A new school beckons: helping your 11 year old child make the transition to senior school

September every year brings the first glimpses of autumn and the end of the year, with a hint of coolness in the air, and days becoming visibly shorter. As the calendar year starts to draw to a close, however, the academic year begins in earnest, and for those children entering Year 7 in the next few days, it marks a significant shift in their lives. Most secondary schools are larger, busier, fuller places than primary schools. Bells can ring and corridors can fill with people rushing from one place to another. It can be hard to know everyone, or to feel known. Year 7 pupils are young people on the cusp of teenagehood, when the world begins to seem different; and a move to a new place, a new set of relationships, and a new set of dynamics, will most probably accelerate this change. How, then, do you as a parent support your child?

First, remember that your child is still a child. Although a secondary school will expect your child to take charge of him or herself, your child still needs parental back-up on the organisational front, to make sure that everything runs smoothly. In advance, try to get a grip yourself on the practicalities of day-to-day life in school, from uniform to timetable, so that you can remind your child, reassure and check that all is going to plan.

Second, remember that you are still your child’s parent. Your responsibility for your child will continue until at least the age of 18, and almost certainly for much longer than that. Despite what your child may tell you at times, you are still entitled – in fact, morally and legally required – to check the progress that he or she is making, and to intervene if things go off track. With this in mind, build a solid relationship with your child’s school; learn from the outset to whom you should go if there is an issue, or if you want to find out more, and don’t be afraid to do so. Good schools will welcome this with open arms and will want to communicate well with you; after all, we are all in this together with one single aim: to help your child grow up to be the very best he or she can become.

Third, remember that the notion of growing up as a linear process is – quite simply – a myth. Your child will soon hit puberty, and plunge into a cycle which reflects many of the needy traits you will recall from early childhood – age 2-4 – but with the distinct difference that he or she now possesses far better developed communication and cognitive skills. He or she will need the same levels of attention, but from other sources, other adult mentors as well as you, as he or she starts to evolve the skills necessary to function in society, and to carve out a personal niche. Be attuned to this and encourage other mentor relationships.

The start of Year 7 is an exciting time; a waving goodbye to childhood, and a welcoming in of a period of transition that will culminate in the adulthood that your child deserves and to which he or she must aspire. Embrace it all, on behalf of your child.

To EBacc or not to EBacc …

Following on from my interview in The Independent on Thursday, I thought that it was worth writing a little more about the EBacc and its consequences. Figures released ahead of GCSE results day and published in The Telegraph indicated that fewer and fewer 16 year olds are taking GCSEs in five strongly academic subjects – English, Maths, Science, a Modern or Classical Language and either History or Geography. In 1997, 292,568 pupils took this particular combination of subjects – 49.9% of all the students in English schools – but by 2010 only 140,551 (22%) were taking them. Meanwhile, a plethora of other subjects have taken their place, from Media Studies to Child Care. Concern about the drop in academic rigour of the combination of qualifications taken by 16 year-olds was what prompted Michael Gove to introduce a new performance measure earlier this year, based on the five central subjects, which he called the English Baccalaureate or EBacc, but was he right to do so?

When the EBacc was announced, it was met almost universally with disapproval from the education sector. Largely this was because it was introduced retrospectively, to highlight what had been happening in schools and to focus minds on the fact that the 5 A*-C standard against which schools had been measured disguised the quality of those GCSEs. Personally, I think it was right to draw this into the public consciousness; GCSEs should be about life choices for individuals, and without English or Maths, at the very least, young people have doors closed to them and, crucially, miss out on an understanding of what the world is about, and how it functions. This is why Science and some kind of language awareness too are essential, as is some awareness of history or another humanity; the fact that significant numbers of schools had been allowing their pupils not to study these subjects brought with it the suspicion that this was more for the benefit of the schools and their position in the league tables than it was for the teenager in question, and this needed to be flushed out.

