We must teach children to be discerning, says GSA President

We must teach children to be discerning, says GSA President

18 November 2019

Leading headmistress and president of the Girls’ Schools Association (‘GSA’), Sue Hincks, will tell other Heads that, in a world of information overload, we are in danger of losing perspective and that we must teach children to be discerning if future generations are to maintain clarity and a sense of proportion.

Miss Hincks – who is also headmistress of Bolton School Girls’ Division – will be addressing other independent girls’ school Heads at their annual conference in Bristol today (18 November).

She will tell them that, as Heads of girls’ schools, many of today’s norms may well shock future generations. She will say:

They say hindsight gives you 20:20 vision. What, in today’s world, will people look back on in 50, 100, 200 years’ time and shake their heads at in anger, amusement or sheer disbelief? It’s a useful exercise that can help us and our students to engage our critical faculties and maintain perspective while all around us clarity is missing.

And go on to discuss the key issues facing young people today:

Our treatment of the planet and our pursuit of an unsustainable development model will not go unnoticed. The impact of our actions on climate, the way in which we take our natural environment for granted, the loss of biodiversity and our disregard for the world we live in as we consume beyond reason and need will surely be censured.

She will talk about the impact of consumerism on people’s working lives and ask fellow Headteachers:

How many of you have parents too busy to join your Parents’ Association? Or, in day schools, how many of you experience a demand for care between 7am and up to 7pm because those are the times between which adults need to work or be en route to and from work? Or, in nurseries which you run, who has had a request for Saturday and even Sunday opening because parents need that time for work or domestic chores?

As Headteachers, we have the ability to influence girls to understand that buying stuff can make you happy… but only for a short time. Our schools share the ethos that it is altruism which creates happiness. We do a lot to help girls reflect on their intelligence; we are beginning to help them measure their emotional intelligence and resilience. Perhaps we also need to help them understand that the way we measure our social standing has far-reaching consequences, driving much of our personal life satisfaction and determining our collective impact on the environment? We can explore with them the way in which feelings of social discontent and anxiety rise with growing inequality; they keep people fighting to maintain their social position, but leave them fundamentally dissatisfied with their new, richer, lifestyles. We can explore how the ambition to develop as a person, to fulfil one’s potential and to make a difference for good in the world, will lead to happiness. Ambition to have more and more funds at one’s disposal and to consume more and more of the world’s resources will not.

She will talk about the impact of the Internet on young people, their mental health and how teachers need to help pupils understand the influence it wields:

We have this amazing tool at our disposal and yet – just as with the invention of the printing press, the spinning jenny, the steam train, or the motor car – we are blind to where it might lead and how it might have a negative as well as a beneficial impact on the world we live in. As educators, we warn our girls about the dangers of cyber bullying, cyber predators, of posting private information on-line, of phishing. More recently, we have even begun to talk to them about the dangers of sad-phishing.

We tell them that the material is air-brushed, either visually or emotionally, so that human flaws are banished. We decry the fact that many teenagers and young adults have seen on porn sites images and narratives which once would have been kept out of the public domain. But as a society we do not discuss enough the impact which this access to inappropriate material, this creation of unrealistic expectations, has on young minds. Nor do we talk enough about the way it distorts girls’ view of their bodies, their emotional well-being and their idea of what a healthy adult relationship consists of.

As educators we know the value of intergenerational interaction. And so we watch in alarm when adults, out and about with their children, leave childcare to the iPad while they look at their phones rather than engaging in conversation. How many of us have spoken to parents who say that their teenage daughters go straight upstairs when they arrive home and spend the evening on social media rather than discussing their day with a caring adult who might help them achieve some perspective on the latest squabble and misunderstanding?

I know that there will not be a headteacher in the room who has not had to unravel some sort of upset on Yik Yak, Wut, Popcorn Messaging or whatever anonymous social media app is currently in vogue. I doubt there is any teacher who fails to appreciate the potentially negative impact of social media on young people’s mental health. Whether that is addiction – seeking again and again the dopamine hit of personal validation created by ‘likes’ – or the negative self-reflection when a young person tells themselves they are unpopular, unfunny, unpretty or undateable because they haven’t received such ‘likes’, they have been ignored, or they have received unpleasant anonymous feedback.

For the majority of young people, FOMO – the fear of missing out – and being different from the crowd is still hard to bear and can often cause anxiety, loneliness and a sense of personal inadequacy.

Miss Hincks will look at how the way in which we assimilate information is changing:

In the same vein we have not properly begun to talk about the impact on the human mind of this new way of assimilating information. We need to question whether our ability to ‘search’ quickly for answers online means we are in danger of losing our ability to read and digest material slowly and in linear fashion, empathising with characters as they emerge from the page and gradually absorbing what it means to be human. Are we losing or simply changing how we process ideas, and does it matter?

