I wonder how many of you heard the debate during half term on Radio 4’s Moral Maze about whether independent education should be outlawed. The panel consisted of a range of people from many walks of life and only one, Michael Portillo, had been educated at a maintained sector state school. The debate started by quoting Nick Clegg’s comment that independent schools are “corrosive” and yet - public school educated himself - he admitted he would not rule out an independent education for his own son.

The arguments on the programme were rather predictable. The number of children educated privately is only about 7% so the majority attend state run schools. Take away from that percentage the number that attend very elite establishments and you are left with a small number attending schools such as PHS. Nevertheless, the private sector saves the government about £5000 per child and in total it is estimated that this equates to £3 billion per annum which is not a bad boost to the cash-strapped economy.

The biggest criticism against independent schools is that they increase a social divide; better off families buy a step up for their children. However, education should not be about social engineering. Education is about maximising talents and about providing choice. Independent schools sit outside government control, and maybe that is where the true benefit is realised. Schools such as PHS are able to offer the highly regarded international GCSEs, for example, and only now are state school educated children soon to be permitted to study for these examinations. There are many excellent state schools and there are many excellent independent schools.  What is important is that there is a choice.

Tuesday 5 February

Research by academics from the universities of London and Oxford have identified several factors that can predict academic success. Month of birth does affect pupils’ achievement—as you would guess autumn-born children perform better than summer-born classmates in English tests right through to key stage 3 albeit by the teenage years the gap has very much narrowed. In mathematics the gap is less evident by the end of key stage 3 (14 years of age) but does exist at earlier key stages. One other significant factor is the home environment—again unsurprisingly pupils from supportive households and ones where there is an atmosphere conducive to learning do better than their counterparts in less supportive homes. Also children with a mother who has a high qualification level do better too.

What does all this mean for our children?  I think it is reassuring for those parents with summer babies that they do catch up. Also not to agonise if you have a very late in the summer child that seems less mature than their peers as they could slip into the year below and become the oldest in the year rather than the youngest. Keep encouraging your children to read widely and be interested in the affairs of the world.  Families who take time to discuss and even debate topics, however heated the discussion may become, do their children a favour in preparing them for school, higher education and beyond.

Another report published this week claims there is still a gender divide in how well children do at school (girls generally do better) and that there are universities where the balance of females to males is very uneven.  Equally there are still male dominated courses in the fields of engineering and science.  I hope we do much at PHS to ensure the girls are aware of careers in those fields as well as developing an interest in science, engineering and mathematics so that they choose to study courses that are of genuine interest. Together we all make sure that girls at Portsmouth High School receive all the advantages and best advice.


Our chief Executive, Helen Fraser, described herself as mildly obsessed about the “grit scale” and I wondered if you had heard of it? It was discovered by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and what she believes is that an individual’s ability to stick at something determinates how successful an individual is in later life. It is a psychological category and you can, if you feel so inclined,  take the grit test to see where on the scale you are in terms of your ability for self-control. 

Perhaps on the back of this a book recently published called How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, has received quite a bit of media interest. Tough claims that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success. He links his experience as a journalist reporting on deprived and under achieving children in the USA with the 1960s marshmallow test—where children have a marshmallow placed in front of them and are told if they don’t eat it in a set time they will then get two marshmallows—the self control they exhibit in being able to resist the marshmallow he argues makes them more successful adults. There is an expectation in society that everyone will receive a prize and that more importantly everyone deserves a prize.

Whilst the unpleasant side of TV programmes such as X Factor seem cruel in the way that the contestants are publicly criticised and their talent scrutinised—it may make the individual more determined to succeed—to prove them wrong. It is apparent that children need to have character building experiences—perhaps it is the knocks in life that make you stronger and more able to cope with what lies ahead. If children are wrapped in a protective bubble then they won’t have the chance to have to deal with situations that are unpleasant or uncomfortable. Of course innate intelligence forms part of the success picture along with family environment. However, there is no doubt that hard work and resistance, persistence, perseverance, and stick-to-itiveness play a major part in success. The grit test is worth considering, and encouraging children to stick with it, whatever time it takes, is worth it in the end.

The ability of girls to stick at it and persevere to good end was certainly apparent last week from the smallest to the biggest. We took part in the GDST’s attempt to enter the Guinness book of Records for the largest experiment; girls in years 6-9 participated led by Mrs Williams who explored with them the influence of gravity. We also took part in the Schools’ Shakespeare Festival with our own interpretation of Richard III as an underworld of bugs. Mrs Farnhill and Year 11 Phoebe Ruttle directed girls from Years 8 and 9 in this magnificent performance. The Gala Concert on Wednesday night again was an opportunity for girls to display their incredible musical talent as a great tribute to Miss Blackwell. The chamber choir from Dovercourt and the High School Dance Company also got the chance to perform in Palmerston Road and show off their agile moves and angel voices in the ceremony for switching on the Christmas lights. It is these opportunities that help develop their talents and “True Grit”.