However, not everything was – or is – rosy with the EBacc. First, leaving aside questions of the quality and relevance of the GCSE examinations themselves, the construction of the EBacc was far too restrictive as regards the definite requirement of either History or Geography. Religious Studies, with its rich cultural understanding and awareness of world faiths (which underpin so much of our history as a species) was a glaring omission from this list, and despite representations to the DfE, the position has not budged. This is remarkably blinkered, and has certainly undermined the concept of the EBacc in the eyes of many schools who were perfectly happy and in tune with the notion of rigour embedded in it.

Secondly, the EBacc is not really a baccalaureate at all in the sense of breadth that normally accompanies baccalaureate – from European baccalaureates to the IB. It is a core set of subjects which should be a basic entitlement for young people, and which should give them a framework to help them understand the world and therefore have a more enriched life within it. Positioning the EBacc as a qualification rather than as simply a performance measure – one of many to which parents and other will have access, and which can be explained in a local context – is dangerous. If a school’s position in local league tables depends on this ‘qualification’ – and this is more pertinent to state schools than to independent schools, who already have a healthy disregard for the league tables – then the risk is that it will push schools to focus solely on these subjects to the exclusion of others, in an attempt to make sure that the pupils gain reasonable passes. A core entitlement therefore transmutes into a restrictive curriculum, and this can do no-one any good.

So … look beyond the figures. Good schools will always be doing what is right for the individuals in their care. This is what we should be measuring.

A celebration of GCSE results … but can we ensure this is one of the last?

GCSE results are out, and they are fantastic – a huge congratulations to all girls at St Mary’s Calne, from Year 9 upwards, who have been awarded their GCSEs. A tally of 79% A*-A is outstanding – well done! Almost two thirds of the girls gained at least 8 A* and A grades. They worked hard and their focus and determination paid off. They deserve their success and should delight in the outcome of all their efforts.

GCSEs are remarkably stressful. Girls taking AS and A Levels often remark that the process of taking these more advanced exams, although accompanied by a stress of expectation, with university places hanging on them, is actually less stressful than the process of sitting GCSEs. This is largely down the large number of GCSE examinations expected of any one pupil (typically around 10-11 for an academic candidate), the breadth of subjects (a shift from Geography to German to Biology within a few hours would tax anyone), and the sheer length of time that it all takes. Practical sessions start in March, and final papers may still be going on in mid-June; practically quarter of a year is devoted to the sitting of these exams.

And the time lost from study is exacerbated by their positioning so close to the summer holidays. The relief of exams finishing, and the sheer exhaustion which comes as a result, means that a learning gap of around 6 months can appear, with students then struggling to re-engage with their studies in early September. We combat this at St Mary’s Calne with a Sixth Form induction programme in late June and substantial reading lists, but the girls’ desire for a break from study is entirely understandable. They have gone through the mill, and need to recover … but the outcome is a large hole in their precious learning time at school.

The question is, of course, why we are still putting them through this mill. GCSEs at present are unavoidable: no matter how much we seek to alleviate the pain by entering students for early examination, advising that a limited number of subjects are taken, and seeking constantly to place these exams in context (they are only exams, after all, and not the be all and end all of life), the undeniable fact is that GCSE English and Maths are the basic building blocks of any further study, and that universities look at an applicant’s GCSE results closely, often figuring them into their assessment process.

This does not have to be the case, and you will know some of what I think about this if you have read today’s Independent. Examinations at 16 are a historical construct, a school leaving certificate, from a time when the majority of pupils did not stay on for further study. The school age is rising to 18, and it makes little sense to continue to test at 16. Arguably, if GCSEs are seen as threshold assessments of essentially basic skills, then the age of 16, when apathy and desperation have set in, is far too late to test them. Moreover, in an attempt to ensure that a single exam is accessible to all – and the pass rate continues to rise – the banality of the content of some of the courses on offer is striking. It is no wonder that young people can find Modern Languages GCSEs so uninspiring, for instance; I admire them even more for sticking with them and gaining the grades that they do.