Once upon a time, knowledge consisted of what you could see or hear for yourself; in tales passed down from one generation to the next, or news conveyed from town to town by messengers. Then people began to write, and humankind built a mighty library of shared and stored information. There was a heyday when the literate revelled in their access to knowledge, buying up books, consuming newspapers and writing to friends about what they had learned and thought. And now – the Internet, the mightiest library of all. Vast numbers of people have immediate access to vast quantities of information. So far, so democratic and innovative. But how is that information curated and checked?

On the internet, it is possible to ignore what you don’t wish to think about or believe, to exist in an echo chamber of mutual self-congratulation and similar beliefs. You can be highly selective about what you wish to quote, ‘edit’ pictures and narratives to produce the story you want, all of which leads to a reduction in the quality of public discourse.

We as teachers have to train young people to be discerning. We have to formalise the ability to ask purposeful questions which lead to greater understanding and more perspective. We must enable young people to understand how they can be manipulated, not by the rhetoric of speeches or written passages – which they study already in their English language lessons – but by the medium of algorithms and automated scripts. We need to teach them that clickbots, social bots and vote bots are designed to influence public opinion, polarising views, silencing opposition, denigrating or extolling individuals, parties and brand according to intent. They take away nuance, undermine discernment, and encourage the adoption of unreasoned opinions and attitudes. Surely, future generations will be amazed by our naiveté, the lack of ethical debate among our educated classes and the inability or unwillingness to stem the growth of the technological giants.

And she will talk about the current political debate regarding the independent sector as well as discussing the pioneering history and continued potential of girls’ schools as a vehicle for social change. She will say:

I see an under-funded state sector, whose teachers frequently have far too little non-contact time for planning and preparation, and where headteachers’ expertise and time are spent looking for extra resources to deliver a curriculum over which they have decreasing control.

Meanwhile, we have an independent sector plugging the gaps in EYFS by subsidising the 15 or 30 ‘free hours’ which the government provides. Thereafter, we offer a choice to parents who want their children to have a broader curriculum than the EBacc allows – a curriculum where the arts and creative subjects, as well as religious studies, are given their proper value. We provide a choice for those parents who worry that their child would be ‘lost’ in a big comprehensive school. This is an independent sector where initiatives come from teachers and heads of department, not from government departments. An independent sector which enjoys world renown, attracting pupils to study in this country and enabling British schools to be set up across the globe, spreading values of respect, fairness and tolerance on an international stage.

This is an independent sector which wants to open its doors as widely as possible, but which has to cover all its costs – teachers’ salaries, pensions, building works and resources – from fee income. Nonetheless, it is an independent sector which is striving to increase bursary provision and thereby enhance social mobility; where boarding schools are actively working to help Looked After Children through the Royal SpringBoard campaign; and where schools and teachers have meaningful partnerships with state sector colleagues, sharing facilities, teaching specialisms and other genuinely impactful projects, all of which are celebrated in the 5,000 or so partnerships which are featured on the ‘Schools Together’ website.

It defies belief that a major political party would put at risk all of this good work by charging VAT on school fees, with a dubious claim that this would raise significant funds for other purposes. In fact, introducing VAT on school fees will cost, not save, the state money, and increase the burden on the taxpayer. Such a policy would result in the closure of many independent schools, an even higher demand for state school places, and the disappearance of so much excellent inter-sector work that would become unaffordable.

The girls’ schools within GSA’s membership come from a long line of pioneering educators who set out to address inequality by giving girls the same educational opportunities as boys. Today, the inequalities are different, but GSA schools are neither the enemy nor the barrier to social mobility. “GSA and state schools are working hand-in-hand to train new physics, maths and modern language teachers for the nation. We are funding more bursaries than ever before and, perhaps more importantly, the partnerships we have always had with state schools are increasing in both number and depth across the country. Independent schools are part and parcel of the fabric of their local communities and sometimes the main employer in their locality. Making it harder for our schools to operate is a simplistic response to a complex issue. It puts ideology before children’s education and welfare, and it will solve nothing.

All educators want children and young people to thrive from their earliest years until they embark on a career. That takes dedication from adults who want to give all young people the best they can. As a nation, we need to commit to spending on schools of every shape and size. Pulling the rug out from under the feet of those parents who choose to invest in their children’s future by sending them to an independent school, rather than using their money to buy a new car or go on holiday, will not provide a blanket for those who do not have the means to do the same. And creating expense and inconvenience for schools like mine, which gives £2.5 million pounds out every year in bursary places to children from low-income families, will do nothing to help social mobility.

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