Head’s Blog

News from the Head's Desk.
Mrs Jane Prescott BSc NPQH

Play to your strengths when choosing which subjects to study

Happy New Year! I hope you all had a restful and relaxing break away from the daily grind of school runs and so on.

I was amused to read GDST’s Director Of Innovation and Learning, Kevin Stannard’s, article in the education magazine “Conference and Common Room” about which subjects are harder than others. He starts by recounting a sketch from the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, set in a suburban dinner party, where one guest is claiming his job as a brain surgeon is more demanding than all others until he comes across the rocket scientist.

As a geographer I have acclimatised to the jokes over the years about the easiness of geography especially when compared with history. Stannard also tells of his days as head of geography at Eton where he learned that in 1961 the advertisement for a geography post said that the successful applicant would not be expected to teach the brightest boys as those taking geography would not be advanced academically. However, those boys would be of considerable personality and with standing in the school.

Thankfully such intellectual snobbery has long since gone but every year I am asked about the relative merits of studying what is perceived by some as a harder subject over an easier one. I always reply that it is hard to judge the level of difficultness of one subject over another as it depends on the individual learner and their strengths. My nephew sailed through his science and mathematics examinations with the highest grades but always struggled with those that required extended pieces of writing and reading.

The Russell group universities have not helped this issue by listing what they term facilitating subjects which are those they rate intellectually stretching over those that are less demanding. Ultimately each student must take the subject that fits best for them and they will enjoy studying. In this term girls choose subjects they will be taking for GCSE and A levels and whilst a study of certain subjects is required for a minority of courses it is always best to play to your strengths.

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How can we encourage our daughters to become the next generation of industrialists and capitalists?

I read in the Sunday Times last weekend an article by Luke Johnson about how to bring up children to be entrepreneurs and I must give thanks to a parent for highlighting it as being something of interest.  

Some years ago I attended a prize giving where Robin Lane Fox, the Oxford academic and gardening commentator gave an address which focused entirely on his daughter, Martha Lane Fox, who sold her lastminute.com enterprise for many millions.  He said that when his daughter came and asked him for a modest loan to start her web based company he thought to himself that was the last he would see of his investment. Little did he expect her to turn it into one of the most profitable businesses of the dot com boom.  Furthermore she was nominated to be one of the top entrepreneurs of her generation in a recent poll. Martha attended Oxford High School, one of our sister schools in the Trust, and I am sure that in part her education at OHS helped her become such a successful risk taker.

According to the article parents (and schools) can do much to encourage children to become the next generation of

capitalists and industrialists. Children should be encouraged to see obstacles as opportunities and moreover to learn what it feels like to win and lose. Many of Johnson’s comments come from a book written by Margot Machol Bisnow entitled “Raising an Entrepreneur”. She gives guidance on raising “risk-takers, problem solvers and change makers”.  It is too easy to over-parent and as a result children become less self-reliant.

At Year 7 form captains’ lunch this week they said they really enjoyed being trusted to do more independently and some of them cited walking home or catching the train as examples of this. To become an entrepreneur you do need to be bold which is one of the values of the GDST. The girls are encouraged here to be independent and self-reliant and to develop their ideas and discover their deep interest in subjects. I am only too aware that we may very well have a start-up billionaire or two in the school and I hope she feels that she is encouraged to be a risk-taker and a courageous thinker. I wish you all a Happy Christmas and New Year.

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Charitable giving in schools should be more than cake sales and raising money

In a recent school weekly newsletter our Junior School Headmaster wrote about how important it is that schools support charities and the giving to the less fortunate and those in need. Throughout last week the senior school head girl team, ably supported by their year group and the lower sixth, organised and led a charity week to remember. There was the talent show, fancy dress parade, bush tucker trials, boys v girls netball match against PGS (we won by a huge score of course) and a version of the TV programme “Would I lie to you”.

For two nights the fashion show catwalk was the show case for local shops and our own artists. A truly wonderful display and a grand finale of fund raising for the week. However, this is not just limited to the one week and this year earlier in the term a group of sixth formers joined in a skydive for The Haven which is their chosen charity. I do not have yet the total raised so far but it runs into thousands and must be near their ambitious target of £10,000.