The solution is to test these basic skills earlier, when children are ready to pass a benchmark in reading, writing and maths, as well as linguistic, cultural and scientific awareness – and no later than 14 in any case. Testing children and young people when they are ready, in a very personal way, will allow them to progress faster, to be inspired and to follow their passions. It is not wonder that our young people feel as if they have been placed on a conveyer belt by a relentless society; visit an examinations hall sometime soon and see how it makes you feel. It would be so much better to acknowledge and celebrate achievement over time in a wide range of subject areas without necessarily demanding a public examination. In this way, we would have a chance of recognising real, sustained and sustainable learning rather than the pressurised learning for specific periods, with the implication that it does not matter if this learning is not retained beyond the exam date.

So, has the time come to close the chapter on GCSEs? At the very least, it is fast approaching – but only if we keep up this message. In the meantime, let us celebrate with this year’s GCSE cohorts. Well done to them all for navigating the system so effectively. Congratulations on their results!

School skirts: a matter of human rights?

Ever since this morning’s article in The Times about some schools banning skirts in school from the beginning of the new academic year, I have been waiting with bated breath for the inevitable comment piece decrying the fact that choice has been taken away from girls, and that all girls should have the chance to wear whatever they want, however they want, to school. A matter of human rights, surely? The situation has arisen, however, because a number of schools have recognised that the interpretation of ‘appropriate length’ has become blurred and an issue of contention, and they have realised that they must act. Jonathan Oliver, Head of Wye Valley School, explained that ‘This has come about following the increasing number of girls wearing skirts of inappropriate length and style that has become extremely difficult to manage’.

Whether or not the anticipated comment piece appears will more likely have to do with whether it is displaced by stories predicting record rises in GCSE results (due out on Thursday), rather than anything else, as experience shows that someone, somewhere, is bound to make an issue of it. They would, of course, be wrong to do so: it is entirely up to schools to decide what kind of uniform they require, and it is right for children to get into the habit of doing what is expected in certain contexts. After all, we do young people no favours at all if we pretend that ‘anything will go’ in terms of dress sense once they reach the workplace.

Moreover – and more significantly, I would argue – we owe it to young people to make them very aware that how they conduct themselves in public, including how they wear their clothes, matters in the perception of the public and, ultimately, in their perception of themselves. Why are girls shortening their skirts, rolling the waistbands over and revealing their underwear to the world? The answer is simple: because they are surrounded by pictures, images, music and messages that present sexualised dressing as standard; because, too, they see their role models dressing like this, in overly sexualised ways, and they do not see or appreciate the alternative. Being ‘sexy’ is all that matters.

So … a human rights issue or not? Well, yes, but not in the way the comment writer might present it. If we don’t teach our young people not to imitate the false models they see all around them, and to have more self-esteem in their self-presentation, then we are not enabling them to be the people they can be; we are, in effect, denying them their fundamental human right to be themselves. Let’s do something about the pervasive sexualisation of society now.

Universities – have they lost their way?

An article in yesterday’s Sunday Times argued convincingly that a university degree was no longer the route to secure employment that it has previously been, and indeed is still reputed to be. When asked in a poll by ICM for Santander, only 20% of employers said that they would be more likely to consider a recent graduate for a job rather than a school leaver with 3 years’ experience. This ties in with the research conducted by the 1994 group of leading universities earlier this year; although they sought gamely to show that a university degree was still worth the effort, the fact that stood out was that a full 3 years after graduating, 1 in 5 university leavers still does not have a graduate-level job.

Why on earth is this the case? We have some world-class universities in the UK, and a degree from a UK university should be the route to recognition and career success. The fact that this is increasingly not the case suggests that something has gone very badly awry with the system. Moreover, outstanding candidates with excellent grades, destined for further academic study, should be able to find a place at university, and not be left in the margins. Where has it all gone wrong?

