to think that History and Politics do not tread a similar path. Some would say that through History we learn about the past but I’d like to think it also teaches us about the future.

“They say the next big thing is here, that the revolution’s near, but to me it seems quite clear that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”
– Shirley Bassey (with Propellerheads)
“Maybe history wouldn’t have to repeat itself if we listened once in a while.”
– Wynne McLaughlin

Andy Donaldson, Head of History


Let the debate begin!


We are constantly warned of the dangers of The Digital Age from its ability to limit our powers of reasoning to being a destroyer of good health, both mental and physical. Perhaps most worryingly, employers from all sectors warn of the damage The Digital Age has already caused to the way in which we communicate. That is why oracy, the skill that enables us to be confident, fluent public speakers through opportunities such as debating, discussions and engaging in dialogue, is so vital. Learning to use the spoken language are as important as learning skills in literacy and numeracy.

Well, I am here to report good news! The skills needed for effective oracy are alive and well for girls at Northampton High School and in the wider community we have reached out to during our Outreach Debating Project.

In partnership with Noisy Classroom, an organisation dedicated to ensuring the skills of effective oracy are kept at the forefront of educators’ minds, we have successfully worked with Year 5 and Year 6 girls from three local primary schools to explore oracy through debating.

These workshops culminated in a final day of debating where all schools taking part proved, without question, that the skills of oracy are indeed alive and well. Perhaps even more importantly, the day also further emphasised just how important that we, as the guardians of future generations, must continue to give our girls the opportunity to develop this invaluable life skill whether it be at the dinner table at home or in the classroom!

Let the debate begin!

Karen Fordham

Year 6 teacher and Humanities Coordinator


Transferable Research Skills: skills for life!

Universities have long complained about the lack of academic independence which many of their new under graduates exhibit. Research into this area has found that many new students struggle to write essays, carry out independent research and build arguments; a lack of skills which leaves them ill equipped for the rigorous academic approach required in higher education.

Many universities have responded by providing study skill sessions for their new under graduates. The University of Edinburgh for example provides modules on ‘Taking effective notes’, ‘Preparing bibliographies and avoiding plagiarism’ and ‘Using the Library and understanding your reading list’.

At the High School, we take a proactive approach to study and research skills, equipping our students with the skills to make their transition into higher education a smooth one.

Library orientation and research skills such as planning, note taking, bibliographies and plagiarism are embedded within the Humanities curriculum, through History in Year 7 and Geography in Year 8. In Year 8 we are particularly ambitious for the girls, teaching the use of citation, a challenge which most of the girls rise to with aplomb.

In Autumn 2017, Ms Heimfeld and I have introduced a new initiative based around the Reith Lectures. Girls in U4 have the opportunity to practice the skills learnt through Humanities Transferable Skills and linked to the marking criteria of the EPQ, whereby we are interested in the process of completing a piece of work, not just the end product. The aim is for the girls to finish their essay on their chosen subject by Easter, presenting their findings in the summer term.

The EPQ (Extended Project Qualification, worth half an A Level at A2) is one of the elective choices on offer to the girls as they move into the Sixth Form. A response by the examination board AQA to university complaints about student lack of research skills, it allows candidates to choose a topic they wish to explore which isn’t covered in any of their exam subjects or to take a subject of interest beyond the curriculum. Similar to writing a dissertation at university, in that the end product must come out of academic research, but very different in that candidates are credited for the learning journey, not just the end product. The end product may also be an artefact, which can be pretty much anything, from making a film to designing and building a hover board!

Candidates have the opportunity to learn how to work at university level whilst having support within the school environment; the EPQ is proving a popular qualification with our girls.

“I would say that the EPQ has helped me gain skills that will be essential to life at university – and who wouldn’t love those lower university offers! An EPQ is a great asset to your personal statement and makes you stand out at interview”.

Lara Pieczka; Lara completed an artefact for November 2017 submission – The Queen’s Codebreaking Catastrophe: A code breaking workshop for Key Stage 2 pupils.

“The EPQ was an inspirational process for me, the freedom to think, away from the curriculum, allowed me to realise my true interests; it was a deciding factor in my choice of degree for university, clarifying the situation hugely”.

Julia Wardley-Kershaw; Julia completed an artefact for November 2017 submission – The Violet Hue: an exploration into European cinematography.

We look forward to this year’s girls receiving their results in January as the new 6.1 girls begin their EPQ journey.

Mrs Buxton, School Librarian


The Sporting Gender Gap

According to the World Economic Forum, it could take 217 years for the disparities in pay and employment opportunities for males and females to end. In sport, despite the successes of our female sports women on the international stage, there is still a veritable gulf between men’s and women’s sport in a range of areas. In the context of professional football, the highest paid English female footballer Steph Houghton earns £65,000 a year whilst Wayne Rooney earns £300,000 a week. Will this be a gap in professional sport that could ever be closed, or even should it be?

