Speaking at the Girls’ Schools Annual Conference on Monday 21 November 2011, president Dr Helen Wright said:
Good afternoon and may I welcome you all – fellow Heads from across the UK, international counterparts including visitors from the US and Spain, and other guests – to this year’s annual Girls’ Schools Association conference in the City of Bristol. It is good to see so many familiar faces, and I think that we are in for an exciting and interesting few days. As far as my PA is concerned, she is just glad that it is almost the end of the year, but that is entirely another story!
I am very honoured to be able to address you this afternoon as President of the Girls’ Schools Association for 2011. It has been a tremendous privilege to serve the GSA as President, representing such fine colleagues, and I am really looking forward to talking to you all over the next three days of our conference.
I hope that as well as enjoying the debate, meetings and dinners at the conference venue here, you will be able to sample a taste of this fine city and that many of you will be joining us to do just that aboard the historic SS Great Britain tomorrow evening. Bristol is a city with a strong maritime heritage, so where better to host our reception before our annual conference dinner?
Bristol was a centre of global commerce long before the banks and the early leaders of the internet thought they had invented the term for themselves. It isn’t necessarily an easy past to come to terms with, as Bristol was the hub of the slave trade in the 18th century – a trade which enmeshed so many peoples across the earth for too long in our world history – but being here does remind us that beyond the boundaries of our day to day lives, there is a whole world out there, and it is a world for which we are preparing the girls and young women in our schools – preparing them not to repeat the mistakes of our past, but to play their part in creating a fairer, better society.
The theme of this conference is ‘Making a World of Difference’, and we have speakers from the world of business, from internet technology, from the media, from politics, from schools and, of course, from the charities which I adopted on behalf of the GSA this year, the Prince’s Trust South West, who run a Women into Enterprise programme for disadvantaged young women, as well as Plan UK, whose chief executive, Marie Staunton, will be ending this conference by talking about the work of Plan in Bangladesh and across the world, specifically for girls and young women. You know that I was able to go to Bangaldesh a couple of weeks ago, and the experience for me was more than eye-opening – it was both life-changingly humbling to see poverty that I had never experienced before, and upliftingly inspirational to see the work of Plan in action, working with communities – with girls, parents and leaders – to change attitudes to girls and to make a difference to the lives of the children they support.
One image in particular sticks in my mind from my visit – it is the image of a young child domestic worker – a servant – who works for a family in Dhaka. She gets up at 6am every morning and works until 9pm or later each day – 7 days a week, only seeing her own family back in her village twice a year at festival time. She earns around £5 a month – that is 16 pence a day. She has been with her employers for 4 years. She is 14 now, so she has been working since the age of 10. But – and this was what took my breath away – she was positive about her future. The two hours a day she was released to spend at the Plan-run group for child domestic workers were giving her, she felt, an education, which would protect her from early marriage (the only other way for her family to be able to feed her) and give her the hope of becoming, in her words, ‘self-dependent’.
The girls in our schools here in the UK are a world away from the child I met, in the opportunities open to them and in the attitudes of their parents, who value their education and who want to see their daughters grow into independent young women, but I can see now too that they are deeply connected to this girl in Dhaka, and to the many others I met during my visit, by their determination, and ours, that they will make the most of their lives and that they will value themselves and one another, and every human being, as part of their role in making the world a better place.
This is my passion, and I know it is yours too. How do we do it? Well, we recognise that our role as Heads is not, and never has been, restricted to exam success – which, incidentally, we are very good at. Nor is it just about preparing for university – although we do that very well too – so much so, in fact, that it has been shown that our former pupils often compare the teaching in our schools very favourably with the teaching experiences they receive while at university. I think there is a lot to be gained from better dialogue between universities and our schools, particularly as recent research has indicated how well we know our students. Independent schools, it has been demonstrated, make the most reliable A Level predictions.
There is more too that we can share with universities. In our schools, we have a clear focus on what we are seeing to achieve with our pupils: we are preparing girls to reach the next stage of their lives, and to anticipate the stages beyond that. How many universities can genuinely say this? What is the purpose of university, and are universities meeting this purpose? Is there enough face-to-face interaction? Is there enough development of critical thinking faculties? Who are universities there for? In this age of heightened financial awareness, it is imperative that universities provide answers to these questions, and our schools are happy to work in partnership to share our understanding and experience.