The core, of the problem, of course, is our under-investment as a nation in a wide range of training and employment opportunities to suit all 18 year olds, which has been disguised by an apparently noble desire to raise aspirations of our teenagers. The academic route – which of course starts with GCSE and A Level – has steadily been built up over the past few decades to be seen as the only route to social mobility, and has become the focus for school leavers, to the exclusion of other opportunities; conveniently so, as there are few other opportunities. Where are the apprenticeships and training courses? And why – although we know that professions and trades are essential to our economy – are we not investing in them?

This notion that value lies only in a university education has been promoted by generations of politicians, and Michael Gove declared last year that he will not abandon Labour’s target of 50% of school leavers going to university. This would be admirable if schools were preparing students to be high level academic thinkers – the engineers and scientists that the country needs – but in practice, as the number of ‘soft’ subjects at A Level has grown, so too has the range and number of ‘soft’ subjects at university, to accommodate the needs of the school leavers themselves, who have nowhere else to turn if they wish to develop themselves professionally.

The existence in Clearing last Thursday of university degrees in ‘Watersports’, most of which have now been allocated to aspiring students, says it all. Universities have been dumbing down, rather than schools sharpening up, or the country broadening out its expectations of what we want from our young people. Where, now, is a plumber when you need one? And are we really doing all our young people a favour by insisting that the only route to success is via a course at university?

Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial deserve their positions at the top of university world league tables, and many other universities come close. Many do not. As school leavers are shoehorned into universities, an inevitable consequence is that resources are spread more thinly, and we are beginning to see now that places are simply not available for our best students, who should be taking their academic study to the next level. This must, in part at least, be due to a diversion away from strong academic subjects.

We have got the balance wrong; universities are losing their way. Let’s use the debate on tuition fees to work out the real value of a university course and help set it right.

PS The Sunday Times article mentions that 5 St Mary’s Calne girls have been left without places as a result of the rush for university this year. These girls will be just fine; one or two of them will in fact most probably gain their first choice places once their papers have been re-graded, and for the others, we are working with them to ensure that they do not sell themselves short by taking just any course at just any university. If this means taking a gap year – in which they can build up valuable work and life experience anyway – then this is what they will do. The time and effort that we spend making certain that our leavers find the best direction for them as individuals is a model from which universities might learn.

Sex and power: 70 years until equality?

Amongst all the high emotions and press coverage of the A Levels and university entrance last week, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission slipped right under the radar. This report, entitled ‘Sex and Power’, looked at the number of women in power or influence in Britain in 2010-11, and compared it with previous years, looking at trends and predicting as a result the trajectories of female involvement in 27 key occupations over the next few decades.

The figures were worrying: although 17 of the 27 categories showed an increase in women at the top compared to 2007-8, these increases were small, and still did not come close to being at the same level of representation as men. In 10 of the categories, there had actually been a drop compared to 2007-2008, and given that these groups included members of Cabinet, health service executives and public appointments, all of which are roles which seek to represent fairly the wider population (including the 51% of women this contains), then we are right to be concerned.

The report stressed the (sometimes depressingly) slow progress that is happening in the field of gender equality. It estimated that with current trends, it will take 30 years to achieve equality between men and women holding positions as senior police officers, 45 years for the same to happen with the senior judiciary, and 70 years to achieve an equal number of women MPs and women directors in the FTSE 100.

70 years is a long time – 3 generations, almost, into an unforeseeable future. Look at how much the world has changed in the last 70 years, since 1941 – change almost beyond belief. With memories of our history still very vivid in our collective memories, however, we can acknowledge and understand why there are still inequalities in our society: we are still very much a society in transition towards greater fairness and gender understanding. Yet today, in 2011, in our world, we have the structures – the laws, the shared public understanding – very firmly in place for absolute equality and fairness, so why is change taking so long?