We hear comments such as ‘women’s sport isn’t as exciting to watch’ or ‘women aren’t strong enough’, or the particular favourite ‘sporty women are aggressive or unfeminine’. All of these myths have been dispelled many times, and time over elite sports women have shown that female sport is no worse than men’s sport – it is just different. Women’s sport often involves higher levels of skill, as the level of power is lower. Advertising campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ have gone a long way to diminish the gender stereotypes associated with sporty women, highlight the opportunities for all females and the diversity of the sporting offer nationally. Why is it, then, that the press is still full of articles such as ‘Tubby and Terrified – How girls’ fear puts them off PE’ or ‘Girls lose out in the PE Gender Gap’? From what has been said, girls are not losing out, but coaches, schools, staff and parents have to adapt to the changing mind set of female athletes. This is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Girls are struggling with a lack of high profile female role models.

This movement started last summer when 1.1 million people tuned into Sky Sports to watch hosts England win the ICC 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup. This was three times more viewers than the number watching the final day of England men’s victory over South Africa in the first Test of the series at Lord’s. For the first time, Lord’s cricket ground was a sell-out for Women’s Cricket World Cup Final; 50% of World Cup ticket buyers were women. We have started to reduce the gender gap, but this is only in one sport. Traditional ‘female sports’, such as netball, are increasingly receiving more television coverage, but the levels are still significantly lower than for their male counterparts.

So how do we reduce this Sporting Gender Gap significantly faster than the gender pay gap is closing? Females in sport still need to be females. Sports clothing is now much more fashionable – it is no longer the wrap around skirt and gym pants. Girls need to be provided, as standard, with girls’ fit sports clothing, in a range of styles and cuts. We need more high profile female role models, and alongside this more mums at home exercising, encouraging their daughters to exercise and show that this is the norm. We need PE departments to offer varied and diverse programmes of study and activities to engage and inspire all. We need to highlight player pathways and opportunities that sports can open up.

None of this is new or revolutionary. Many male coaches have found success coaching female teams, and have discovered that the coaching style required can much more complex. Mark Robinson, Head Coach of the England Women’s Cricket team, said ‘generally nothing they do is ever good enough [in the women’s minds]; it’s all about giving them belief’. He has had to change his delivery style to reach all players and help them to achieve their potential.

Sport needs to become trendy. In 2017, it is the accepted norm for females to participate in sport and want to show their competitive side. We need to highlight what is good in female sport and not focus on the negatives. Yes, there is a difference between men and women’s sport, but does that matter? Sport is reinventing itself in so many areas; look to tennis and Wimbledon. The prize money on offer now shows promise that sport can break down the Gender Gap, but that this is still a work in progress.

Mrs Hackett


Confidence Tricks

Confidence is a highly desirable attribute, in life and in learning. The magnetic illumination we sense around people with confidence is almost physical, while the feeling of being confident is exhilarating and empowering; an unstoppable force where there are no immovable objects.

Gaining or maintaining confidence is the tricky part of course. Whether it be a nagging inner voice which tells us we are not good enough, or past mistakes that have scarred us, or others’ judgements voiced without thought for the consequent impact, or even well intentioned praise which is twisted around, it can be difficult to gain the magnetism of a virtuous cycle.

Self-awareness can be double-edged, but critical in sustaining a resilient sense of our own identity and in valuing our own attributes, as well as those of others around us. Filtering the pseudo-perfect and finding the grittier reality allows us to gain traction and control.

It can seem murky and lonely, like staring up a darkened cliff-face from a seeming abyss, when the familiar crumbles or change swifts in with rug-pulling challenges, scattering our beliefs like iron filings. At such times it is understandable that we might hide, avoid, fall silent, excuse, flee, lash out; but in order to climb back into the light and re-forge our beliefs, we must take a risk, take on the challenge, find or re-polarise our magnets: our sense of self.

I am confident. I say it and therefore I am. My inner voice is very nice to me; it didn’t use to be, so I sacked it years ago and hired one of my own choosing. I am in no way remotely perfect, yet experience has taught me what I can achieve when I set my mind to it.

How startling it was then, ten months ago, when I confidently sat down one Sunday morning in January to write model reading answers for the new English Language GCSE. I had marked my Upper Fifth’s papers, had seen and understood the mark scheme, had had time to let the source material sink in. I had one hour, a pen and paper. I had my experience and my confidence, as a student but also as a teacher. There were four questions, with 40 marks distributed unevenly towards the latter questions. I expected almost full marks.

As time ticked inexorably on, I began to realise that I had seriously misjudged things. Each question seemed to require far longer than I could afford to give it, yet my experience told me I had to stay calm and see each point through properly, otherwise it would be wasted. At every pause there came a fresh wave of rising panic, a rush of blood, a prickling of the skin, a sense of things unravelling. Not since an A Level Biology examination some 21 years ago had I expected so much and delivered so little. I was being harsh on myself of course, but I had effectively failed; I had only answered three questions in over an hour and needed at least 25 minutes more for question 4. My ambition, my confidence, my sense of self were being threatened.

I would not accept it.

