From the Headmaster's Study | Portsmouth High School

From the Headmaster’s Study

News from the Headmaster's Study
Mr Paul Marshallsay BA Education

Opportunities for showcasing talents

As I made the final arrangements for the GDST ski trip just before the end of term, I looked at the range of activities and events at the Junior School recently. There are so many opportunities for the girls to show what they can do.

On a recent Saturday we held our first Early Years Open Day based around Forest School. It was exceptionally well attended by our own girls and visitors. The range of activities in Pre-Prep and around the grounds led to lots of investigation and enquiry from the young children involved. It was great to see their smiling faces and the speed with which the visitors settled into the environment. 

The end of term saw an extremely competitive house hockey competition which was eventually won by Warrior followed by a busy netball tournament for local schools hosted at the Junior School. The under nine girls played netball and

our swimmers put on a fantastic show during the Portsmouth Schools Swimming Gala at the Mountbatten Centre.

I had the pleasure of watching three of our girls performing in a professional performance of Annie in Fareham on Friday evening. This was followed by the Years 3 and 4 play Pirates and Mermaids in our own hall. The quality of acting and singing was phenomenal. Year 6 also gave us a sneak peek at their own play in Friday’s assembly which will be performed towards the end of next term. Rehearsals are already well under way.

I could mention many more events that have happened recently at the school. It has been an exceptionally busy half term and I am looking forward to seeing what can be achieved in the summer.

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Challenging some commonly held myths

I would like to challenge some commonly held myths.

You have to be fast to be a good mathematician.
If this were the case then I would not qualify as a good mathematician. My skills in this subject have always been based more around problem-solving and an understanding of techniques used. It is true that speed of recall helps to build confidence and improve basic number skills, but in order to become more advanced this needs to be balanced with an analytical consideration of the situation. We do not have to be the fastest in order to become excellent at mathematics. This is why a range of skills and techniques are included in our balanced curriculum.

Children should read challenging texts.
Reading is about far more than being able to decipher the words on the page. Children need to be able to comprehend and relate to what they are decoding. The written word should test their ability but it should be within

their maturity level to understand the overall story and the context therein. Particularly at junior level we aim to foster enthusiasm for reading, rather than just a mechanical process that leads to an end.

My daughter is always well behaved; she will be the same online.
Children can often exhibit a completely different personality via social media, message boards or in chatrooms. The distance that is created by being behind a piece of technology can have implications that we would not recognise in our daughters. They can often be extremely naive in their actions and need to be monitored and helped in this complex digital world. My main pieces of advice for parents is to continually discuss agreed parameters and never allow phones/tablets/laptops in bedrooms overnight.

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Academic rigour in computing at the Junior School

In recent Updates I have written substantively about soft skills and outdoor learning. It should not be forgotten that alongside these essential elements is strong academic rigour and a focus on high level performance.

In computing recently the Prep girls have been working on HTML and CSS coding to develop their website building skills. Having run this programme over successive years it is noticeable how advanced they are becoming as they move into the final junior school year. We are fortunate to have support from the GDST in this area and girls in year 4 work through a course on Discovery Coding. This allows them to use blocks of code to arrange in the correct order and then to gradually input more of the intricacies as they improve. Walking around the class is an interesting experience as every girl is at a different level and it therefore becomes highly individualised. The teacher is there as a trouble-shooter and has to resist the temptation to step in too early when they are struggling.

Year 5 sees the girls begin to code completely from scratch using a basic text editor. They are motivated to find that their sites can be instantly previewed in a browser and very quickly use the skills learnt in year 4 to produce attractive pages. In year 6 this process is developed still further by linking the HTML code to a CSS page so that they can theme their entire websites. The most advanced of the girls will be guided to use the internet to find ways of further enhancing the look and feel of their design.

This is a world away from when I first used to teach ICT and is indicative of the progress being made across the curriculum in a range of subjects. It is a very exciting time to be involved in this area and I am looking forward to seeing what the future brings.

