‘The girls of today are our leaders of tomorrow’

Joanna Leach, headteacher of Highfield Prep School in Maidenhead, speaks to IET about the importance of pupils taking risks, being an anti-racist school, and keeping girls in sport.

Highfield, part of Chatsworth Schools, is a primary school for girls and boys (Nursery–Year 2) and girls only (Years 3 – 6) and was found to be Excellent in their recent (March 2022) ISI Inspection. Highfield had a 100% pass rate for the 11+ this year.

What do you think are the main reasons why Highfield received such a high rating in ISI’s latest report?

We are absolutely delighted with the outcome. We are a non-selective school and I think this report shows how we care more about just results – the real emphasis for us is on wellbeing and happiness, and making sure all the children love learning and make excellent progress, no matter their ability.  

Academic success and the willingness to learn go hand in hand with personal wellbeing and the enjoyment of school. Learning in a structured, supportive, safe and above all fun schooling environment is essential to nurturing happy, successful individuals who are well prepared for the real world. We are a small and nurturing school with a tangible family ethos – we all know and care for each other and this is what makes Highfield so special.

What do you think about the theory that an all-girls education environment is positive because it removes gender assumptions and stereotypes?

I absolutely agree with this theory! Since 1918 when women gained limited suffrage, the majority of policy and law has been written by men and reflects their bias. So, in an all-girls environment we need to encourage our girls to voice their ideas and opinions to break this bias. Gender affects the way that students experience education, and girls, particularly as they get older, face pressures to conform to gender stereotypes – pressures which are stronger when boys are present. Girls need space to develop their full potential, and to make informed and unconstrained choices about interests, subjects and careers. The girls of today are our leaders of tomorrow and they should be offered an education dedicated to the development and empowerment of successful, happy, confident and adventurous young women.

… in an all-girls environment we need to encourage our girls to voice their ideas and opinions to break this bias

Which gender stereotypes, that you’ve maybe seen in primary education, are the most unhelpful to children?

Before starting school, parents are the primary influence on children and have the biggest impact when children are between three and six years old (Gelman, Taylor, & Naguyen, 2004). Once a child enters a school environment, making sense of the world becomes more complex. In their ‘Drawing the Future’ report, Chambers et al., (2018), asked 20,000 primary school children from around the world to draw what they wanted to become when they were older. The research found that children were more likely to draw girls in caring roles and boys in more practical roles. From the age of five children are already aware of gender stereotypes in work (Tarhan, Gunduz and Kilic, 2014). 

In a single sex environment, we as educationalists have the ability to empower girls through our approach to the primary curriculum, counter stereotypes and influence girls’ career aspirations, including leadership, from a young age. 

Why is it so important that pupils make mistakes as they are learning?

We say here at Highfield that mistakes are marvellous as they help us learn! We encourage the girls to not give up and to continue to work on finding a solution. I was delighted to see that was recognised in our recent ISI report which actually stated that the girls feel confident enough to take risks in their learning, and to approach a problem from different angles in order to solve it. This is exactly what we want for all our girls.

What are your thoughts on why girls tend to drop out of sport and do less physical activity as they get older? 

Sport needs to be an intrinsic part of school life to prevent girls from losing interest. For International Women’s Day 2022, Women in Sport released new research which found that more than one million teenage girls (43%), who once considered themselves ‘sporty’, disengage from sport following primary school. A fear of feeling judged by others, lack of confidence, pressures of schoolwork, body image and puberty are significant factors.

The need to engage girls from a young age in sports has never been more urgent…  since the pandemic this generation of children is experiencing worrying mental health issues and report being less happy, more anxious and increasingly dissatisfied with their appearance

The need to engage girls from a young age in sports has never been more urgent. We know that since the pandemic this generation of children is experiencing worrying mental health issues and report being less happy, more anxious and increasingly dissatisfied with their appearance. Doing more physical activity can not only improve health and wellbeing but can also improve performance in the classroom. It is vital that we as educators recognise the benefits of sport for young girls and that we put on a range of different sports and health activities.

What motivated you to lead the Chatsworth Schools Anti-Discrimination Commission?

This commission came about after the outpouring of grief, emotion and anger on our streets inspired, in part, by the horrific death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and also the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement across the world. Chatsworth’s CEO Anita Gleave wanted us as a group to do something to respond to this and so the commission was formed. Chatsworth Schools was founded on the principles of Integrity, Resilience and Passion, and a deep desire to enable outstanding futures for all our children. I was delighted to volunteer and lead the Chatsworth group of schools towards the Anti-Racism accreditation. 

Can you talk a bit about what practical steps Highfield is taking towards becoming an ‘anti-racist school’?

Here at Highfield we are blessed with very diverse, multi-racial and multi-cultural school communities and we celebrate many examples of outstanding multi faith and inter-cultural events and learning opportunities. Our ISI report noted that the pupils respond positively to the wealth of cultural diversity within the school and how this enables them to take their places happily in the world.

We established the commission to look at all areas of our school and we have created our own development plan which includes auditing the school environment, reviewing our curriculum and further developing our parent and community partnerships. Anti-racism is one of our school’s core values alongside our commitment to having a rich whole school culture where all members of the community can thrive. 

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