The Report is quite clear on this point: ‘Outdated working patterns and inflexible organisations continue to be major barriers to women’s participation in positions of authority.’ This is the bottom line – we are not evolving our working patterns fast enough, despite the fact that the technology and the examples of good practice both exist to do so. We need to continue to seek actively to address this, making it possible for women and men to work in a fluid environment that enables them to respond effectively and with ease to all the demands on their time, not the least of which is the important role that they have in bringing up the next generation and parenting them well.

The A Level results and the success of girls that it highlighted remind us that as a society we invest enormous amounts in the education of our young women. They are ready and more than able to contribute to the improvement of the world, and we are foolish if we continue to make it difficult for them to do so. Let’s not waste their talents.

Let’s celebrate A Level achievement!

Today brings news of many fantastic A Level grades, and I congratulate all the Leavers of 2011 from St Mary’s Calne. Nearly 40% of all their grades were A*s, half of them achieved an amazing full marks in one of their papers, and 1 in 5 of them is off to Oxbridge. An ENORMOUS well done to them all!

In some circles, of course, the same story as ever is doing the rounds, namely that the rise in A and A* grades must mean that exams are getting easier, that marking is less secure, and that – by extension – young people today have a much easier ride than their counterparts a decade or more ago. I do not dispute that there were some serious errors on the part of the exam boards in some of the papers this year, but this should not detract from the accomplishments of the candidates. And of course exams are different today, but this does not necessarily make them easier. I would defy anyone who took A Level French 30 years ago, for example, to achieve highly on the equivalent exam today, which at its highest levels requires near native fluency.

I can assure you that my girls most certainly deserve their grades. They have been extremely well taught, by amazing teachers; they have developed a mature focus on success; and they have fully understood that A Levels are not an end in themselves, but a means to enter Higher Education and prepare for a future career. They have worked hard, with dedication and commitment, and have also devoted considerable time to broadening their experience of life, through sports, Gold Duke of Edinburgh, music, drama, and leadership.

Moreover, these young women have learned to negotiate the pressures of the world adeptly; the pressures on young women to appear and act in certain ways are at times overwhelming, and the greatest advance any young woman can make in this respect is to recognise the pressure for what it is and decide to be true to herself. They are primed and ready to go – to universities, to gap years and then beyond, on to careers and fulfilling lives. They have graduated not just from school but from their teenage years, and they have earned a distinction.

We should not undermine their achievement, nor the achievement of any of our other young people who are receiving their results today. Now is not the time to engage in debate about curriculum failures; it is a time to reward personal endeavour.

I congratulate them all.

Loneliness and social networking

A survey in Yours Magazine, quoted in Monday’s Telegraph, made for sad reading. Teenagers, it said, as are lonely as the elderly because they spend more of their time on social networking websites such as Facebook than they do going out to meet real people and develop real friendships. The survey found that 6 out of 10 teenagers find it difficult to find and make friends, despite having an average of 243 ‘Friends’ on Facebook, and that they experience loneliness as a result.

This survey highlights one of the central dangers of social networking – namely that, if it is allowed to run unchecked, it can be extremely isolating, and result in fewer enriching relationships rather than more, as the medium promises. It is easy to see how anyone – let alone a teenager, who is still in the process of discovering him or herself, and working out how to relate to others – can mistake the casualness of interaction online, and the immediacy of response, for real friendship; in actual fact, although it is possible to keep up with information online, it stands to reason that it is much, much harder to maintain or develop relationships. Where are the non-verbal clues to what someone is really thinking and feeling? Where is the empathy communicated in a smile or a hug or a touch?

Facebook most certainly has its place, and at its best can enable instant communication in a way which allows people to make good use of their time to keep in touch with people with whom they would otherwise fall out of contact. But it should never replace actual ‘in person’ communication, and we need to help protect young people in particular against its excesses. This is especially the case in regard to the disconnect it can create between real and online worlds which can so easily develop: it is very easy to withdraw to an artificial world which seems in our control, at the click of a button. Teenagehood is a time for exploration and development, and an absolutely central part of this is the development of how to deal with, and live with, other people. Let’s make sure we get the message out, loud and clear, that no matter how challenging this is, it has to be done in real life, face-to-face.

