President’s Address : GSA 2016 Conference

President of the Girls’ Schools Association, Caroline Jordan, addressed GSA members and invited guests at the Association’s annual conference in Oxford on 21 November. The 2016 conference theme was ‘take on the world’. Mrs Jordan’s speech is reproduced here in full.


Good morning and a very warm welcome to Oxford and, in particular, to Rhodes House, our base for the next two days. I hope that, amidst our busy schedule, you have the chance to explore some of this beautiful city. It was wonderful to see so many of you with your alumnae in the Natural History Museum last night and we have more impressive places to share with you over the next two days. I was born and educated in Oxford and have a special affinity with the city, an affinity I am sure many of you will share. If you are visiting for the first time, I do hope you are inspired to return.


Looking back to when I started planning this conference more than 18 months ago, the world seemed to be a very different place. The concept of ‘Taking on the World’ was set in the context of an outward looking society within which our schools blazed a trail for inclusivity, diversity and international reach. Whatever your political leanings I doubt that many of you predicted both Brexit in the UK and the Trump victory in the US. The challenge we now face is to navigate the uncertainty and understand the potential impact on our pupils. Already many of us are reporting a real fear amongst our overseas parents and friends, mystified by a seemingly newly-xenophobic Britain that they don’t recognise or understand. Whatever happens with our country’s plans for Brexit I believe we must maintain – and indeed amplify – our global outlook. Theresa May was wrong when she said ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’ Confusing identity with nationality is a dangerous path to tread. We have a wonderful mix of cultures and talents from around the world in our schools and we must continue to celebrate this and to prepare children for life as global citizens. After all, it will now fall to them to fight for tolerance and understanding between nations and cultures

and we owe it to them to keep this at the top of our agendas in our schools. If this was a priority for us 18 months ago it is an imperative for us today.


Conference is a time to share best practice and reflect on the past year and what a year it has been. Green papers, about turns, new specifications, axed A level subjects and more. The education landscape today is largely unrecognisable from that of forty years ago when another Headington headmistress, Peggy Dunn, was President of the Girls’ Schools Association. I wonder what she would make of it. Education for girls has certainly changed for the better since her time but there is still much work to do to make sure young women enjoy complete equality of opportunity in education and employment.

Politically, it has been a momentous year, not least because the world has another woman at the helm of government (albeit one less than many of us may have expected). We’ve come a long way since 1975 when ninety per cent of Icelandic women staged a strike in protest at discrimination, eventually leading to the world’s first democratically elected woman president. Fast forward just over 40 years and we are now in the unprecedented position of having two of the world’s top five economies led by women, and more democratically elected woman leaders than at any time in history.
It’s vital that we carry on doing all we can to give girls and women the opportunity and inspiration to lead. It’s why the GSA’s professional development programme nurtures up-and-coming teachers with leadership potential. It’s why I’m delighted that our friends from across the pond – Ann Klotz of the Heads Network and Martha Perry of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools – will give us the North American perspective on women in leadership tomorrow afternoon. And it’s why I was heartened to hear Hillary Clinton, in her concession speech, say to girls everywhere ‘never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.’

What better way than to give them the practical tools to communicate with people in their own language? Now, more than ever, we need more students studying more modern foreign languages and more teachers to teach them. We know that students from independent schools are more likely to apply to study languages at university. Our latest analysis of UCAS applications, conducted jointly with HMC, shows that 3.8% of UCAS applications from GSA and HMC students were to study European languages, Literature and related courses, compared with 0.6% of all UCAS applications. As well as this, the proportion of applications to study these subjects in combination with another, such as Law with French, is even higher among independent school applicants. Nevertheless, this is still a small percentage of overall university applications.
Independent schools are doing much to share their expertise in languages with the state sector. The Royal High School in Bath is just one example – they send an outreach languages teacher to local state primary schools to teach French and German – but we need more language teachers. That’s why I’m pleased to report that GSA is involved in the first School Centred Initial Teacher Training programme – or SCITT – that is open to independent schools, and that we are working with the maintained sector on training more modern foreign language teachers. GSA’s Chair of the Education Committee Sue Hincks – Head of Bolton School Girls’ Division – is leading our involvement.


This is a really exciting initiative for us. For the first time, Government is giving us a concrete way to work in partnership with them on a SCITT that not only shares our expertise more widely but also gives us the option of recruiting from trainees in the long term. This was always a stumbling block in the past. Next month I am due to meet with the Minister of State for School Standards,

Nick Gibb, to discuss how GSA can contribute to the next SCITT initiative which will focus on Physics.

