Heads Blog Archive | Portsmouth High School

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The controversy over an all-male University Challenge team shows female equality is still some way off

There was much reported in the media about the absence of women team members in a recent episode of University Challenge – even though St Hugh’s, one of the competing teams, had been established as an all girls’ college in 1886.

It was around this time in 1882 that the school of which I am headmistress, Portsmouth High School, was founded as part of what is now the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) during the rise of the feminist movement sweeping through education.

Our scholars’ board from those early days records the number of bright young women who went on to attend prestigious institutions for their higher education although at that time they were not allowed to matriculate. Women graduates were not recognised by Oxford University until 1920 and by Cambridge University much later in 1947.

We have in our archives a photograph of a young woman dated 1898 who, according to school records, attained top marks, beating all of the men studying alongside her in her mathematics tripos.

But her attainment passed almost unrecognised. Today, Cambridge University retains three all-women colleges whereas the last single-sex college at Oxford University, St Hilda’s, started to admit men in 2008.

Just like the pioneering women who founded the GDST, the women who established those early colleges were revolutionary reformers who were determined that education would bring about the emancipation of women. On the announcement of the establishment of my school, one founding alderman remarked that it was good that a school for girls was to be built as women needed to do more than drape prettily around the drawing room.

In the social media backlash that followed this particular episode of University Challenge, it was men that screamed “GET OVER IT” – written quite literally in capital letters – presumably to indicate they were shouting their dismay.

The “confidence gap” is likely to be at the root of the gender imbalance in University Challenge teams. Women are far less willing to put themselves forward for this type of situation, and I do not think it helpful that Jeremy Paxman dismisses the issues on the grounds that men like quizzing more than women in a way that men like football.

Whilst I’m delighted to see the recent focus on women’s football, if girls grow up in an environment that promotes soccer as something boys do, then it isn’t surprising women don’t always have an interest in the game.

Lack of confidence in women explains the old adage that women won’t put themselves forward for a job if they don’t match exactly the criteria whereas men will consider themselves the ideal candidate if they have accomplished only half of the job description.

One of my extremely capable young alumna said she was often asked, when at a leading university, how she had the courage to ask a question of an eminent professor in a packed lecture theatre. Her reply was simply that, as she attended a girls’ school, she never thought she couldn’t.

While women are in greater number at Oxford University, they are still less likely to receive first class degrees, with the greatest gender disparity in STEM subjects. There is much evidence to show that girls educated in an all-female environment never view subjects or co-curricular activities as male or female.

In a single-sex school we never suffer a gender imbalance in anything we undertake: girls play football and study science and they also enjoy cooking, netball and the arts. They are not put off any area of study and they have recognisable role models amongst the staff.

Our female physics teacher entertained the older girls on Monday with a lecture, as part of our academic lecture series, on space weather and no one thought it unusual that her doctorate specialism is in astrophysics.

Beyond the classroom, society does not help women gain the confidence they need to be on equal terms with men. In some industries, the pay differential between female and male colleagues employed in similar roles is shocking. This is generally not a problem faced in teaching. However, many former all-boys schools which turned co-educational decades ago still have woefully poor numbers of females occupying management positions. Even if they have a token woman on their senior leadership team, that woman is often the pastoral deputy or holds an administrative role such as director of marketing.

In my single-sex school there are almost equal numbers of men and women holding key senior roles. Teaching is a profession that attracts more women than men and therefore proportionally it is even more depressing that fewer women hold senior positions. As a married mother of three young adults, I understand that childcare and part time work may still fall to the majority of women and therefore it is argued that women are not in a position to aspire to leadership positions. This is a poor excuse. The workplace should accommodate parents, whatever their gender, and look to encourage ambition in female and male employees in equal measure.

I attended a single-sex grammar school and I do believe my schooling helped me to become a confident woman. My role models in school were strong independent women who gave their students the intellectual freedom to think they could achieve endless possibilities. My sister, who is now a medical doctor, was quiet and studious and despite our different personalities and character, our school encouraged us to have ambition and develop our curiosity for learning.

