World leaders with empathy are a positive example, says GSA President

World leaders with empathy are a positive example, says GSA President

16 November 2020

Leaders who embody empathy and collaborative working have been a positive example to the entire world during the pandemic, says GSA President Jane Prescott.

Speaking at the Girls’ Schools Association annual conference – moved online because of the pandemic – GSA President Jane Prescott has praised the empathetic, collaborative approach of leaders at the helm of countries as diverse as Norway, Germany, New Zealand and Taiwan during the Covid crisis.

Mrs Prescott is also Headmistress of Portsmouth High School GDST. She said:

“When my tenure as President of the Girls’ School Association started last January, I could not have imagined the phenomenal challenge of the last eight months. My launch statement had greater insight than I thought at the time. I talked of a global connectivity – little did I know that we would be united by a pandemic and that the very methods of networking would become stronger. I had no idea we would become so used to talking online, learning virtually and speaking to each other so much more often than we did before March. The change has been seismic; it has also been swift.


“Now we are in the midst of another lockdown, albeit this time schools remain open – and they must. Continuity of education is vital for young people’s mental health and schools are doing their utmost to provide it, despite the inevitable disruptions as some students have to isolate, and despite the additional workload the pandemic has brought with it.

“We are all asking ourselves ‘when will it end?’ and we are all sensitive to the fact that not every child in the country has re-engaged with school, that not every child has been able to access lessons while at home, though, nationally, measures are being taken to address this. Teachers and headteachers have been at their own front line and have done whatever it takes to put children first, keep schools open and keep going. Heads are under tremendous pressure to manage the daily challenges of running a school in a time of Covid, and yet what I have observed this year are countless acts of generosity and selflessness as school leaders, staff and students themselves have reached out to those in greater difficulty, providing practical support with everything from shared teaching and learning resources to food parcels.    


“As headteacher of a girls’ school, educating tomorrow’s leaders, it has been of great interest to me to see the leadership qualities shown by the leaders of countries many have deemed successful in coping with the Covid crisis. We live in times of rapid change, but some of the positive examples that have been cited at various times include countries as diverse as Norway, Germany, New Zealand and Taiwan. In the case of Norway, I vividly recall their Prime Minister Erna Solberg speaking directly to children and answering their questions about the pandemic. As headteachers we know how valuable it can be to canvass pupil opinion and reassure young people with straightforward, honest answers. Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, was decisive in introducing measures that prevented a full lockdown, and New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, used Facebook to check in with people.

“What is interesting to me are leaders who embody empathy and collaborative working, and yet have made tough, considered decisions for long-term gain rather than immediate acclaim. That’s the kind of risk-taking we mustn’t under-estimate, and it seems to me that it’s also the kind of leadership in which good headteachers excel. 

“During this pandemic, GSA Heads have shared best practice, we have shared our concerns and our triumphs with one another, finding ourselves in unprecedented circumstances, forced to make quick decisions but always with the long term welfare of the children in our schools at the centre.

“In our girls’ schools I genuinely believe we are educating young women to move beyond gender stereotypes. Our schools and their leaders – both men and women – are not afraid to embrace the empathy and interpersonal and collaborative skills some may typically associate with women. They acknowledge the strength in those qualities.  At the same time, girls’ schools create environments in which young women are able to practice and become confident in considered risk-taking. Every leadership role, every subject, every opportunity is wide open for the young women in our schools to enjoy, excel at and learn from. It is so important for girls to see excellent leadership embodied in senior teachers, and to have the opportunity to practice it for themselves, and I cannot think of any better role model for the girls in our schools than my fellow GSA Heads.


