Head's Blog | Portsmouth High School

Head’s Blog

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

Encouraging your children to be independent

My 90 year old mother telephoned the other evening in a panic. My husband who was driving to stay with her whilst my sister was on holiday had not arrived and she was worried. He was due at 6pm and even though it was only 5.30pm as a former military man he is always early and therefore she was concerned. Of course he arrived on time and all was well.

I don’t think you ever stop worrying about your children and in this case it was not even my mother’s own child. In the days before mobile phones I always gave mother a much later arrival time to stop her fussing. As a parent one of the hardest aspects of motherhood/fatherhood is learning to let go and encourage your children to be independent.

Clarissa Farr, the retiring High Mistress of St Paul’s, said in an interview in the Sunday Times this week that she gives advice to parents that she received from her mother and that is “teach your children to be independent as early as possible”.

Independence comes in many forms at different ages. Some five year olds are reported as not being “school ready”

because they can’t dress themselves. As children grow older being able to travel unaccompanied on public transport is one example but also ensuring that work deadlines are met without constant reminders and most importantly of all taking responsibility for the times when whatever it is that they are doing doesn’t work out as hoped. In the senior school it is usual for children to stop telling parents the details of their day and when they do use home as a sounding board for minor disagreements they don’t necessarily want parents to sort out their problems but just listen.

Two of our sixth formers are to show their independence by using the money they were awarded from a GDST travel scholarship to visit overseas. Manon is to travel to India to work in forest conservation and Romana intends to improve her language skills by spending six months in a French school followed by six months in a Spanish school. We wish them both well in their adventures and congratulate them on their travel awards.

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Mental toughness aids achievement in life

Much is talked about mental toughness. It is seen as a predictor of success in sport, education and in the workplace.

It is widely recognised that those who possess grit and resilience are likely to be achievers in its broadest sense. Those who work hard at improvement and are not phased by setbacks are the ones most likely to achieve their targets and goals. It is important that we prepare pupils for life which may have its elements of challenge.

We take mental health seriously and recognise the girls need strategies to enable them to cope with the ever changing and demanding world in which they live. This is why

we have embarked upon the “Positive Project”. The founder of this programme, a medical doctor with a speciality of psychological medicine, Dr Brian Marien has agreed to give a talk on 20 April 6-7.30pm in the senior school hall to parents on how to ensure our children (and staff) are able to prepare for life’s challenges and see them as opportunities to be overcome.

Recently parents were sent an email from Mrs Trim which gives details of Dr Marien’s talk for parents from Year 3 to the sixth form. Early indications suggest this is going to be a popular evening and therefore if you intend on attending please do let us know soon.

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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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