Peter Tait, a former prep school headmaster, writing in the Daily Telegraph shares his concerns that the sheer weight of


helping all those in need may be overwhelming to some children and we must not just focus on cake sales and the raising money angle but also on helping others with kindness. The senior school received last week a certificate for the number of hours of volunteering the Duke of Edinburgh Scheme girls have carried out this year and the total was 760 hours which is a staggering amount. We collect in school bottle tops and other recyclable items that go to fund projects all over the world and we pride ourselves very much on how much emphasis as a school we place on the giving of our time willingly for the benefit of others. I spoke to a group of lower sixth on Tuesday who participated in the National Citizenship Scheme last summer and their social responsibility projects ranged from providing tea for elderly people to painting a community centre in the local area.

I am proud of the achievements of our girls and it says much about PHS that we value kindness, thoughtfulness and sharing which is evidenced in our various charitable giving activities across the whole school.

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Why not become a pupil again and learn something new?

You may have seen some reports in the press about school staff taking examinations alongside their pupils. At Rugby School for example four teachers sat GCSE drama this year and there was no hiding this fact as they sat in the same examination room with their current GCSE cohort.

This is not new and I have worked with a number of colleagues over the years who have taken examinations in subjects they are interested in and for whatever reason did not study at school. A few years ago I decided to take an Open University module in plate tectonics as “company” for my sixth formers who had decided to extend their knowledge and give breadth to their A level study. Moreover, I provided competition and an incentive to my son who was undertaking a chemistry Open University module at the same time.

It does adults good to take on a new challenge from time to time. For teachers becoming a pupil again feeds back into the classroom as they once again know and empathise with what it is like to be a student and are excited by learning something new.

The GDST has developed their own MOOC (massive open online course) with FutureLearn on girls’ education and learning. The course lasts four weeks and having almost completed week one I am already energised by the programme. Anyone may take part and there are thousands of participants signed up already from all over the world. It is free (except for the certificate if you choose to buy it). If you should like to register then follow this link: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/girls-education/1

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Teachers rate girls less good than boys at mathematics in the US…

Research in the US has found that teachers rate girls less good than boys at mathematics despite having similar levels of performance. Apparently this underrating of girls gets worse as they get older and is attributed to the fact that staff in general have lower expectations of girls.

Another factor for this bias is credited to the behaviour of boys which is characterised as being noisier and they are much more likely to shout out the answer.  Higher maturity levels of girls means that they realise that shouting out the answer is unacceptable and loud.  Girls recognise this behaviour as immature – they know, for example, that people do not shout out in meetings.  Girls naturally tend to think about their response first and are less instantaneous giving a much more measured answer.  This can be to the detriment of girls in that they stop taking risks which inhibits their learning.

All the more reason to educate girls in a single sex environment where such gender judgement is not a feature.  Girls are not overpowered by immature boys wanting to be the class clown and show off.  By the time they reach university both girls and boys have grown up and university style teaching is either in a large lecture (where the audience listens) or small tutorial and our girls are prepared well for both at PHS. The style of teaching in our Sixth Form leads to group discussion which is possible in the size of set. Teachers act as facilitators steering the debate and most importantly allowing questions to be asked.

Teachers rate girls less than boys in mathematics in the US


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The school house system brings many benefits…

Last week a school reported that it was bringing back the house system to their school.  The school in question felt that this would re-establish a former tradition and bring with it innumerable benefits to their community as well as develop their competitive spirit.

Since Harry Potter introduced readers to houses at Hogwarts called Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin and Gryffindor there has been an increased awareness of the house system and the benefit it brings to schools. Amongst other advantages it gives opportunity for pupils to mix with students in younger and older years and it gives rise to many more chances for leadership and cooperation. Friendly competition is also good for collegiality and this system develops a better sense of belonging by dividing the school into smaller groups. I have never been particularly fond of the names of our senior houses which have been revived within the last fifteen years – Bronte, Austen, Eliot and Gaskell but when they

were re-established the decision was taken not to use the original names of Clough, Gurney, Somerville and Grey; however, they are now aligned with the junior houses – Dolphin, Warrior, Nelson and Vernon – through the same colour association and they create a strong sense of unity and responsibility.

There has been great excitement and a little tension in the senior school this week. On Thursday the houses competed against each other in the annual House Plays competition. These events are taken seriously but everyone enters into the sense of fun that goes alongside the spirited rivalry. The house system is alive and thriving at PHS.

Best wishes for a happy half term holiday.

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Portsmouth High School is part of the Girls Day School Trust

The Girls’ Day School Trust, 100 Rochester Row, London SW1P 1JP
Tel 020 7393 6666