Proud to be a Headmistress: Moira Buffini’s ‘Dinner’ at the Edinburgh Fringe

The very last show I watched at the Edinburgh Fringe before heading back south for exam results week was a show for which I had especially extended my stay in Edinburgh by a day. It was the Fringe debut of a group consisting essentially of 2011 leavers from St Mary’s Calne, presenting an adapted version of Moira Buffini’s dark comedy thriller, Dinner, and it was more than worth prolonging my holiday for. In fact, there are some moments which make being a Headmistress entirely worthwhile, and this was one of them.

The performance went extremely well, and the 23 strong audience – a great number for a first show at 11am on a Sunday morning, with practically no prior publicity – was very appreciative. If there had been a reviewer there, I reckon the show would have received a 4+ star write-up. Lily Wakeley, who played Paige, and who was one of the driving forces behind the production initially, was stunning in her role, but enormous praise must go to all of the cast for the way in which they embraced challenging themes and equally challenging characters and dialogue, drawing out the very black humour while forcing us to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. The acting was superb.

They were brilliant … and I was so, so proud of them. For the most part, I have seen these girls grow from pre-teenagers through the turbulent years of teenagehood, to become poised, grounded and intelligent young women, and it is a privilege to have helped guide them along the way. They are mature, insightful, confident without being over-confident, and absolutely attuned to the world. They have strong friendships, evident in the way in which they worked together for this production. They have a strong social conscience – when they performed the play earlier in the year in Calne, they raised almost £1,000 for the Alzheimer’s Society – and they plan to make a positive mark on the world.

Girls’ schools make a difference to girls and young women; they enthuse, embolden, encourage and empower. No further proof is needed than the young women themselves, several thousand of whom across the country have graduated this summer and are ready to embark on university, gap year and career. It makes me so proud to do what I do. Watch out, world!

Technodelic Comedy Show: astonishing creativity and human resilience

Probably the most extraordinary show we saw at the Edinburgh Fringe this year was an incredibly fast-moving extravaganza of electronic music, video projection and light, with a futuristic feel, and an interaction between dancers and projected images that was timed absolutely to perfection. It was billed as a Comedy Show, and there was a light heartedness about it, but essentially this was an amazingly clever production in which heart pounding techno music combined with split-second timing to provide a series of sets in which electronic images were captured by living performers and manipulated in front of our eyes. A spectacular set which pried right into the life of one of the performers made a pointed comment about the intrusiveness of the online world: a timely reminder for us all.

It was a world premiere, but news was spreading fast; by the end of the week we spent in Edinburgh, it was selling out and had repeated standing ovations. It took my breath away, certainly, to see such clever, rapid movement between reality and illusion, and the concept was so novel as well as so perfectly executed that the room almost vibrated with the sense of something completely new and invented. We had never seen anything like it.

It was clear that the troupe, SIRO-A – 6 young Japanese men – had devoted enormous energy to the development of the show, and their hard work, dedication and energy sparked for all to see in the performance itself. The real story, however, lay behind this fantastical production, for these young men were all from Sendai, the Japanese city closest to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March this year. They had sent off their application to the Fringe on the day the earthquake and tsunami struck, and despite the fact that their rehearsal studio was wrecked in the subsequent traumatic events, they made a commitment to come and show the world that they were a strong nation and would survive. Quoted in The Scotsman, the assistant producer said: ‘This is their message to the world, that this is the energy of Japan that is still alive’.

Alive it most certainly is – alive, vibrant and explosively real. It was an amazing experience to listen to and watch their performance, and humbling to acknowledge the strength, courage and resilience that underpinned it.

I know what I will be speaking about in one of my first assemblies of the new school term!