This is good news. Those of us in the teaching profession have been telling Government for some time that we are not attracting enough young people into the profession. With headlines like ‘Teachers working beyond EU limits’ it’s hardly surprising that we struggle to retain those who do enter teaching. Until now, it has been largely left to schools themselves to address this issue and many schools, including GSA schools, have offered their own funded and supported on-the-job training schemes. All this has begun to have an impact but it is good to see Government bringing the independent and state sectors together with these new SCITTS.

The choice of subjects – modern foreign languages and physics – is of course highly significant. GSA schools clearly have much expertise to share when it comes to teaching these subjects to girls. Girls from GSA schools are typically twice as likely to study most language A Levels and two and a half times more likely to study physics A Level than all UK girls. And among the science undergraduates we produce is a growing cohort of engineers. A recent report on gender pay equality concluded that the slow move to parity can only be hastened by more girls going in to engineering. In other words, the work GSA schools are doing is vital, from our involvement in the new physics SCITT, to our testing and backing of The WISE Partnership’s People Like Me national careers resource, and our See Women partnership with Siemens UK, inspiring girls in our own and neighbouring state schools about what a job in engineering actually means. If you haven’t yet been involved in See Women, you can be – next year we will be seeking teachers and engineering alumnae from each GSA region to attend a Siemens training session to learn how to deliver their showcase presentations to even more girls and keep disseminating the message that girls and engineering have much to offer one another.

While we are on the subject of equipping teachers and sharing our expertise, I must mention the new online course in girls’ education. Girls’ Education: teaching strategies that develop resilience, confidence and collaboration is a new venture by the Girls’ Day School Trust, whose heads are represented here today as members of GSA. Their new venture with FutureLearn, one of the world’s biggest providers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), has had thousands of enrolments from teachers all over the world, all eager to acquire the skills, knowledge and techniques that are particular to educating girls. The course begins today. Having identified that, when it comes to hiring or promoting people, employers base many of their decisions on character over qualifications, the course aims to help address this imbalance and focuses on approaches that develop and promote character traits in girls such as independence, resilience, collaborative working, problem solving and confidence.

GSA members are specialists in girls’ education but we are also always keen to learn more and I urge you to take a look.


You will also want to take a look at the results of the latest research jointly commissioned by GSA and HMC. We will send you a copy once it is published but, as you may have seen, we have already issued some advance extracts.

This research shows us that independently-educated students are happier than former state school students with the preparation their schools gave them for university. Seventy five per cent of final year undergraduates surveyed said they thought their fee-charging school had prepared them well, academically, for university, compared to 53 per cent of those who were educated at state schools.
Overall, it’s a positive picture – 64 per cent of total respondents claim to be happy or very happy with the level of preparation their school gave them, and it is clear that young people take their learning seriously; they want to learn and they value their education. However, there are clearly still some significant gaps in students’ preparation for university that we need to address.

Many independent schools are already helping to do this, not only within their own schools but also through partnerships with state schools, providing specialist and extra teaching as well as application and interview practice, at no cost, to help state school pupils access the universities of their choice. Many of you sitting in this room, I know, already do this and it continues to be vital work. As Sir Peter Lampl from the Sutton Trust has highlighted, many of the brightest state school students simply don’t even apply to Oxbridge – working in partnership with independent schools can help these students to realise that Oxford and Cambridge are very real options for them.

As well as continuing this good practice, we also need to work more closely with universities. Indeed, I hope that this survey is the first step to building stronger bridges between schools and universities so we can prepare all our young people – whatever school they start from – for higher education. Our economy needs young people who are not only well-educated but also highly motivated and it’s up to schools and universities to work together more closely to make that transition from school to university as smooth and meaningful as possible.


Our survey was of undergraduates at UK universities, but we are of course just as concerned to prepare those students who choose to go to universities outside the UK. Whether it’s for UK students progressing to universities abroad, or for students in other countries looking to come to school in the UK, we must keep reaching out to counter any potential adverse effects of Brexit and to make sure parents and educators in other countries remain eager to engage with us.

Earlier this year we did just that by participating in the first Global Forum on Girls’ Education in New York City, along with the US-based National Coalition of Girls’ School and other such associations around the world. I’m delighted to say that we’re going to do it again in Washington DC in June 2018. I know that, for those of us who travelled to the Forum back in February, it was an exhilarating experience and a fantastic opportunity to share best practice with a truly international peer group. I’m also looking forward to hearing what Tim Oates has to share with us today about what the international data tells us about the impact of culture on gender bias in subject choice.

