‘Self-confidence, agency and risk-taking have taken a hit’

Brighton Girls head, Rosie McColl, talks about the damage face masks have done to pupils’ confidence and what her school is doing to reverse their effects

I was teaching a class of Year 7s this week and, despite the lifting of the masks rule early in May, there were still a number of girls wearing them as they went about school. When I asked them why, they replied that they felt “safe and cozy” in them and they kept them warm.

One girl went on to say that when she was walking down the corridor and saw that she would have to pass a group of older girls coming the other way, she felt better if she was wearing her mask as she could hide behind it.

This, I’m afraid, is a symptom of the passivity that masks seem to have engendered. Adapting to being in the company of older pupils and learning to handle the shyness they might feel initially around them is a rite of passage that 11-year-olds arriving at secondary school must go through. But with lockdown from January to March and then masks being introduced at school, this year has meant that the younger pupils have not developed that confidence that comes from moving on to secondary school.

And it is not just my Year 7s who have been affected. I have seen girls across the year groups using the mask to shrink back and not participate as they would normally have to in class. Masks make communication more difficult, and classroom conversations and debates that would usually be intrinsic to the learning environment have been curtailed.

Masks make communication more difficult, and classroom conversations and debates that would usually be intrinsic to the learning environment have been curtailed

My sixth formers suffered too, with many saying they did not feel as creative with masks on and debate was less likely when masks had to be worn – that’s deeply worrying for A-level students for whom analysis and argument are essential tools.

Self-confidence, agency and risk-taking have taken a hit. Something needed to be done.

Last week I appointed my new head of wellbeing, Matthew Gregory, with a remit of tackling this head on. He is now busy creating a curriculum focused on letting girls rediscover their voice after months of, quite literally, being muzzled.

The focus will be on using mental and physical exercise to change the dynamic. Alongside mindfulness and meditation, girls will also be jumping on trampolines as part of our new Bounce Fit Bounce classes and taking up wonderfully therapeutic sports like kickboxing. We want pupils to reach outside their comfort zones and challenge themselves. We’ll also be heading off to our activity centre in Boughrood in Wales too – it’s pretty hard not to find your voice when you are hurtling down a river in a kayak!

Matthew wants to turn the wellbeing curriculum here at Brighton Girls from being passive to active. In the past, pupils have sat and listened to a teacher talking about how to recognise signs of stress and low confidence. Now we will take that further by introducing activities that pupils can try out to see which ones help them. It might be a nature walk in the Downs without your phone or it might be canoeing full pelt down a river – it’s about pushing them and letting them see that they are capable of more than they realise. That’s such a confidence booster in itself.

(L to R) Head of Brighton Girls, Rosie McColl, with a pupil and skateboarding teacher Sarah Brownlow

 

Skateboarding club

I have also recently introduced a skateboarding club at school as well as accepting our first ever skateboarding scholar who will help run the club. We had an overwhelming response when we told the girls about the club and, so far, 88 girls have signed up. We are even creating a skatepark within the school.

I came up with the idea after watching the skateboarders down at the seafront skatepark – mastering the sport takes endless patience and perseverance as you fall down, make mistakes and get up again. And when you finally succeed, the confidence boost is huge. I realised those skills are exactly what I want my pupils to learn. I’ve even taken it up myself and my skateboard sits proudly in my office!

On top of this, our wonderful speech and drama teacher, Helen Hollingdale, has been running a fantastic course called Laugh and Like Yourself, where she trains pupils to do mini stand-up comedy routines – at first to each other, then to their form group, then to other school pupils they don’t know and finally to an audience of complete strangers over Zoom. Each time, their confidence visibly grows as they see they can do it despite what their inner hyper self-conscious voice is telling them.

School is not about passively sitting in rows, being talked at and mutely learning, it is about communicating, debating, challenging, risk-taking, chatting and laughing

Watching these sessions made me think more deeply about the amazing effects laughter can have and has prompted my next idea to boost self-esteem – laughter therapy sessions. These are known to strengthen the immune system, boost mood, lift confidence and protect you from the damaging effects of stress.

The past year has been such a difficult time for schoolchildren, it’s time we gave them something to laugh about. I’m working on weaving these sessions into school life as we speak.

School is not about passively sitting in rows, being talked at and mutely learning, it is about communicating, debating, challenging, risk-taking, chatting and laughing. With this raft of initiatives, I hope to equip our girls to look back at what they have been through, recognise the resilience they have shown and realise they are much stronger than they think.


You might also like: Why we should be teaching about voice and agency in schools

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