This was not a real examination. I could re-write my answers, learn, adapt, cut back, speed up. I had a coffee break and started again. 75 minutes later I had something like I had expected the first time around, with the benefit of having learned from a mistake. I shared the experience with my Upper Fifth. I think they appreciated the honesty. My message to them was to take confidence that we all learn to adapt, that with practise comes improvement and to repeat my advice that mocks are so valuable as long as you give it everything you have at that point.

It has been said that we learn best by teaching, something I tend to agree with. I decided to take it a step further: we learn best when there is motivation. For me that motivation involved a risk, one which would sharpen my own learning and therefore my teaching and consequently my students’ learning. I entered myself for the actual public examinations in June.

I was called “a brave man.” If I was expected to gain the highest grade, what was there other than the risk of failure? To me, it was a principle: if I expected my students to do it, and yet I was not confident that I could do it myself, I needed to regain that confidence. With greater risk came greater motivation and from that the ‘confidence trick’. I believed I could do it, I worked towards it, I practised. I sat the examinations in real conditions and experienced again all those sensations felt by teenagers across the country. I walked out knowing I had done my best, had stuck at it when the going had got tough, had stayed calm and strategic.

Regardless of any outcome, I was proud of myself because I had not hidden, but had played my trick and forged ahead, feeling the dynamism energise me as I did so. 21 years ago I entered an examination expecting to gain the highest grade, having worked for it, and the wheels came off. 6 months later I re-sat the paper, dealt with the pressure and gained the grade I wanted. That was the start of my belief that I could do anything if I applied myself to it; my ‘confidence trick’. 21 years later I have revitalised that trick. It would be easy to make light of what I did, or to dismiss it, but that would be to rob me of my confidence, to doubt, to criticise, to put obstacles in front of something so hard won and so easily lost: confidence.

I often talk about confidence with students and parents and it is something I seek to nurture. Our school is a brilliant environment, where the girls really do grow visibly in confidence over the years, albeit not without bumps along the road. All I really want is for our students to be confident enough to dare to be the best them they can be on any given day.

So, look out for opportunities to build confidence, be kind to yourselves and each-other, feel able to take some risks and become unstoppable forces.

Mr Williams


Learning spaces

As we finish preparations to allow younger girls from age 2 to experience Northampton High School it has sparked thoughts of what makes the best environment for the perfect learning experience, and do the requirements change with different ages? It is probably best to start by thinking about two prime ingredients in all aspects of education, namely safety and enjoyment. A safe learning space for a 2 year old is very similar to that of older nursery age girls. We believe that an open plan space which enables girls to learn routines and rules whilst also making decisions for themselves is important. All nursery aged children should feel that they have space to move around and that their area is full of a wide range of learning and playing options, as well as space to be alone, to be quiet and to watch the goings on of others.

Girls under 3 do need to have a higher level of adult supervision and support whilst learning to be independent but the requirements of space remain the same. Happiness comes through from our environment but also the types of activities which should be stimulating and challenging, ensuring that well-rounded progress is made. Nursery age girls most definitely require a different experience to boys of the same age. Girls crave structure and routines, where boundaries are clear and expectations high. I am frequently asked about the suitability of girls only at the nursery age and can answer the question simply by giving a tour. Seeing the learning, both direct and indirect, in our setting along with the standards of behaviour and positive friendships is often sufficient to answer the question for me.

With each year that passes there are subtle changes required to create the best learning space. Role play areas can become more adventurous and allow interaction which is at an age appropriate level. Right now, our Reception girls are able to experiment with light in their own dark room and have a space full of reflective surfaces to create reflections and patterns. Outdoor spaces are vital in the daily routines of children at school and they will gradually need more freedom to create their own games and to turn the space into an area for whatever activity is currently popular. We use our outdoor areas for growing and girls enjoy learning to plant, water, weed and feed; instilling in them the need to be responsible and reliable, or else the plants will wither.

Vegetation in the classroom is an idea that we are currently investigating in the light of a GDST research project into CO2 levels and classroom productivity. Some of my favourite classrooms as a child were the ones with huge pot plants that generated interesting smells and shadows. They also help to replenish the air with oxygen, an ingredient which can often be taken for granted in the classroom. We are preparing to install some CO2 monitors in our classrooms to monitor the levels and make sure that a window is opened whenever we reach the cut-off and girls begin to lose their focus. I am sure we will also see classes popping outside for a quick-fire exercise session to reinvigorate and boost those O2 levels in preparation for more hard work.

Many of our girls would argue that the perfect learning environment is actually in our Forest School, and I find it hard to disagree. I am always amazed by the work that takes place ‘at the end of the field’, across the full range of curriculum areas. The elements never seem to get in the way as the tarpaulin shelter is rapidly put up. We hope to make this an even more comfortable space when the clouds darken by installing a permanent shelter to go with the composting toilet!

On reflection, I don’t know that anyone can tell you what makes the perfect learning space but there are certainly guiding principles to follow. Our school building may be 25 years old but it has withstood the test of time and continues to provide a wonderful place for girls to learn and play.

Mr Ross Urquhart, Head of Junior School