My children, two sons and one daughter, attended single-sex institutions and school was as supportive and academically challenging an environment for my sons as it was for my daughter. I do not hold with the belief that boys need girls to civilise them at school because I am not sure what that says about the boys or the behavioural policy in those institutions. What must be the experience for the girls if their prime role is to quieten the boys? My sons were able to develop their very different personalities – one is an army doctor and the other a reception class teacher – in an environment that understood their individual learning needs.

This week at Portsmouth High School, we hold our senior school annual parents’ association quiz and there will be no shortage of female members in the teams. Indeed as I set the questions, the quiz master is a woman; but I don’t think Jeremy Paxman need fear for his presenting job just yet. However, having attended an all girls’ school I know never to rule anything out.


This article, written by Jane Prescott, was published in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 17 October 2017

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The heart of the school remains strong after 135 years

I am the twelfth headmistress of Portsmouth High School in its 135 years. I feel proud to be added to the list of my predecessors as headmistress of this school with its long history and tradition.

I have met three of the most recent Heads and Miss Plowman, now Mrs Scofield, invites the sixth form to her home every year. She entertains them with stories of her experience teaching in a school in India and her days in Portsmouth. I sometimes wish it was possible to meet those who were the school’s early founders and whilst buildings have modified to keep up with modern education I am sure we would find much that is still the heart of the school such as its ethos and character. As we approach open day it gives me an opportunity to reflect on “our journey” and to check that the values we have held close in the past are still

relevant today. As I walk around the site I am struck by the pleasant environment and how well the space is used. In the classrooms the displays are vibrant and a showcase for the girls’ work.There is a warmth and community feel and a sense of purpose and enjoyment.  We have revived an old website cataloguing the history of the school – the link to view the page is here http://www.portsmouthhighhistory.co.uk/  I hope you find it of interest.  There are some errors inherited – for example the GPDST was established in 1872 not 1972. May I take this opportunity to thank all the girls, parents and staff for supporting our annual open day and helping us make it a success.  On Wednesday the first meeting of the PHS golf society took place at Goodwood. Thanks to Mr Roger Brett for organising the competition and good weather. We are pleased to report that £275 was raised for PSA funds.

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Rules in schools – how far should they go?

A school in Norfolk issued a new rulebook for pupils at the start of the academic year and quickly had to retract it, tone it down and then re-issue.

In the original version teachers had “unquestioned authority” and “Pupils who do not say thank you as they leave the lesson are choosing to be rude. They will be punished.” The school was trying to tackle unruly behaviour and create a classroom culture in which children could learn. Recently I was asked by a visiting prospective pupil about rules in school: could girls wear their hair down?; did they have to wear their jackets at all times? These were two of the questions. In our family we have a saying – rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools. I was a little bit of a rule breaker at school if I could not see the purpose behind the restriction and I am a great

believer in having systems that enable pupils and staff to be respectful of each other for the greater good of all.

Our regulations are appropriate for the school – we insist upon a standard of uniform which gives pupils a feeling of pride in their school and is at the same time a leveller but there is a degree of freedom which allows them to, for example, style their hair as they wish. The sixth form do not wear a uniform and they dress appropriately for the day. We acknowledge that the girls are able to make informed decisions for themselves without having endless rules to be enforced.

Schools need to be structured places with equality between pupils and between pupils and staff and that we get right at PHS.

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Welcome back to the new academic year

I hope that you all had a wonderful summer and found some sun somewhere with plenty of time for rest and recuperation.  

We have returned to school with the usual frenzy of activity. There is particular excitement over the climbing wall which was installed over the summer and will be well-used as a challenging activity for girls in clubs and sport curriculum time across the age range.  I thank again all those who helped make it possible and in particular Lucinda Webb, Director of Communications, who spear-headed our campaign.

The summer saw us celebrating the most amazing examination results which were once more very high despite a climate of national decreasing top grades and arguably harder tests. We were 82nd for A level in The Times schools’ league table and many places ahead of all other local schools in both GCSE and A Level results. The girls truly deserved their success; they had worked hard and were well prepared by excellent and committed teaching staff.

