Head’s Blog

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

Girls-only schools give girls a head start…

girls-only schools

This week I attended the farewell reception for our former Chief Executive, Helen Fraser, in London and I can report that she received a fitting tribute to mark her seven years with the Trust.

On the same day I read an article, written by Helen, entitled Channelling your Inner Cheerleader. She writes that the world is designed for men and uses as evidence the fact that if you count the extras in a crowd scene in a film only a maximum of 17% will be women. She remarks on the 20% barrier and the fact that most top professions have only 20% women. Apparently this male bias extends to video games and even emojis where female characters are stereotypically ballerinas, brides and princesses whereas the male characters may be police officers, builders and swimmers.

Fortunately for your daughters they already have a head start. As Helen says “being at a girls-only school really helps. It’s the way in which we coax girls away from perfect good girl behaviours enabling them to take risks in the classroom with their thinking”.  Our girls have the values promoted by

girls-only schools

the GDST of confidence, courage, commitment and composure. Our pupils are encouraged to develop grit by being their own cheerleader and coping with whatever life deals them. When I attended the Girls’ School Global Forum in New York last February I heard Tara Christie Kinsey, former Associate Dean of Princeton, say that the confidence of women students in her college dropped steadily over the four years they attended with the noticeable exception of students who had attended girls’ schools and those who played on sports teams.

I have been invited to speak at a military dinner on the topic of what motivates women to choose a career.  The armed forces battle an under-recruitment of women which is something they would like to address and wisely turned to the GDST to provide an insight as to how they may improve their appeal to females. Therefore, if you are female and reading this with an opinion on what attracted you to a particular career choice I would welcome hearing from you. Please email me at j.prescott@por.gdst.net.

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Will the creation of more grammar schools benefit our children?

grammar schools

In September 1973 I started my secondary schooling at a selective girls’ high school. I am the product of a grammar school education which you think would make me welcome the announcement that the Government may allow the creation of more of these types of schools.

Rather surprisingly I am not a great believer in the premise that a return to selective education will lead to more social mobility. Education, as recognised in many poor countries, maybe a route out of poverty. It perhaps enables educated people to find regular employment. However, turning back the education clock fifty years will not create a generation of aspirational pupils necessarily. Too much has changed in society and especially the rise and expansion of the middle classes. If children are selected at 11 years old to attend a particular school what happens to the rest and in particular the late developers?

I fear it would mean that parents with the funds to afford private tutors would pay for extra lessons to give their offspring an advantage. House prices in the catchment of grammar schools would be so expensive that only those with comfortable incomes would live in the area. For these reasons I am not convinced that a return to a selective system would increase opportunity for pupils from poorer homes.

grammar schools

In my opinion schools need to be small enough for pupils to be known and supported well. However, they need to be large enough to offer choice. It is out of fashion to academically set pupils in all subjects but in truth that system does work. In order for our publicly funded schools to ensure they have enough groups to support all their students they need more money. Through the “building schools for the future” programme many schools have excellent facilities but they are severely under-funded to provide enough teaching and support services to serve their pupils well.

Furthermore the creation of more grammar schools is not a panacea for solving behavioural issues in schools. Parents need to be interested in their child’s education and ensure their offspring attend regularly, whilst giving them encouragement to achieve of their best and to support rather than oppose the school staff.

When I attended school I very much valued and enjoyed the type of environment my school embodied. I admit that at times I had to be resilient to criticism and the unpleasantness of others. School toughened me to the roughness of life whilst educating me to a standard that helped me on my way to realising my ambition to be a teacher. Too often schools are compromised by poor funding, unsupportive parents and pupils who do not value education.

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Back to school made easier…

Back to school made easierDuring the school summer holiday children get the chance to relax and have a break from the routines that exist during the term time. However, at some point the vacation has to end and there is a return to the orderliness of school life.

Even if your child is not changing schools there is much that is new at the start of the school year. Unfamiliar teachers, classrooms and even schoolmates may mean that adjusting to the regularity of school takes time. To give your child the best start, preparation before the big return day is needed.

Getting back into a sleep routine is essential to cope with a whole day in school. Whatever your age having enough quality slumber hours is important but also so is going to bed at a time which gives sufficient hours of rest. Getting up in the morning with time for breakfast and time for gathering all equipment needed for school saves rushing too much and arriving at school tired and unprepared.

Making sure ahead of the first morning that shoes still fit and uniform purchased also ensures for a smooth first morning. Children seem to go through a growth spurt over the holidays and it is surprising that what fitted them in July no longer is the right size in September. As children move through school their needs vary as to what is required so check if there are any new additional items.

Depending on the age of your child talking about what may be new and unfamiliar helps prepare them for the unknown.

Back to school made easierSmall children in particular respond well if they are talked through adjusting to a new part of the school or teacher. Older children perhaps need guidance on preparing for higher level study and how they are going to organise their work.

Throughout the holidays try to encourage regular reading and some writing to keep skills learned in school active. Using summer blogs is one way to develop this interest. Whilst some children are avid readers some are less keen and taking them to the library and allowing them a choice of book which very well may not be fiction may entice them to read more. Whilst writing postcards may be old fashioned sending an email or helping children use social media to communicate with relatives such as grandparents is a fun way of practising writing. There are many writing and creative competitions available to a whole range of ages which provides a focus for activity.

