Head’s Blog

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

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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Developing grit and resilience through rising to the challenge…

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth says, “I don’t think people can become truly gritty and great at things they don’t love, so when we try to develop grit in kids, we also need to find and help them cultivate their passions.” Just recently I have had much opportunity to witness first hand some of our girls developing grit and resilience participating in activities they enjoy.

A number of our sailors competed in the schools’ sailing challenge at Itchenor. With over 100 boats at the start line and fairly windy conditions our girls competed against older and more experienced yachtsmen and flew the PHS flag very well indeed. I watched girls as their boat capsized hold onto their vessel (no easy task) and climb back in to continue in the race. One team of two had got their spinnaker caught round the pole and whilst still cutting through the waves at a fair speed they managed to untangle the sail by one girl acting as ballast whilst her crew mate hung off the front of the dingy. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to see firsthand the girls’ talent and passion for sailing.  Alice, Katie, Izzy, Flo and Blythe achieved particularly good overall positions but all who participated did so well. Thank you to Mr and Mrs Graham for inviting me to join them on their rib.

Then at the GDST golf championships Nancy Fenton finished third.  Again she showed style, talent, skill and determination to continue to play in miserable weather. She has a steady hand, calmness and nerve despite the pressure. Nancy really did do well against competitors that played for national teams.

Year 6 put on a tremendous play and they acted and sang with wonderful comedy timing and wit. This talent was also a feature of the plays for the senior school drama clubs. Whilst the subject matter may not have been amusing the girls still managed to deliver laughs at an appropriate moment which is not easy.

It is around this time of the year I literally run out of time cramming in all our events, performances, displays and shows and I notice especially how talented and passionate the girls are about every aspect of school life. The pupils develop grit and resilience because they are prepared to rise to the challenge of almost any opportunity and they develop a strength of character as a result.

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Skills every 18 year old should have…

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult” and a Dean at Stanford University lists the skills that every 18 year old should have by the time they reach adulthood and I thought you would find the list interesting.

An 18 year old should be able to talk to strangers – we spend much of a young person’s life telling them not to do this but in truth this is exactly what they have to do once they have left home for university or work. They need to approach landlords, health advisers, university lecturers respectfully and with eye contact.

An 18 year old should be able to find their way around. Most young people before they leave home are taken to where they need to go especially if their home is in a rural location. However, they must know how to navigate a campus and weigh up different options for travel.

An 18 year old should be able to manage deadlines and work schedules. Too often as parents and schools we manage that for them by issuing reminders and even doing whatever it is for them. University essay deadlines are not a moveable feature and miss the hand-in time and you have failed that module.

An 18 year old should know about managing money and running a house. Their flat mates will soon tire of their messy approach to the

general clearing up or the fact that they never have enough money to cover the joint expenses associated with shared accommodation.

An 18 year old should be able to manage the ups and downs of life and interpersonal relationships. They should be able to talk to an employer, lecturer, classmate with confidence. If parents/school are too quick to step in when those relationships are not going well it does not help a young person develop their own skills at dealing with and more importantly coping with a difficult situation.

An 18 year old must be able to take risks. If they don’t then they never develop enough resilience and grit to achieve the point above. If they resort immediately to phoning home to ask how then we haven’t given them enough life skills.

Our sixth form enrichment programme does cover much of the skills needed for a young person to move successfully from school to the next stage of their education. However, there is much they can do for themselves to ensure they are equipped fully with life skills that will help them cope with the next stage of their education. Fathoming out solutions to problems rather than expecting parents and school to always take on their difficulties is a good place to start.

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Academic results are only part of a much bigger picture

Donald Trump has challenged Sadiq Khan to an IQ test in response to Khan’s accusation that Trump is ignorant after comments made by Trump about Muslims. Furthermore the newly elected mayor’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, upset a few people when he remarked that a person’s IQ was a major determinant in life.

The grammar school education system in the UK did and still does select pupils on academic ability and critics of this system say that children should be judged on a variety of attributes and not just their intelligence. As a product of a girls’ grammar school I benefitted from being chosen at age 11 years to attend a selective school partly because it meant I could study for O levels whereas my peers in the secondary modern system studied for the less academic qualification – the CSE.  There were undoubtedly faults with this system of education – glaringly that there was limited chance of movement between the schools and a child’s academic fate determined at a relatively young age for the next few years.

I know adults, still bitter about “failing” the 11+, who have spent their working life proving the test wrong by becoming respected academics and intellectuals. Isn’t it about time we stopped judging children by their IQ score? It is much more important that their EQ – emotional intelligence – and stickability is considered. People need common sense, resilience and an ability to communicate all of which an IQ score does not measure.

As the girls file past my office into our public examination hall I hope that they do well in their tests and that the questions asked show off what they know, understand and can do. However, at this stressful, anxious time it is important to keep in perspective the view that academic results are only part of a much bigger picture. The girls I visited over the weekend undergoing their bronze Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in teeming rain and less than ideal conditions were developing within themselves grit which will carry them far – possibly further – than top examinations results alone.

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Portsmouth High School is part of the Girls Day School Trust

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