But our role far exceeds that of preparing our girls for exams and universities. We are specialists in all areas of the education of girls, and as such we reach out to parents on every aspect of how to help the children and adolescents of today grow into amazing young women. And we are not afraid to speak out when necessary. ‘Making a world of difference’ means sometimes sticking one’s head above the parapet and saying what is right and perfectly obvious, but which others are reluctant to say.
As Head of a girls’ school and as a mother of three young children under nine, I did feel that there was something I could do with my presidency that might have an impact on all children and how they are treated. As Heads, we are well-qualified to talk about the wider issues facing today’s young women and young girls, and this is recognised by parents – just see the success of the GSA’s first book on bringing up girls – ‘Your Daughter’ – which was published last February!
I have long been concerned by the seeming erosion of the innocence of childhood in the 21st Century, by the challenges and obstacles faced by children and parents as they seek to grow and nurture their children safely through their teenage years and to adulthood, and by the plight of children who have no-one to care for them as they face their tender years alone or with parents who simply haven’t learned how to parent, who aren’t being supported in their parenting, or who have no networks to help them. Now, more than ever, whatever the doubters say, children in our society are assaulted by inappropriate images everywhere they look – from the internet, to the pages of magazines, to billboards, to displays in shops – the list goes on. And parents, supported by our schools, are in the forefront of the battle to address this.
When I was working on some research to speak to Panorama about this issue earlier in the year, I was absolutely shocked by the sexual imagery in adverts in magazines for very young children. In what sort of twisted reality is it acceptable to run pole-dancing classes for young children and advertise them with pictures on the internet, for instance?
What hope have we got of safeguarding our children’s sacred childhood if they are knocked off their feet on the nursery slopes of life by an avalanche of images and malign influences? And make no mistake, this is what is happening.
And yet, when I have spoken out against these issues, I have been met with some opposition – in one case from a young female commentator who suggested I was out of touch and over-reacting. Given the thousands of girls who pass through our gates each year, I would venture to suggest that I am slightly more in touch than she is … Anyway, I stand firm and say that I truly believe that issues such as the protection of childhood, of young girls and of young women, and speaking out against the premature sexualisation of children, are vital.
I am happy to be a warning voice about the dangers facing our children from the images they face and from technology and, crucially, giving others the confidence to speak out. It is time to take up the drawbridge on the liberal dogma of the past which has left us with the moral abyss of the present.
It is not just the banal and mind-numbing nature of many of these copycat shows which I feel is so undesirable or the easy celebrity reality TV stars seem to have achieved which can be very attractive to teenagers and children seeking a direction – but the amorality of such shows.
In the X Factor, contestants are encouraged to be at each other’s throats, seemingly more so this year than ever – perhaps signalling this particular brand is well and truly in decline. Qualities such as bullying and arrogance are glamorised and become synonyms for ambition and drive. Young people look up to these so-called stars who have themselves been catapulted into a spotlight which can be far too much for them.
This is a show which exploits not only its contestants but its audience too. The lines are blurred between the qualities we should be encouraging our young people to value and the qualities they feel are valuable.
I wasn’t quite speaking as a lone cry in the wilderness when I started this campaign, voicing my concerns about the dangers facing children – not just in the UK, but across the world – but I have been absolutely delighted during the year to notice a groundswell of opinion in favour of protecting our children from this avalanche of insidious images and dangers they face.
From the Bailey Report into this whole area to the campaigning of Claire Perry, MP for Devizes, who we are delighted to welcome here later today, there has been a mobilisation of ideas and commonsense about the role that adults should play in directing and guiding the lives of young children, and this has been excellent to see. Claire Perry, incidentally, recently won her long campaign to force internet service providers to introduce an opt-in clause for pornography to avoid young children inadvertently being exposed to inappropriate images. It is estimated that one-third of today’s 10 year olds are believed to have been exposed to internet pornography and yet more than eight in ten – 83% – think easy access to internet porn is damaging to children. So congratulations to Claire and to all her fellow campaigners. It is an important landmark victory which was fought hard for.
