Head's Blog | Portsmouth High School

Head’s Blog

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

Make time for reading to avoid suffering from ‘word gap’

Teachers report that children are suffering from “word gap” and this is evidenced by research carried out by Oxford University Press.

It is affecting all ages of pupils and is defined as a lack of vocabulary. This deficit in language skills may impede learning. A good understanding of linguistics opens so many doors leading not only to an enjoyment of reading but an ability to write and speak creatively and eloquently. As pupils develop they also need to be able to use writing and comprehension skills to answer questions fully in all subjects and to understand what is being asked of them. Poor language skills may affect behaviour and self-esteem and in extreme cases life’s chances.

At the moment I am meeting girls in Year 9 on an individual basis – the good news is many say they do read for pleasure but the not so good news is that most would also confess a drop off in the time they spend reading due to the busyness of their lives.

Part of their free time is taken up with homework and activities but the time, perhaps before they go to sleep, which was previously used for reading is now spent on social media and their phone. Even if they read books it is possibly not quality literature which entertains them and whilst “as long as they are reading it does not really matter what” is a good philosophy there comes a point when if you wish to improve vocabulary then time needs to be spent reading well-written books.

Reading material does not need to be a “classic” and there are many modern reads that widen vocabulary and increase creativity in the use of language. We have reading lists in school to help choose appropriate literature and Mrs Bartlett, our librarian is only too happy to help.

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The importance of getting a good night’s sleep

The presentation on sleep last week was well received by the older girls and parents.

The message was not exactly ground breaking and much of what was said I have written about in Update previously. The presenter did make the point that whilst the girls understand the importance of sleep they do not always follow advice. They know to keep tablets and phones out of the bedroom and to have downtime before trying to drift off to sleep. A relaxing shower or bath also helps prepare for sleep. However, many do not make sure they adhere to these simple rules. Light is not helpful for rest and even putting the light on during the night to see your way to the bathroom, for example, is disturbing your sleepiness.

Teenagers need nine hours sleep a night and most adults eight. However, this is the mid point on a spectrum and we can lose sleep worrying about not having enough sleep and do need to keep in perspective how much our children are getting. We all know when we are tired and need more sleep. Just as we know when our children are tired and irrational. As adults the presenter pointed out we should role model good behaviours and make sure we follow advice about getting a good night’s rest.

I do know of a headteacher who bought her pupils an alarm clock to stop them using their phone as a means of being woken in the morning and an excuse for having it to hand at night. Keeping your phone by your bedside makes it too tempting to respond to the bleep of messages.

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Advice to support your off-spring as they head for their summer examinations

Barnaby Lenon, Chairman of the Independent Schools’ Council and former Headmaster of Harrow caused a minor media storm when he suggested that the Easter holidays were the time to put the hours into revision if you are facing examinations this summer.

He advocated studying for approximately seven hours a day, starting at 9am and with breaks finishing at 6pm allowing for an evening of relaxation. He makes other sensible suggestions such as ensuring notes are complete. However, it was his remarks about spending every day and even all day revising that attracted the most comment. Dr Kevin Stannard, Director of Learning and Innovation at the Girls’ Day School Trust, added his view which again most sensibly said quality over quantity and last minute cramming is not to be recommended.

I often use my three children’s approach to studying as examples of differing styles and what to do and perhaps more importantly want not to do when preparing for any form of test. My daughter is my eldest child and she always worked hard at school and was rewarded by high grades for her efforts. She was a steady worker making sure notes were completed as she was taught topics. She revised as she progressed and whilst examinations were not exactly a breeze she could not have done more or prepared better any earlier. She soared over the hurdles. I never worried about her working to the best of her ability.

My elder son’s approach to studying was entirely different. I honestly do not think he has ever revised in the way that Mr Lenon suggests. There was neither quantity or quality as Dr Stannard would advocate. He was taught well which was his saviour and something must have gone into his brain during lessons because he attained a reasonable set of results – not sparkling but they got him onto the next stage. He skimmed the hurdles.

My youngest son was a little like his elder brother and he certainly was not conscientious albeit ambitious. He did follow the advice of Mr Lenon by photocopying his classmate’s anthology of poems but that was out of necessity as he needed to take a copy into the examination room and he had lost his version. He revised wholly from revision guides having never made and therefore filed any notes but at least he had the intention to study even if at the last minute. He did prepare by buying plastic pockets and file dividers for notes he never made. He was known to get up at 5am to go through topics on the day of the examination. He claimed, as he left home for important examinations, that there were topics he had not revised and he hoped questions on these areas would not be asked. He was also taught well which again offered some reassurance to me his anxious mother and he achieved the grades needed to get into medical school. Whilst at university he gradually came to understand that success only comes before work in the dictionary and now working as a doctor but still studying I notice he is revising well ahead of any assessment.  The learning curve has been steep but he has got there.

My daughter wanted to achieve well and it mattered to her. She was not manic or panicky about examinations but she does not like surprises and knows she is happiest going into any test situation prepared. She is the most organised person I know and lives by lists, rotas and timetables.

My elder son is the most laidback individual. He did not particularly care about examination results and aimed always for what he needed to be able to move on. He is easy to live with even if he is frustrating at times as he leaves organisation of his personal life to the last minute. Thankfully he is organised at work.

And as for my youngest son he wanted to do well and did care about results but left all his studying to the last minute which made him grumpy to live with and did nothing for my mental health. However much I nagged knowing he would be disappointed if the results did not go his way I only made myself miserable. If only I had known then what I know now I may have approached his examinations less anxious.

