We have a responsibility for tomorrow’s society as well as today’s individuals, says leading school Head

We have a responsibility for tomorrow’s society as well as today’s individuals, says leading school Head

19 November 2018

Leading headmistress and president of the Girls’ Schools Association (‘GSA’), Gwen Byrom, has told other Heads they have a responsibility for tomorrow’s society as well as today’s individuals.

Mrs Byrom – who is also headmistress at Loughborough High School – was addressing other independent girls’ school Heads at their annual conference in London this morning.

She told them that, as Heads of girls’ schools, they have a responsibility to educate women who feel confident to call out sexism and unconscious bias wherever they encounter it. She said:

As head teachers we each have a responsibility for the hundreds of individuals in our schools. We all know that, and I know we all take that responsibility very seriously. But of course, how we run our schools, what and how we communicate to our students, has an impact on wider society. Every time a young woman leaves us to move onto the next stage of her life, her experience in our schools becomes manifest in her actions and has ramifications for all women – and society in general.

We see this in Emma Watson – an alumna of Headington School – who went from campaigning for the liberation and rights of house elves, in her fictional role as Harry Potter character Hermione Grainger, to accepting the very real position of Women’s Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. Her launch speech for the UN’s HeForShe campaign not only called for men to become advocates for gender equality, but also inspired Malala Yousafzai – an alumna of Edgbaston High and Nobel Prize winner- to call herself a feminist.

We saw it only a few weeks ago when astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell – an alumna of The Mount School, York – was awarded the Breakthrough Prize, finally acknowledging her work in discovering pulsars. And what did she do? She gave away the three-million-dollar prize fund that went with it, because she wants to establish a scholarship to support women and people from minority backgrounds who are interested in science.

And we see it every day in the work and decisions of the doctors, surgeons, authors, journalists, mothers, barristers, academics, engineers, business women, teachers, politicians, sportswomen, campaigners, musicians, scientists, artists, designers, third sector leaders, economists, broadcasters and everything else our pupils eventually choose to become.

My point is, our moral – if not legal – responsibility extends to tomorrow’s society as well as today’s individuals. What we do isn’t just about the girls in our schools, it’s about everyone and everything they go on to influence in the wider world.  We are dealing in futures in a very real, and immeasurably important, way.

As girls’ schools, we are in the powerful position of presiding over environments which empower young women to pursue whatever life they want, irrespective of gender stereotypes. And with that comes the added responsibility of inspiring them to carry that message with them into the world and to call out sexism and unconscious bias wherever they encounter it.

Social mobility – there is reason for hope

Mrs Byrom also talked about the part GSA and other independent schools can play in enabling social mobility.

She discussed how they provide free school places and work in partnership with state schools and challenge Heads to follow the best models of partnership and reciprocity.

She said:

I think I can speak about social mobility with some authority. I was the first person in my family to go to university. My father was a dairy labourer and my mother a housewife. I went to the local co-ed comprehensive school in Hull and, like most people who have done reasonably well in life, I remember one particular teacher who inspired me. If it wasn’t for him, who knows whether I would have been the only girl in my physics A level class or developed the vision and courage to apply to university?

At that time, there was something called the Assisted Places Scheme. High achieving children from low income families could attend independent schools and their places were subsidised by the government. I would have qualified for one of these places. But here’s the thing – my parents didn’t know such an opportunity existed and, even if they did, I very much doubt they would have applied because private schools were so far outside their range of experience as to be unimaginable.

Today, according to a recent article by Justine Greening, we are “in the grip of a social mobility crisis”. But there is reason for hope. The latest international OECD study has found that, in many countries, disadvantaged students tend to be clustered together in schools with other similarly disadvantaged students and that, if this can be prevented, disadvantaged students taught in schools with students from a more advantaged background tend to have much higher results.