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Staying safe online

Last Tuesday was internet safety day in the UK. Rather than concentrate everything into one day I used my computing lessons this week to remind the girls about ways to stay safe online. There are many reasons to do this and several interesting points were made in an article written for Independent School Parent by Natalie Keeler.

The piece suggests that there are more photos and videos being posted online than ever before, a fact that it indisputable. The ease with which sharing can be achieved with modern mobile technology is an increasing issue for ever younger children. I have spoken to various year groups and it is clear that more of our girls in the junior school have their own phone or tablet.

Another increasing prevalence is that a larger proportion of children are involved in social networking of some kind. It is likely that these will be platforms such as Snapchat, or those that have their own account on YouTube. Facebook and Twitter have very little use which was not the case a few

years ago, despite the age guidelines. They are seen as being for us older people.

Naivety is the biggest enemy when it comes to the use of mobile technology and the internet. It is so easy to fall into traps such as wearing a school uniform in a movie or giving information about where they live or what their preferences are. At school I have candid conversations with the girls about avoiding these situations and other issues like considering what clothing is worn, or not, whilst taking a selfie. These are all things that can be done incredibly easily and with no malice of forethought.

I am finding that our girls are becoming more aware of the dangers of the internet. It is heartening to see that parents are engaging with their daughters to agree boundaries. I believe it is always more powerful for the girls to come up with their own rules rather than the use of bans and imposed restrictions. The internet can be a wonderful tool for all to use and one that is around to stay.

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‘Girls consider themselves less innately talented than boys when they are only six years old’

A study from the journal ‘Science’ was reported on by the BBC last week. It suggested that girls consider themselves less innately talented than boys when they are only six years old. It went on to say that the problem could affect future careers.

One of the findings involved two games. One was labelled for children who are really, really smart and the other for those who try really, really hard. Girls were far more likely to choose the second option unlike their male counterparts.

It is concerning that cultural biases influence children so early in their development but there are ways to mitigate and reverse these trends. Building girls’ self-confidence and removing them from stereotypical situations is an ideal counter. We are uniquely placed at single-sex schools to encourage girls to follow routes that are often male-dominated. Our girls do not realise that, for example, mathematics and science are considered as boys subjects

by society. For them they are simply an exciting part of their school day and just as important as any other topics. We can also tailor our PSHE programme to focus on challenging traditional categorisations as we focus on maintaining their self-efficacy.

Another way of building growth mind-sets is to emphasise the importance of hard work over simply being clever. Disabusing girls of the need to be naturally talented in order to always succeed helps them to try something that they might fail at. Our work on core competencies and skills, rather than relying on ability alone, goes a long way to promote their interests.

The final statement in the story is as follows.

‘Our research found that young women experience gender stereotypes at school from an early age.’

At Portsmouth High School they certainly do not.

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How learning develops in young children…

Last week I attended presentations on EYFS assessment with Mrs Alex Algieri. It was a good opportunity for us to discuss pre-school and reception learning, how we track our girls through their formative years and beyond into pre-prep and prep years.

Mrs Algieri is an expert in her field and our conversation inevitably gravitated towards child development. The stages that children advance through can be well defined with mathematics as an example.

Recognising numbers is the first challenge. Unlike in some languages the arbitrary symbols we use for our numbers bear no resemblance to the things that they represent. We have to commit the written shape to our long term memory and then begin to understand how it relates to counting.


When counting is established in a linear fashion the next stage is one to one correspondence. This is where items can be counted that are not on a line. For example the amount of spots on the back of a ladybird or the counters scattered on a table. Once secure the children can gain the ability to use subitising. As such they will be able to see that there are up to six dots or counters without having to count them. As adults we all have this skill and it allows us to sort into groups and divide up amounts quickly.

These developments are all happening at different speeds in individual children alongside all of the other aspects of their lives. Similar things are happening to every one of us all of the time, it is just that amongst the very young the educational leaps seem so much greater.

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