School reports – reliable indicators of future success?

Professor John Gurdon this week was awarded the Nobel Prize for his services to cloning. During the various interviews about his award he admitted to having framed one of his school reports from Eton which said he would never make a scientist. He had scored a mere 2 marks out of a possible 50 in a biology test and was ranked bottom of his year of 250 boys. So what does this say about school reports? There are so many examples from the

famous and the not so famous of school reports which inaccurately predict future success. Stephen Fry’s report from Uppingham said “He has glaring faults and they have certainly glared at us this term”. An enormously successful friend has also framed a school report which says “His ability to grasp French verbs is evident in this subject which unfortunately for him is Latin” and my own report from my reception class merely says “Jane writes good if untidy stories”.

I would like to think that school reports have improved since, in Sir John’s case, 1949. They now give praise and ways to improve which encourage pupils to progress. We are in danger though of an imbalance and whilst the one liners of the past which killed in the stroke of a pen any self-esteem are unacceptable there is a tendency for reports to give only good news. Virtually all of us, however good at our jobs, benefit from helpful criticism; most workplaces have some sort of appraisal which praises and recognises achievement but gives targets for future attainment. A good school report will do just that too. It will give encouragement and praise but at the same time suggest ways to progress or to stretch for further achievement. Grade cards and reports are a snapshot at this time. They are to be used to help progress and not used as any kind of measure of eventual outcome. Whichever year group your daughter is in there is time for it all to change; the important aspect of reports is that you take from them that which is useful to enhance progress. They are neither a stick nor a carrot but a reflection of attainment at this moment in time.

This poem by Edgar Guest is one of my favourites because if anyone told me it couldn’t be done I usually set out to show them it can.

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,

But, he with a chuckle replied

That “maybe it couldn’t” but he would be one

Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.


So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin on his face.

If he worried he hid it.

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

That couldn’t be done, as he did it.


Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;

At least no one we know has done it”;

But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,

And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.


With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,

Without any doubting or quiddit,

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

That couldn’t be done, and he did it.


There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,

There are thousands to prophesy failure;

There are thousands to point out to you, one by one,

The dangers that wait to assail you.


But just buckle right in with a bit of a grin,

Just take off your coat and go to it;

Just start to sing as you tackle the thing

That cannot be done, and you’ll do it.

I wish you all a restful half term break—the trips to Barcelona and Naples with Spanish speakers, musicians and geographers will have a fabulous time and hopefully some warm weather.

Jane Prescott


How girls are outperforming boys

This week I have heard from no less than three old girls who have just achieved First Class degrees from Cambridge University in a range of disciplines and, to add to this, I have also heard from other former pupils who have achieved Firsts from Russell group universities. It seems to me that every day we hear from our alumnae who have just qualified as doctors or dentists or are embarking on trainee schemes with reputable and prestigious firms.

It is therefore of no surprise to me to read yet again that girls are outperforming boys in the work place.  According to the Telegraph this week girls are now more likely to achieve better results in maths than boys and more likely to enter into traditionally male dominated professions such as engineering and construction.

I know I constantly bang the drum that girls do better being educated in a single sex school but actually girls just do better.  You may wonder why that is especially if you also have sons as well as daughters. I think the response to that question was neatly summed up by two 15 year old girls in a letter they wrote to the Times in reply to Dr Helen Wright’s comments about girls being too influenced by the celebrity culture of “stars” such as Kim Kardashian. They said that it is boys that have a “problem” not girls and that as a society we need to challenge why there is a need to have scantily clad women on the front cover of Lads’ Mags such as Zoo magazine.  Isn’t this more about boys’ self esteem than girls? I think they have a point. 

In a school such as PHS girls grow in confidence and therefore really believe that they can do anything they set their mind to do.  I watched the wonderful performances at Dovercourt’s Family Day last Friday and whether they are three or ten years old the girls displayed self-assurance and poise that belies their age. 

This is mirrored in the school right up to the sixth form and this week at school council the girls showed they have a strong opinion on how to improve the school environment and more importantly know how best to convey this to get what they want.

Practice interviews are happening in the lower sixth to give them a head start on the university application process and I thank all of you who have supported the busy programme this week. 

If you feel that this has been an opportunity missed don’t worry because we have an academic lecture fortnight planned for the autumn term. If anyone would like to contribute to this series of events (a maximum 20 minute slot first thing in the morning on any topic that furthers the older pupils’ understanding of the world) please do contact Miss Blackwell who puts the programme together. 

I cannot believe a whole year has passed since I took up my post at PHS – it has been a great year and I thank all of you for helping me settle in so well.

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