Saturday, 1 October 2011

What our girls really need to learn

Last weekend I came across this article in the Mail on Sunday Supplement. I found it very inspiring and I think it worth sharing with fellow School Governors and Head Teachers.

Like boys, girls must deal with intense exam pressure and the prospect of accruing debts of up to £84,000 if they get the grades to go to university. After graduating, they face an uncertain future – for this generation there is no security in careers or relationships. Girls also have to face the complications of childcare and a stubborn gender pay gap. Identifying this concern, the Girls’ School Association, of which Helen is president, has recently published Your Daughter:
a Guide for Raising Girls, which deals with issues such as how to motivate girls without pushing them too hard and how to discuss all that can go wrong without discouraging them.

Helen and Jo believe that girls today are confused about their identities and that this lies at the root of their problems. ‘The way young women should assert themselves is not through emulating the behaviour of boys, which is what we are seeing,’ says Jo of QK. ‘They seem to feel that to grab their slice of the cake they must be aggressive and rude.’ Yet they also obsess about appearance. ‘On one level, they know size zero is not real,’ says Helen of St Mary’s Calne, ‘but it’s an accepted image so they become unsure.’ Jo adds, ‘With plastic surgery, injections and hair extensions, you can now construct an image as a woman that has nothing to do with the person you were born to be. Black girls want to be lighter; white girls want a suntan. They all want to look like Rihanna. It’s a fake identity that these girls are creating.’ She is also shocked by the casualness of some of their sexual relationships. ‘Many teenagers don’t “go out” together as couples. They have what they call “links” – someone with whom they have sex when they feel like it. And I think the reason some girls behave like that is because their self-esteem is so low.’ Helen agrees. ‘If you don’t like yourself, your path will be harder. All these problems we see, from girls who bully to eating disorders [Jo says that self-harming is now the most common problem], are external symptoms of that.’ 

So how do the two headmistresses turn out resilient, ambitious, happy girls who can cope with the pressure? St Mary’s has a reputation as one of the finest girls’ schools in the country and QK as one of the most improved, where, despite deprivation, more than 90 per cent of pupils go on to university. Both women have a clear vision of what they must do to help girls through the system, and their methods are remarkably similar. Helen says, ‘Encouraging girls to like themselves is at the heart of what we do; making sure they have a strong sense of themselves as individuals.’ Jo agrees, ‘What we try to do is engender a sense of self-respect, to help them value and protect the nub of what makes them who they are.’

They start by providing the time and space to talk and to listen. ‘As a boarding school, we have lots of relaxed opportunities to talk. I’ve been very open with the girls about working and having children, for example,’ says Helen, who has three children, aged from one to eight. ‘And we usually guide the girls by asking questions such as, “How do you really feel? What do you really want to do?”’ 

Jo has established a system based on her personal experience. She successfully raised three children, now aged 19 to 30, after her marriage failed, and uses similar strategies at school to those that worked at home. ‘There are so many kids who are being brought up by us as an institution because their families either can’t or won’t do it,’ she says. ‘Coming from a Jewish family, everything revolves around sitting down and eating and talking together, so if I saw a problem developing, we would sit down to discuss it.’ At QK, she has formalised this by establishing groups where girls with different interests and concerns can talk in a supportive environment, which she sees as vital in a school where female students are outnumbered. A special area is set aside for the girls’ exclusive use at lunch and break times, too.

As the girls get to know themselves, the next step is to persuade them to like who they are. Helen says this is a subtle business: ‘Every human is different so there can’t be a blueprint.’ But she thinks that too much parental praise becomes an empty background noise, which does nothing to build real confidence. ‘We try to develop their own passions and interests. We keep a close eye to make sure they are not too judgmental of themselves. And parents need to remember that there should be boundaries, such as what time they have to return home, who they are with, how they travel. I don’t think it’s reasonable for 14- or 15-year-olds to stay out late. You can never be your daughter’s best friend but you can be her amazing mother.’ 

Jo is stepping in to provide boundaries to those children who aren’t taught them at home. ‘I’m
so horrified by the way some girls and boys relate to each other that I’m scrapping our existing sexual relationships education programme and putting the whole focus on how young people perceive each other and what they want from their lives together. I’m always talking to the kids and telling them that they should be aspiring to be in relationships, not having sex with whomever and pretending it’s OK. They should be looking for a special person who means something to them. 