I did read a comment that said in reference to GCSEs that it was impossible to prepare all students for a terminal “one size fits all” examination. They gave the example of Wayne Rooney and Stephen Hawking – both talented and gifted

men in their particular sphere and yet would require a different school process to ensure they end up gaining the best out of their education.  Kevin Stannard, Director of Innovation and Learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust writing in the Times Educational Supplement says that “exams should be about horizons not hoops” and I could not agree with him more. However, whilst we have this archaic system of testing schools must do their best to prepare students to jump through the hoops whilst also stretching their horizons and this is something we do well at PHS. With trips this summer to China, NASA and sell-out performances at the Edinburgh Fringe we have certainly quite literally stretched the pupils’ experience of other places and through expeditions for the Duke of Edinburgh Scheme the girls have learned so much about team work and collaboration. The National Citizenship Scheme – a government sponsored national activity held during the summer holidays – is attended by many of our Year 11 who help in the community and work in groups with a range of other students from different cultures, schools and experiences.

We start this new academic year on a real high and I know that the girls will make the most of all the opportunities on offer to broaden their horizons.

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Inspirational quotes can drive motivation

Katie Boulter, the young tennis player who gained a wild card to this year’s Wimbledon, was criticised in the press for willing herself to do well by reading inspirational slogan messages such as “trust yourself and trust your game” quietly during breaks in play.

I have an interest in Katie having known her as a pupil at my former school and I was indeed willing her to “Play the match like it’s the last match of your life – show how much you want it.” She was knocked out but not after she had given it her best shot. I was proud that I had the privilege of knowing her and knew that she had trained for years for what I hope will be her first opportunity of many.

Should she be criticised for willing herself to do well in a way that works for her? I too get tired of the slogans – the type on mugs and coasters – that say sickly meaningless mantras such as “live each day as if it is your last” and “dance like no one is watching” but sportsmen have for decades used motivational messages to urge them to do better.

Sports psychologists use these techniques – it is nothing new. I once heard Brian Moore, the rugby player, talk of how the England rugby team passed each other messages about how they played well to spur them on before important games. Equally they gave each other messages about how they could perform better before training.

If I was to give out messages for a successful summer holidays it would be along the lines of “read more; books are there to be enjoyed” and “fresh air smells great when you are enjoying it outside”. There is nothing wrong with inspirational quotes used to motivate and the press should cut some slack to a young woman who is a great role model for aspiring tennis players.

My very best wishes for the summer holidays which I hope are warm and relaxing for all.

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Trashy TV – ‘truly appalling’ or does it have its value?

Caitlin Moran wrote in last Saturday’s Times about watching trashy television with your teenage children. It struck a chord with me as most of my friends seem to be hooked on TOWIE (The Only Way is Essex), Made in Chelsea or recently Love Island and moreover it is family viewing.

Caitlin Moran refers to this genre of TV being described by a retired colonel as “truly appalling” and as my husband is a retired colonel that is pretty accurate as to his view of the likes of Big Brother. I have to say I shared his opinion… until I became hooked too.

When I was a much younger teacher, to relate to the children, I thought I needed to be up to speed with the goings on in EastEnders and Coronation Street – I watched enough to know the characters and be able to join in conversations about the last episode; it made me seem less of a dinosaur to my pupils. The new version of these programmes is reality television and there is much to choose from.

Most of these shows are scripted and as Moran points out when referring to Love Island “all of the people your kids are going to meet are here”.Moran also says that if you don’t watch these shows with your children they slope off to watch it on their own. If they watch it with you then you can provide the wise voiceover and actually it gives rise to an opportunity to discuss with your teenagers some of the topics difficult to raise from a cold start.

There are endless arguments in these programmes about the issues of life and much of it revolves around loyalty, secrets and socialising with the group especially the in-gang. If you can bring yourself to watch with your children you can become the wise guide on the side helping distinguish between the acceptable and the totally unacceptable and there is plenty of the latter to debate. Be warned though this viewing can become addictive.

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