“School visits and trips were cancelled in the summer term and only limited activities have been possible this term. We have tried to support theatres and the arts, but it has not always been possible to visit venues and instead we have done our best to access performances online and by paying to view. That’s why I really hope that #tuneup Tuesday later this month [24 November] really takes off and all schools seize the opportunity to celebrate the impact of the arts on the development and mental health of young people by encouraging all pupils to spend at least 5 minutes celebrating the arts. []

“Our curtailed capacity for travel has led schoolchildren to visit many places all over the world through virtual field trips. I am the first to admit the atmosphere is not as inspiring when you’re looking at Pompeii, for example, from the comfort of an armchair. Nevertheless, high quality drone footage and excellent commentary can provide a reasonable compromise. Sight-seeing is only part of the experience of visiting another place. Trying new food and practising another language plays an important educational role and of course that has been missing with our virtual trips. However, the compensation for not actually travelling is a reduction in our impact on the environment. Many more pupils can participate too, as costs are negligible, and the experience is easily repeated and – technology willing – those who were absent from the first trip can experience it in their own time.


“In January I spoke about the usefulness of internet-enabled mobile phones in a school environment. My views on this were well and truly put to test during guided home learning. Whether pupils were accessing live online lessons or following work posted by their teachers, they were able to do all of this using their phone. Of course, that’s much easier on a larger screen, but if a big screen was not available, then the phone made it possible. More importantly, pupils skilled in communicating online at home or in their social lives were able to use those same skills to learn virtually. To be able to use digital technology is vital for the workplace and imperative for communication in the modern world, making it possible for so many people to work anywhere and with anyone, regardless of location. Even the greatest technophobe has had to embrace a new way of working and, as a result, pupils have honed their skills in presentation and communication. When they encounter online meetings in their future workplaces they will be well-versed in the etiquette of virtual calls.


“For a whole term during the pandemic, children were liberated from the daily journey to school. As well as negative consequences for some, there were also many positive outcomes. Families found they had more time to spend together and, whilst no one wants to underplay the tension around public examinations, students found time on their hands as they were no longer revising or taking tests. For many this helped relieve them of the anxiety that taking formal assessments bring. For those who are rarely at their best in examinations, there was a lightening of the pressure.

“I would not wish to underestimate the positive social impact that being at school has on children’s welfare. The prolonged absence is why so many children have been so negatively impacted and why so many returned so eagerly. We’re always, as headteachers, reminded of what we get wrong, but at the beginning of the autumn term, thousands of children reminded us of what we do right. They couldn’t wait to get back to school and be amongst the shared experience and the classroom energy that drives learning.


“Nevertheless, if relieving the pressure of formal examination can relieve children from unnecessary anxiety, I do think it is time assessments at 16 were reviewed. This is my personal belief and I acknowledge that it’s not shared by all of you. This year there was tremendous uncertainty and additional workload for schools as we grappled with the last minute grading system, but with planning and proper guidance there could be an alternative and arguably for some better way  of moving students into post-16 study. For example, with the extra time they gained during lockdown, many students embarked on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) to broaden their knowledge. Some started Extended Project Qualifications (EPQ) or preparations for their next course. I know of others who volunteered in the community, delivering food parcels for example.


“Children today are not the ‘snowflake’ generation. They are, in fact, ever resourceful given the right environment and the right support; the kind of support typically given by teachers and other professionals for whom schools are the hub of communication. What this pandemic has shown is that young people are more resilient than they have been given credit for previously. They have suffered family bereavement, been unable to comfort each other, and been denied the ability to visit elderly relatives. Yes, there are rising mental health issues to concern us all, and we mustn’t underestimate them. However, we must also give credit where credit is due. The overwhelming majority of students I see have coped admirably with the rollercoaster of cancelled examinations and what we have seen in many schools is an ability to adapt and change as the fluctuating health and safety rules dictate. It has become routine to regularly wash hands and sanitise. Students may have struggled with keeping their distance within their bubbles, but it is my observation that they keep a respectful distance from those outside of their immediate circle.

“We should praise the actions of our school-aged children who are experiencing the worst global crisis in most people’s memory.

“Speaking personally, I have never been prouder to be a Head. All the online collaboration that GSA has facilitated for members, the exceptional qualities of leadership I have seen in all my colleagues and fellow Heads is inspiring to me, and I am sure it has been an inspiration to you and also to the children we educate. Schools are about preparing young people for the future and, in these uncertain times, the continuity, the sense of discovery and forward momentum they provide is needed more than ever.”

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