I wonder if the differences between my sons and daughter are gender related. Most of the women I know are organisers. The vast majority of girls I have taught like to be prepared. As both Mr Lenon and Dr Stannard’s most recent school experience is at boys’ schools is this what leads them to deliver advice about not leaving it too late and to avoiding cramming? My sons would disappear off to their bedrooms and try to convince me they were working when they were really doing anything and everything but studying. They procrastinated and left revising until tomorrow which of course never came.

As a Headmistress of a girls’ school my advice is always to work steadily. I preach often in assembly and at parents’ evenings that a revision day has three parts – morning, afternoon and evening – and to revise for only two of the three for two hours in each segment spilt into two one hour chunks.  I also say that whatever happens in the examinations there are always a variety of routes through to a successful adult life. With concerns growing about the mental health of teenagers I am mindful of the pressures they put upon themselves and they need to be encouraged to keep everything in perspective.

As a parent of a child facing important examinations you want to support your off-spring. If I have learned anything about steering children through the choppy waters of GCSE and A Levels it is that you cannot take the tests for them. As the saying goes you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink. My role was to provide encouragement, occasional carefully given advice, food and home comforts and most importantly to keep calm.  In the words of Dr Stannard “Like Easter itself, holiday revision might start in misery but it should end in joy”.

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Are the millennials a snowflake generation?

Douglas Robb, headmaster of Gresham’s in Norfolk, wrote a blog about the millennial generation and how they lacked grit.

He blamed schools for engendering this feeling of entitlement and mollycoddling their pupils. Not unsurprisingly his views caused a minor media storm and a backlash from several of his former pupils. Robb said in a subsequent interview that a teacher applying for a position in his school asked him why he should take the job if offered it. Robb felt this was arrogant and reflective of how young people do not want to take jobs on the lowest rung of the career ladder.

I have been asked that same question as an interviewer a few times and I have a different viewpoint to Robb. I am encouraged that interviewees feel empowered enough to ask what PHS may offer a potential employee and I am proud to list the many benefits which are not necessarily financial but more about the ethos of the school and the quality of the pupils.

The millennials are not a snowflake generation. They have far more pressures than I did at their age. I was not worried about paying off student debt or being able to afford to buy a house. I was not concerned that every mistake I made had the potential of being shared amongst many people via social media. It is true I couldn’t contact my parents or friends that easily but this ready communication that is the norm today brings another set of problems. This generation are likely to be the first to be well into their seventies before contemplating retirement. They will work for a very long time and it is right that they are choosy about employment they accept.

I do think our teenagers are much more likely to question and challenge perceived norms and this is to be encouraged. They are informed not entitled.

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Sleep soundly to perform at your best

Often if I am grumpy and irrational it is because I have not rested well enough. Problems that are relatively minor seem huge hurdles when tired and for children this is especially true.

Getting a good night’s sleep is important because it rests bodies and minds to leave them feeling energetic and refreshed in the morning.  It can be difficult to know how much sleep each person needs as that differs depending on age and character.  Bedtime battles start with children over the time they have to go to sleep and for some children their body clock does not fit with school hours and left to their own routine they would stay up late and wake late.  However, whatever their sleep pattern children aged four to six need 10.5-11.5 hours; six to twelve years olds need 10 hours; and teenagers need around eight to nine hours.

I read over the half term break that your bedroom has to have the correct atmosphere for sleep and an untidy space leads to a disturbed night.  I am not sure I believe that as my untidy children have the capacity to sleep for hours and hours and seem to not notice the debris around them.

However, I do get the point that the bedroom should be a pleasant relaxing environment.  Essentially the bedroom should be a tech free space and with a regular routine and a chance to wind down before going to sleep a good night’s rest should be the norm.

We know how important sleep is in regulating moods and emotions and therefore we have arranged for Evelyn Stewart, a sleep expert from Sleep Soundly (http://www.sleep-soundly.co.uk/) to talk to Year 5 to Year 13 on Tuesday 17th April. This will be followed by a talk for parents from 4-5pm.

Evelyn Stewart is a sleep practitioner until recently working for the Children’s Sleep Disorder Service at The Children’s Hospital in Southampton, UK. She is also a member of The British Sleep Society and the International Pediatric Sleep Association. Evelyn has worked with families and will share the importance of sleep for the brain and strategies for improvement as she is fully aware of the impact that sleep disturbance has on a household and rarely is it ever just the child who is affected.

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‘Knowledge no more a fountain sealed’

Portsmouth High School was founded in 1882 by the enlightened gentlemen of the city looking for a suitable education for their daughters. 

There were at that time plenty of establishments that educated the daughters of the wealthier classes but they did not offer academic rigour in the same way as the newly established High School. Lily Flowers, listed on our old honour boards which are hung in the back stairs to the hall, was the first woman from Portsmouth to go to university – she attended Newnham College, Cambridge to read mathematics. Another pioneer and also named on our honour boards, Kate Edmonds was the first female councillor in Portsmouth. A later Headmistress wrote of her “Her keen mind was to the end eager for fresh knowledge and ideas and she had a rooted distaste for slipshod thinking and half-hearted action”.

I think it is fair to assume that these women were likely supporters of the suffragette movement or at least championed the emancipation of women. They must have rejoiced when women over thirty years of age, who fulfilled certain criteria, were given the right to vote one hundred years ago this week. Those that invested their time and money in PHS believed in the empowerment of women which still holds true today.

Our girls have always been ambitious with a thirst for knowledge and a curiosity for learning. Furthermore they enjoy activities which develop a holistic approach to their education. Much has changed in education since the school was founded but the ethos that forms the core and heart of PHS remains the same. The motto of the Girls’Day School Trust is “Knowledge now no more a fountain sealed” which embodies perfectly the founding principles of our School.

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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