What better place for considering global perspectives than Rhodes House, with its distinctly international focus and its tradition of attracting the finest minds through the Rhodes Scholar programme. Tomorrow, one of those scholars will join us – Professor Ngaire Woods is Professor of Global Economic Governance here in Oxford and will speak about what leadership in the 21st Century means.


Some of you may be thinking it’s all very well sharing our expertise with other countries, but what about the teacher ‘brain drain’? Well, what about it? Do we need to worry about the increasing numbers of teachers leaving the UK to work abroad? Or the rise in British international schools? I believe every threat is a potential opportunity and both British teachers and British-inspired schools overseas can be tremendous ambassadors for what is available in the UK. The Chinese in particular are clamouring for all that a British education can offer. And they’re not alone. As well as Russia, South America and Africa there are new markets opening up in the Middle East and the children who come to our schools from these areas add a positive dimension to our schools.

The vast majority of British overseas teachers return to the UK system with new ideas and a broader perspective – any progressive school will recognise this and actively manage and promote opportunities for them to return and continue their careers in the UK. This can only be good news for our schools and we’re going to hear more about this from Bernice McCabe, Tim Edge and Emma McKendrick.


I began by talking about the events of 2016. It will surely also be remembered for the Rio Olympics and the extraordinary performances of athletes from the UK and around the world. The disproportionate number of medallists and competitors – not just in Team GB – to have been educated in British independent schools has been well documented. This doesn’t embarrass me. Far from it. I believe it is something we should be proud to celebrate. GSA schools alone educated eight medallists, including silver medallist in rowing Katie Greves who is a former Headington pupil. GSA alumnae brought back three gold, four silver and one bronze medal, the latter won for gymnastics by 16 year old current pupil Amy Tinkler, who attends Durham High School for Girls. In all, 14 former and current students of GSA schools represented Great Britain, including gold-medal winning Paralympian Ellie Robinson.

Writing in the Independent, Tim Wigmore recently said that, with 10,000 school playing fields sold off between 1979 and 1997, the Olympics illustrated how ‘sport mirrors the iron grip that the most privileged have on the top of society.’ I look at this a different way. How many of the medallists who attended a state sector school were helped because of access to the facilities or expertise which independent schools make available? Even a cursory scan of

the hundreds of independent-state school partnerships registered on the Schools Together website indicates the scope of the work independent schools are doing to share their facilities and deliver sports outreach. I have no doubt that these partnerships will continue. As successive governments squeeze state education budgets sport and other extra-curricular activities will continue to be affected and both parents and schools are increasingly looking to the independent sector to fill the gap. I know that many of us are embracing this, not least St Gabriel’s School in Newbury, where a 13 year old partnership with Park House School involves sharing a sports coordinator who manages both schools’ participation in the County School Games and enables more primary school sport to take place. The schools also jointly manage an athletics track.

GSA schools are fortunate to have the kind of facilities and expertise that nurtures elite athletes but producing Olympic medallists is not why we invest in sport. For every Olympian who goes through our schools there are thousands of girls who find new hobbies to keep them fit and healthy, develop their confidence and leadership skills and create new friendships. A recent study by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood concluded that schools have long undervalued physical education and that PE needs a ‘radical shakeup’ and should be treated in the same way as core academic subjects. Most GSA schools have been doing this for years but we can always do more. It is clear to me that girls in single-sex environments benefit hugely from being able to take part in, excel at and most importantly enjoy physical activity in whatever form that takes. Traditionally this has meant team sports but increasingly we have seen a move towards individual pursuits, a drive towards wellbeing and health and an ever-increasing range of activities. At my own school, we opened a new Dance and Fitness Centre last year. This was initially driven by the need to improve training facilities for our elite rowers (although I remain extremely proud of the fact that Katie Greves and 2012 London gold medallist Lily van den Broecke learned their craft from a school shed at Headington). None of us could have predicted the overwhelming response to dance classes. Just half a term since opening, our Saturday Dance Academy had waiting lists for all ages.

In a recent poll of GSA sports directors, almost 59 per cent said that non-competitive fitness activities now have equal status with competitive sport in the school curriculum, though most were quick to point out that the two go hand-in-hand and team sports continue to have much to offer girls in terms of leadership skills, team and confidence building. Certainly we do see, time and time again, how girls’ engagement in team sports is more apparent in girls’ schools than it is in co-ed schools. This is partly about access to facilities – even the most progressive of our co-ed colleagues tend to schedule girls’ sports once the boys are sorted – but in my experience it’s really an issue of confidence and peer pressure. With no boys around to ‘impress’, I have always found that girls are far more likely to enjoy running around for an hour at lunchtime on the sports pitch than they might be in a co-ed environment. My experience is backed up by numerous studies. One 2014 meta-analysis of 22 such studies found that the largest increases in girls’ participation in sport happened in single-sex contexts. Interestingly, the authors noted that this effect wasn’t confined to adolescent girls, who may be experiencing body image concerns, but also took place in younger girls.1 (We all know this already, but it is always good to see it confirmed by independent research).


