The Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) conference took place in Bristol from 18-19 November 2019 and the organisation left no educational stone unturned. From fake news and keeping scholarship alive, to menopause in the workplace and sustainability, the conference covered all the major talking points of the moment.
Sue Hincks, GSA’s president for 2019, highlighted the importance of teaching young girls to be discerning. “We have to formalise the ability to ask purposeful questions which lead to greater understanding and more perspective,” she said.
She proudly defended the independent school sector’s work in giving choice to parents who want their children to have a broader curriculum, spreading values of respect internationally, increasing bursary provision and working with state schools.
“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,” Hincks said of the Labour party’s plans to abolish private schools’ charitable status.
We have to formalise the ability to ask purposeful questions which lead to greater understanding and more perspective
What was interesting to hear was a talk made by someone who did not complete their education – although she admits she wouldn’t promote this, saying she succeeded “despite not having a great education”.
Tracy Edwards rose to fame in 1989 as the skipper of the first all-female crew to sail around the world in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race. Despite being told ‘girls can’t sail’ and being at the receiving end of a lot of anger over her plans, Edwards and her team built their boat ‘Maiden’ from scratch and went on to win two legs, coming second overall. It was the best result for a British boat since 1977.
“Women have to make disadvantages into advantages,” was her message.
Now she strives to instil hope in young girls through The Maiden Factor, which works with charities to provide an education for girls who don’t have one.
“It’s the best project I’ve ever worked on in my life,” Edwards said.
She commented on the “engaged and confident” girls at GSA schools who thrive because of teachers who have faith in them. Edwards delivers talks in schools and offers her new documentary ‘Maiden’ to be shown in any school that is interested.
Preparing for the workplace
Of course, our current exam system was a popular topic between heads. Jenny Brown, headmistress of City of London School for Girls, had concerns about the narrowing of exam choice.
She said: “It feels like choices are narrowing in our exam specifications, in our qualifications, at the very moment when quite frankly what I think we should be trying to do is protect that choice and think more courageously and more interestingly about our assessment to prepare 21st century pupils for the 21st century workplace.
“We’re actually being tunnelled into this, what will become, quite homogeneous A-level provision.”
Both Brown and Helen Jeys, headmistress at Alderley Edge School for Girls, commented on their fondness of the Pre-U qualification, which will be administered for the last time in 2023, saying it offered a “global perspective”. Brown also said on GCSEs: “They are outmoded, uninteresting and draining.”
Similarly, Sam Price, headmistress of Benenden School, said exam results should not be the focus. “I think we’ve got to be careful not to get too focused on results to the detriment of employability skills,” she said. Beneden’s professional skills programme helps young people with CV writing, interview techniques and understanding personality types in the workplace.
However, one talk at the conference focused on how to keep scholarship at the heart of education. While seeming to contradict my earlier points about moving away from academic focus, it turned out that it was the definition of scholarship that was changing and becoming more creative.
Neil Enright, headmaster of Queen Elizabeth’s School, said scholarship meant recruiting the right staff, allowing pupils to carry out independent research projects, allowing pupils to follow their personal academic interests, school partnerships and inviting interesting speakers into school.
It feels like choices are narrowing in our exam specifications, in our qualifications, at the very moment when quite frankly what I think we should be trying to do is protect that choice
GSA’s conference was also the location of the revelation of the organisation’s Woman of the Year. Pupils from 150 GSA schools shortlisted eight public figures, and environmental activist Greta Thunberg was the overall winner. To mark her award, GSA donated to Renewable World, which uses renewable energy to help tackle poverty in the developing world.
Sustainability is a huge talking point and it was Chris Willmore from the University of Bristol who took to the conference stage to address the topic.
The professor of sustainability and law came up with a great idea for helping pupils explore environmental change without becoming overwhelmed. You’ve probably seen the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. She encouraged teachers to ask pupils which ones are most important to them, and out of those which ones can they do something about.
She also said leaders need to give permission to staff to talk about sustainability and enable them to engage with it in their curriculum, whilst also ensuring people talk about sustainability in a positive way.
Out of everything discussed, it seemed to me that the differing opinions on assessment have become a real point of contention. It’s a tight balancing act, ensuring academic standards are high whilst teaching other life skills.
How can school leaders manage this? As one head said to me, “It’s what we do”. With that I knew that whatever happens, GSA heads will continue to deliver an education that best prepares girls for everything ahead of them.
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