All of which is grist to the mill to those of us who have embraced bursaries. Last year, independent ISC schools provided £398 million worth of means-tested bursary support. For almost half of those children the value of their bursary is more than 50 per cent of the school fees. That’s a substantial contribution and of course it includes children on 100 per cent bursaries – in other words, free places.

But how many more free places could we award – and what impact could we have on individual lives – if we could reach out to children and guardians at the most challenging end of the social spectrum? The people, like my parents when I was a child, who don’t even dare to dream that an independent education is a possibility – how do we get through to them?

For busy schools, reaching out to individual families and helping them to overcome what may be inaccurate, stereotypical ideas about what an independent school is like, can be difficult without the help of a third party – a charity or a primary school Head. In some of our boarding schools, disadvantaged children are given life-transforming opportunities via the Royal National Children’s Springboard Foundation.

Through a combination of bursaries and effective partnerships, it is possible for the independent sector to be part of a solution to social mobility. Those schools who have been sharing expertise, staff and opportunities with their state sector colleagues for years know that, when you strip away stereotypes and get down to what each school is good at, great things can be achieved for the benefit of all children.

Almost all GSA schools are involved in some kind of school partnership. The key ingredient of the more successful partnerships seems to me the ability to come together on common ground and find ways to address gaps or weaknesses together.

Sharing facilities is without doubt a good thing and is the most obvious way for many independent schools to contribute to a partnership. But I’d like to challenge us all to think about the value of reciprocity. Projects which involve genuine two-way partnership and require teachers and students to visit each other’s schools are – I would argue – much more effective at creating common ground and breaking down stereotypes than those where everything is based at one school.

But we can’t force these partnerships. As many of us know from experience, it’s those that spring up at grass roots level, often from a chance meeting and a genuine need, that tend to work best.

Battling gender stereotypes – and parents – in career choices

Mrs Byrom talked about how the GSA’s work with Siemens is opening up the eyes of girls – from state and independent schools – to the possibility of engineering as a career.

She  also talked about a slowly growing interest in degree level apprenticeships and how parents have an influence, for good and ill, on their children’s career choices.

She said:

It’s almost a cliché now to say that the younger generation will work in jobs which you and I haven’t even heard of. But it’s true. Science presenter Fran Scott delivers the SeeWomen show which Siemens stages in partnership with the GSA. She tells the girls in the audience how she discovered there was such a job as a pyrotechnician – imagine, getting paid to make safe explosions! – as a chemistry teacher by trade, that’s my kind of job!

She then went on, not so much to discover but create, her next job as a science presenter. Indeed, Andreas Schleicher at the OECD has said that ‘the next generation of children will need to create jobs, not just seek jobs’.

On a more conventional path, who would have thought, even just a few years ago, that some of our most academically able sixth formers would be choosing an apprenticeship over a university place? Sponsored degree programmes have always existed, but the Higher, Degree and even Masters level apprenticeships we are now seeing have taken learning on-the-job to a whole new level for bright young people who want to begin earning as soon as they leave school.

It is a fact that a small but growing number of GSA school students are now choosing to go down the apprenticeship route.  Last week, we asked GSA Heads if they’d noticed an increased interest in apprenticeships over the last two to three years. Out of 79 respondents, 30 per cent said they have noticed a rise in enquiries and almost 22 per cent said they have noticed a rise in applications.

Although it’s fair to say that actual numbers are still very low, with only 1 or 2 per school, if that. University still remains the aspiration of the vast majority of our students – and most certainly their parents.

Parents have a key role to play – for good and bad – in their children’s future careers. Four years ago, research commissioned by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that just 1 per cent of parents said they believed engineering was a suitable career for their daughter, compared with 11 per cent who deemed it suitable for their son.

Isn’t it hard enough for girls to battle unconscious bias without the misperceptions of their parents making it even worse?

Tackling gender stereotypes from a young age

Mrs Byrom also challenged the GSA Heads present to think about what they are doing to overcome unconscious gender bias in very young children.