Whatever the preparation before the return to school some children find it hard to adjust to the new routine. In those early days, as a parent, it is best to provide a listening ear to their worries as they get used to an unfamiliar setting. However, if the child sees you becoming upset then this will not help them settle. Do mention your concerns to the school who will have a strong pastoral system to help with the minor niggles that go with a new academic year.

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How will the new GCSE grading system affect students?

This is the last GCSE results day when grades awarded will all be in the form of letters. From next year in English and Maths the new numerical system will be applied and the year following will see most other subjects fall in line.

It will be confusing for a while. What worries me, however, is that the highest grade – a nine – will be awarded to fewer candidates than currently achieve an A*. It concerns me because I fear students who currently see an A* as the holy grail of achievement will view anything less than a nine as a failure. This is not going to help young adolescents’ mental health and almost certainly adds pressure to achieve to already anxious young people.

My message is that they should not worry too much. Some of the brightest and most intelligent students I have taught have failed to achieve an A* at GCSE but still gained places at top universities. The GCSE examination system, depending on subject, requires candidates at times to “hoop jump” and does not always allow for longer answers or true brilliance.

Future employers or university admissions will not discriminates against those who do not have a clutch of grade nines and perhaps will see the value in slightly lower grades combined with other achievements.

I have to confess that I see no benefit in adding this extra layer to highlight the very most able in any examination cohort. GCSEs show a level of attainment with a “one size fits all” as its fundamental flaw. There is no easy solution to the creation of an examination system that allows the most intelligent to show their academic worth whilst enabling others to show a level of ability to pursue the next stage of their education without feeling undervalued. Perhaps it is time we stopped putting so much emphasis on pure academic achievement and recognised and respected other talents and skills that lead to employment and fulfilment.

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Should university places be awarded just on the outcome of A Level grades?

This year according to major universities places through clearing have reached an all time high with some offering courses in subjects normally hugely over subscribed.

One of those is medicine. However, despite the current claims, this is not the first time a place to study to become a doctor has been available on results day through clearing. Nearly forty years ago my sister secured a place at a London medical school on the day she found out her A level results. She had been rejected from all the universities to which she had applied that year purely because she was retaking an A level following some inadequate teaching at her girls’ high school and she, along with the other vet and doctor wannabes, were sent to the boys’ grammar school to repeat the year.

On that glorious results day in August 1979 my father drove my sister to London and quite literally knocked on the door of the first medical school he encountered. An experienced admissions registrar looked at my sister’s results and after a short interview the rest, as they say, is history. On completion of her training she began living the dream she still lives as a rural practice GP.

It worries me every year as a teacher and now headteacher that excellent candidates are passed over for less capable students either on results’ day or even through the offer system. Currently to study medicine you need top grades in science subjects and to have carried out a range of work experience to demonstrate you know what working as a doctor entails. There are many more applicants than places and using academic results to sort and sift seems to be the fairest system.

However, I would challenge that view. Whilst it is important to have doctors with a level of intellect that enables them to do their job very well there are many students who are capable of studying medicine but miss out on that opportunity. Sometimes this is due to a one mark differential in one A level which leads to a grade lower than that offered for a place. A tightening up of the appeals and remark process announced far too late into the examination season this year does not instil great confidence that results this year will be fairly awarded. With young people’s futures resting on the outcome of A levels I wonder if it is time to abandon grades altogether and use marks instead? As most universities carry out additional testing anyway for popular courses, such as medicine, I would welcome applicants being awarded places not wholly reliant on the outcome of A levels.

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What makes a great teacher?

Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman, includes the maxim, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” Woody Allen added another line “he who can’t teach, teaches gym”.  As you can imagine over a career that has spanned decades I have had this quoted to me many times.

Aristotle, Galileo, and Mozart were great teachers. Marie Curie, known for her discoveries about radioactivity, was the first woman to be a professor at the Sorbonne. Stephen Hawking retired not that long ago from teaching mathematics at Cambridge University, where he held the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics chair, once held by Sir Isaac Newton. So I say “those who can do, certainly teach”.

The GDST carried out a survey amongst all current pupils from Year 3 upwards about what makes a great teacher. I have only just received the results for PHS but glancing through a positive picture is painted of dedicated and committed teachers who go to endless lengths for the sake of their pupils. This could be camping out with them to facilitate the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, taking them for their first visit to a public library or seeing yet another

production of a Shakespearian play watched many times before by the staff. It could be meeting a pupil during a lunchtime to help them catch up or keeping students’ interest and developing their understanding of a difficult topic. PHS teachers always encourage their tutees to develop their intellectual curiosity for the unknown.

Albert Einstein is often credited with a quote that underpins the importance of teaching on the teacher: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

PHS teachers were praised by the girls at being able to make the most complex concepts easy to comprehend and they said their teachers were fun and approachable. I know the girls going to South Africa this summer are looking forward to passing on their knowledge to local children and the accompanying staff are helping train the teachers in a country where many in rural areas are untrained.

The results of the survey are a wonderful highlight on which to end this academic year.

I wish you all a very enjoyable summer break.

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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