At first they laugh and say, “Oh, you’re so old-fashioned.” But when you peel away the layers, you get to the point where they say, “I know, Miss.” And what we are trying to do is get the girls to say, “Actually, I’m worth more than that.” I held a girls-only assembly recently about what beauty really is. It was heartening listening to them talking about it on the way out. The message I gave the girls was: you’ve got to be happy with the person you are. I showed them a picture of Madonna before and after airbrushing. I said, “This woman is 53 – it’s not surprising that she’s got lines.” I played them the lyrics of [soul singer] India Arie: “I ain’t built like a supermodel, but I learnt to love myself. Don’t need your silicone, I prefer my own.”’

Despite the competition for top university places and jobs, both heads are encouraging their girls to aim high. ‘We are still saying to them, “You can do whatever you want to,”’ says Helen. ‘But we add that there are different paths. We want to talk about the hurdles that they may meet without making them seem insurmountable. Do they need a plan A, a plan B and a plan C these days? Yes. If someone wants to study medicine, for example, we say, OK, we’ll go for plan A, but if that doesn’t work out we’ll have alternatives. We can talk a little about plan B, but that’s where the fine line comes in – you don’t want that person to become demotivated about plan A. And there are different routes. You can become a doctor by doing postgraduate medical training with a French degree, for example. 

This year ten of our girls got offers from Oxford or Cambridge, but some didn’t. We had a few discussions: should they reapply or go for other options? And I said, “Put that thought in a box. I guarantee we’ll be able to have a measured discussion after you’ve done your exams.” It’s a question of thinking about what’s really important to you and having something to tide you over. We never leave girls high and dry. There will always be a direction in which they can go.’ 

Similarly, Jo says, ‘When the girls first come here, we talk about “when” they go to university, so they see themselves as being on a journey.’ Helen adds, ‘We keep up a fluid conversation with the girls. It comes down to mentoring.’ Mentors and role models play a huge part in both women’s approaches. ‘At St Mary’s, we hold a Women in Corporate Culture Conference and we have businesswomen come and talk about their own journeys, and I think the girls learn that there isn’t a set way to achieve your aims; life isn’t like that.’ At QK, says Jo, ‘Ex-pupils return to the school to mentor and to share their accounts of university life. And we take groups to visit  former students now studying at Oxford and Cambridge.’ She employs staff who work purely on the pastoral side. ‘The school is full of mentors and adult role models. It’s expensive but worth investing in.’ This, again, mimics her instinct as a mother. ‘My female friends, sisters and Mum were giving the same messages to my daughter Millie [now 23] as I was. That’s important. If there’s a problem between you, someone else can step in for a while, otherwise they go to the peer group.’

Helen has to teach her privileged girls how to fail and how to pick themselves up after a disappointment. Her guidance helps them to see failure as a useful experience, which takes away its sting. ‘There are a number of times where we deal with this very specifically. We encourage our pupils to put themselves forward for a sixth-form scholarship, but we also talk to them about the pros and cons. It is a competition. They have to weigh up putting themselves forward or not, knowing that they may or may not get it. And I say, “For me, trying is the better way to operate, because it’s important to know how uncertainty and the taking of a risk feels – and that will stand you in good stead.” So we try to challenge them and support them at the same time. I want them to take academic risks and other risks, too.’ 

Deprivation gives the QK pupils an inherent resilience but the school offers practical as well as emotional support. ‘We’ve got a number of sixth-form students who are homeless,’ says Jo. ‘One girl, who is living in a hostel, came in the other day and said she was going to give up and get a job. So we pointed out that she has one more year before university, when she’ll be housed, how much she has already achieved and how she is stronger than she thinks. Then we broke her problems into steps. “Let’s get this essay in first.” We phone her every morning to get her up. One girl works on night reception here from four to 11 so that she can study while she mans the front desk and be paid, because she was struggling in a hostel. So in a crisis, we offer a step-by-step approach for getting from A to B and at the same time we give them self-belief: “I have done an amazing job already.”’
Because their pupils were being deterred from university by the new fees, QK held presentations in assembly. ‘We showed students in detail how the repayments will be manageable because they will be proportional to what they are earning.’

By the time the girls enter the sixth form, it is obvious that te methods have worked. ‘Fourteen and 15 are the really difficult ages for girls,’ says Jo. ‘If you can get them over that hump, they do come back on stream. Their sense of themselves is vastly improved. It is almost as though the girls become the more powerful; they know where they’re going, whereas the boys are still playing around. They find a strength.’ 

‘The path of being a teenager, if done well, is from feeling alone and different to feeling alone and unique,’ says Helen. ‘It comes back to knowing yourself. It’s not something for which you can say, “Tick!” But if you’re advanced on that journey you’ll be successful in life, simply because you feel more yourself.’

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