She said:

This year, the report ‘Drawing the Future’ discovered that by the age of 7 most children’s career aspirations are already quite strongly gendered. This is research that was undertaken by the charity Education and Employers in partnership with a number of other organisations. In an age where we are at pains to encourage our children to enter any career they wish, the research tells us that, by and large, little boys exhibit a preference for working with things, and little girls for working with people. Whilst STEM careers figure strongly for all children, this research found that four times as many boys dream of careers in engineering whilst girls tend towards ‘nurturing’ options such as medicine and teaching. Now, there is a note of caution here – for example, who decides what constitutes ‘nurturing’? – but nevertheless it is clear that, shortly after beginning school, girls and boys are already thinking in different ways about their working lives.

We know that girls who attend GSA schools are more likely to choose to study maths and physics at A level. But the challenge for us is to make sure our science-inclined girls understand the huge diversity of roles that exist under the banner of ‘engineering’. I must stress this is not because I want all our students to become engineers – not at all – but simply because all the odds are stacked against that particular career in a way that they are not with so many others. And the Girls’ Schools Association is an organisation that is in the business of minimising if not eradicating gender stereotypes.

So – another challenge – what are you doing to expose children to the diversity of opportunity open to them at a much younger age? GSA schools are great at bringing their alumnae back to talk to senior girls, but what about your younger pupils? And what about the younger pupils in all the primary schools nearby? Do they get to see a diversity of role models and, if not, what can you and your alumnae do about that?

Imposter syndrome and women leaders

Gwen Byrom acknowledged the ‘imposter syndrome’ that plagues women leaders. She will talk about the important work the GSA does mentor new Heads, and women Heads in particular, working in partnership with the Association of State Girls’ Schools.

She said:

Just as I didn’t originally envisage I would become a teacher, I also didn’t envisage that I would become a leader.  I have lost count of the times I have said to my early career teachers ‘I wouldn’t be offering you the job if I didn’t think you could do it’, in much the same way that I had the same conversation with one of my previous employers many moons ago.  Yet still, impostor syndrome looms large and I am also sure that there are few Headteachers here who have not imagined that, at some point, somebody in ‘authority’ would find them out!

It’s important that the girls in our schools have both male and female role models, which is why we need to continue to encourage men to join the teaching profession. But while 62% of UK secondary school teachers are female, women account for only 38% of secondary Heads. That proportion is on the rise, but slowly.

That’s why the GSA has a strong programme of mentoring new Heads – both male and female – and makes no apology for specifically targeting women in its three-way partnership with the Association of State Girls’ Schools and project managers, Bright Field Consulting. The project has just entered its second and final year and from the 37 GSA participants in the programme, we have already created 3 new heads and 4 new senior leaders before they have even completed the course – that’s how empowering high-quality career mentoring can be.

The participants – from the state and independent sectors – have been working together on innovative projects to enhance their schools. So far we have had all kinds of projects, such as bringing girls from Malawi to participate in the Edinburgh Tattoo, and a number focussing on mental health, from inter-school comparisons and sharing of good practice to a group of schools looking at reading as a way of combating the stresses of the online world.

Mental health

Mrs Byrom acknowledged the increasingly more important role of schools in mental health, but she warned that having a counsellor or a trained member of staff, on its own, is a ‘sticking plaster’ compared to embedding positive mental health into every aspect of school life.

She said:

The mental health of our students is quite rightly of paramount importance to us.  Nevertheless, in a world where the mental health of our young people is causing increasing concern, and the services designed to help them are stretched ever thinner, the role of our schools in supporting and promoting good mental health becomes ever-more essential.

I’m not talking here about ‘happiness’ or ‘educating the whole child’ but of the thing we do so well – our understanding that nurturing positive mental health is not the metaphorical sticking plaster of a counsellor, or of staff trained to recognise mental health issues, important though these interventions undoubtedly are, but that it is embedded in everything we do from the moment a student enters our school until the day they leave.

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