And so to education reform, the full nature of which, as we stand here in November, is still unclear. Will 2016 be remembered as the year when the education sector had to endure more proposals for radical, rapid and challenging transformation than any other? Or will the passage of time and a wider lens reveal that education has always been subject to this kind of disruptive change?
In the spring the ‘Education for All’ bill was announced; just five months later it has been scrapped. Just a few weeks ago, Theresa May’s announcement on grammar schools took many in the sector – and her own party – by surprise. The Green Paper also suggests big changes for universities and independent schools, insisting that they do more to support state sector schools. I cannot see that this poses a significant threat to the vast majority of independent schools. Our inter-school partnership work is already highly advanced and, in fact, we welcome the opportunity to talk to Government about how we can continue to work with our counterparts in the state sector. That said, I would not like to see the imposition of any change which might jeopardise existing partnership activity.

Whatever path we find ourselves on, it’s not a bad idea to plan for additional demands on our resources so do pay attention to this afternoon’s session on friend and finance-raising.


Children’s mental health continues to make the headlines, and rightly so. It’s a rising concern for girls and boys in all schools, whether state or independent, co-ed or single sex. A recent study from the National Citizen Service showed that over half of 15 to 17 year olds surveyed felt that school work had to come before anything else. Just 39 per cent prioritised their own happiness over grades. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently promised to tackle ‘big problems’ and failings in NHS provision for children and young people with mental health problems and singled out Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services as ‘the biggest single area of weakness in NHS provision at the moment.’

We need to keep talking about this. The pressures on pupils today are enormous and the statistics on mental health must not be swept under the carpet. It worries me that the movement away from alphabetical grades at GCSE to numerical grades, and particularly the controversial Grade 9, will place even more pressure on young people. Indeed, it seems certain that it will do just that, when you consider that the new Grade 9 will be awarded to only 20 per cent of those who would have achieved A* to A under the existing system.

It’s right that we have rigour. It’s not right that we make our children ill in the process. I am worried for all those pupils with a tendency towards perfectionism, many of whom we know to be girls. Many of us are spending significant time introducing our highly aspirational parents to the reality that only the brightest of the bright will achieve Grade 9 and helping them to understand that the days of all bright pupils getting 10 A*s are over. Ten Grade 9s really will be exceptional.

Thankfully, girls’ schools have the luxury of being able to design their entire pastoral and academic support around the needs of girls, so I know that we are well placed to manage the impact of Grade 9 and encourage our pupils away from ‘achievement at any cost.’ Let’s make sure we carry on helping them to maintain a sensible balance between study, extra-curricular pursuits, family time and time for themselves. It’s good to aim high but students must also be realistic about results. That’s why initiatives such as Little Miss Perfect at Oxford High School are so important, giving girls the strong message that it’s okay not to be perfect all the time. Failure can be as valuable a learning experience as success.

Conversely, it is, of course, our ability to focus our pastoral support on the specific needs of girls that plays a key role in helping girls achieve top grades, particularly in subjects that might traditionally be considered more popular among boys. We know that, compared with girls in other schools, the girls in GSA schools are consistently more likely to study STEM subjects and those difficult modern foreign languages and to achieve significantly higher results in them. It’s also why 96 per cent of GSA students progress to university. A caring, supportive environment goes hand in hand with good results and I fear this will become ever more apparent as the pressure to achieve that elusive Grade 9 begins to grip GCSE students everywhere.


I have mentioned some of our guest speakers. They will all, I am sure, interest, inspire and inform you and I know that you will return to your schools later this week with much to share with both staff and students.

Before I introduce our first speaker, I would like to thank all sponsors, advertisers and exhibitors at this year’s conference, and particularly our headline sponsor, Schoolblazer. Thanks to their continuing support we are able to bring you this vibrant, thought-provoking conference year after year.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, when we planned the global theme of conference all those months ago it was about challenging boundaries and inspiring our girls to have aspirations and hopes without limits or borders. Today our message needs to be even bolder, as we try to help them find their path in an increasingly combative world.

‘Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education’. Wise words spoken by Franklin D Roosevelt more than half a century ago. As educators of the next generation we have a huge responsibility to guide them wisely and I hope this year’s conference informs and inspires you in equal measure.


1 Biddle, Braithwaite & Pearson, 2014, p. 129

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