Head's Blog | Portsmouth High School

Head’s Blog

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

Key points on university admission

Last Friday I attended our regional Girls’ School Association meeting at The Royal School in Haslemere. I am chair of this committee and through these gatherings gain much from the shared practice that is a feature of our association.

This time we listened to a presentation from Dr Annalisa Alexander from Imperial College, London. I thought I would summarise her key points on university admission.

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is much valued and respected by universities. Whilst Imperial do not include it in their offers (some universities do such as UCL and Southampton) they do take it into account when making offers and in the application process. The message was clear that to take an EPQ is an advantage.

There is no advantage to more than 3 A Levels. The school should clearly state the number they offer on the reference and students are not given any preference if they take more than 3 subjects. To attain 3 good grades is better than 4 less good.

Imperial do not make unconditional offers. Universities that do attach a condition which is to make them your firm choice. This is changing and some universities – Nottingham to name one – are making these offers with no conditions attached. The universities are learning which institutions do not let them down by their students still attaining great grades despite the unconditional offer and as a result may

modify their approach to selected schools. At Portsmouth High School our girls don’t take their foot off the pedal if they receive an unconditional offer and I believe this practice of offers should be encouraged to help the well-being of students who put themselves under too much pressure.

Personal statements are important. They want to see that you are interested in the subject you wish to study and have therefore explored it well and furthermore that you have interests that are beneficial to the university – play a musical instrument, in the hockey team, debated for your school.

They do not actively discriminate against social class or background but simply select on the best student as judged by academic factors, interview, their own tests and so on. They find that this way they end up with a cross section of society.

The school reference is vital and the universities get to know which schools over predict on grades. All the more reason for us to be as honest as we can be so not to end up disadvantaging all our applicants.

There has not been grade inflation on offers although generally those of us who have been involved in university admissions for a long time would argue that they have increased.

I hope you all have a lovely half term with a chance to relax.

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Should mobile phones be banned during the school day?

On Friday I travelled to the Bett exhibition at the Excel centre in London to view the latest in educational technology. It is an annual pilgrimage and this time my experience was made all the better because Yvonne Williams, our Head of English, had been invited to present and participate in a panel of experts’ discussion.

I am sure the attendees at the event won’t mind me describing them as computer geeks. Whilst I couldn’t include my level of expertise with theirs it is no secret that I enjoy learning about new digital ways to enhance educational progress. I am a member of the Independent Schools’ Digital Strategy Group and through that forum learn much about the most modern use of technology in schools. At the exhibition I was impressed with the number of ways that have been developed for the use of mobile phones as a learning tool. Digital devices, for example, were used to enter into the wonderful world of 3D exploration and apps enabled children and parents to access school projects really easily. It was hard not be excited.

In early January a school announced with great fanfare that they had introduced a complete ban on mobile phones. The Head claimed this new policy had freed youngsters from the stress of social media and allowed the pupils to concentrate on their studies. He continued to say that it had revolutionised pupil behaviour.

If we don’t allow children to have their phones to hand then we bar access to a different approach to learning. Children are not always angels and I appreciate there is a temptation to look at their phone rather than concentrate in class.

However, many of our older girls will soon be in work and then they have to learn phone etiquette and furthermore resist temptation. We show them good examples in school and a worthwhile use of their digital device.Much of the silliness on social media happens away from school. I am not sure how banning phones during the school day – the very time when they have the least amount of free time to use them – is helpful.

Carol Midgley in the Times said that she could quite see the allure of the phone when sitting in a boring geography lesson. Maybe this comment irritated me because I am a geography teacher. However, I would like to think that at PHS we teach in such an engaging way that anyone reaching for their phone is doing so to check some geographical data or look up some interesting world fact as part of the lesson.

We have to stop demonising mobile phones. They are not going to go away and with more than a nod to irony as phones develop they move away from being good at their core purpose of being a phone. They are a digital map, a health check, an encyclopaedia, a notebook and so on. Phones are used for so much more than making calls.

It is important that we embrace technology and teach children appropriate use. If adults don’t stay informed of the latest developments then we will be totally reliant on our digital savvy children. Banning technology is not in my view the way forward. Rather we teach about excellent application whilst warning of the dangers of inappropriate use.

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David Beckham had a huge capacity to learn from failure…

Matthew Syed, author, journalist and one-time British number one table-tennis champion cites David Beckham as someone who has a huge capacity to learn from failure. Beckham claims that being sent off during the 1998 World Cup was one of the defining moments in learning from his mistakes. 

Carol Dweck’s book published in 2006 first introduced me to the “Growth Mindset” which enables students to get better at their chosen activity because they are willing to try, fail and analyse what went wrong to improve. I almost can’t believe that in education we have been promoting this approach for so long and yet we still have a long way to go before children believe that good quality practice does lead to progress.

Is anyone such a true genius that raw talent is enough? Children need to be encouraged to see their brain as a muscle that needs exercise to strengthen in a way that other muscles in their body need a regular work out too. David Beckham didn’t start out putting balls into the back of the net. He had to train hard and at times (in the most public of arenas) he got it wrong. He didn’t give up or more importantly blame anyone else. However, he did return to training more determined than ever to put in the required effort to enable him to score more goals.

We have had a period of mock examinations in school and these are an opportunity for girls to try out revision techniques and to learn from their errors. Pupils shouldn’t be frightened of getting it wrong. We all learn from making mistakes and children in class are no different.

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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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