Parents need to feel they can complain about what they might see as inappropriate, and as Heads we shouldn’t be afraid to support them in this. Parents in my own local area felt that so-called novelty goods such as furry handcuffs in a local PoundLand should not be displayed next to children’s goods. They complained, got the local media and schools involved and won their own small victory but an important one. The goods were moved. Parent power at its best.
Parents like this are to be applauded. If something feels wrong and looks wrong, it probably is wrong. If we can encourage one parent to stand up and be counted rather than being concerned about being seen as a Mary Whitehouse figure, we should feel that we have done a good job.
But these are the parents who stand up and the parents who are beginning to find a voice, but are already concerned. I have a deep worry that some parents have been so deprived in their own lives of education and values – a different poverty from that I witnessed in Bangladesh, but no less real – that they no longer know right from wrong and that they are as a result unwittingly ‘indulging’ children in some parallel universe where it is acceptable to let young children wear make-up and provocative clothing.
If parents can’t see anything wrong in dressing up their children in ‘Future WAG’ t-shirts and letting them wear make-up, high heels and ‘mini-me’ sexy clothing, then something is intensely wrong in our society. I have no doubt that these are the parents who have been failed by the education system themselves. These are the parents without support, experience or networks. They have grown up without any respect for their elders or any idea of how to bring up a child. How can they bring up their own children correctly if they have been failed themselves? But how do we break the cycle? Education, of course – and the support of schools embedded in their communities.
And so, of course, it is no surprise that our country’s leaders are turning to the independent sector to help, although it is interesting to note still a reluctance on the part of our Coalition Government to stand up and say just how much they value what we have to offer to an education and welfare system which has failed so many young people over so many years of state involvement in their lives. Education continues to be yet another political pawn in the short-term battles fought between our political parties.
You will not be surprised to hear me say that I welcome the freeing of schools from state control. Indeed, as the Head of an independent girls’ school, it would seem strange if I did not want others to enjoy the same autonomy that we, as Heads of GSA schools do. I would go further, and say that education should be de-politicised entirely. All of those powers of the Secretary of State? Perhaps they should be invested in a wiser, more long-term body that should oversee education in this country and beyond?
Of course, I welcome the advent of free schools and I, like many of you here today, will be fascinated to see how the many schools opening and set to open over the coming months, will perform. Similarly, I am looking with interest on the growth of academies who have been promised greater autonomy and more time to concentrate on educating the children within them. It will be interesting to see if this materialises, or if the lure of centralisation in Whitehall proves impossible for our politicians to resist.
The Government must be careful, I believe, in drawing us in the independent sector in to bolster their new academies or to prop up other failing schools. This might curry favour in some political quarters but who will really benefit if we are forced to provide the teachers, classrooms and the expertise that should have been provided by successive governments?
Irrespective of the demands of the Charity Commission – and do remember that the recent judicial review has confirmed that it is not up to an external body to determine how we demonstrate our public benefit, which we would all agree is deeply embedded in each of our schools – we have all long been encouraging links with our local schools and communities. Each of our schools is in fact integral to our local communities, as well as a symbiotic part of our national community and beyond, in this ever-smaller world.
It is only right for us to be involved in partnerships with other schools, but it is not right for us to be told how to do so. We know that we do not live in splendid isolation in this world. We may be accused of being elite – which is true only in as far as the education we offer stands out for its excellence – but very many of us have in fact already been quietly working to help state schools in our own areas – and there is more help than ever available for pupils to attend our schools with financial assistance.
At my own school – St Mary’s Calne – I am proud to say that a fifth of our pupils have some financial aid to help them attend our school and the GSA as a whole encourages such help across the board. Think how many of all our school parents have themselves not had the benefit of an independent school education, but recognise it as the best in the world, and have worked to make sure that they can provide this for their daughters – and do, with our help. Remember the recent statistics we heard from the University of Oxford – that of the students coming to Oxford with household incomes under £25,000, who then automatically qualify for a full Oxford Opportunity Bursary, over 30% are from schools in the independent sector. Independent schools today are showing us social mobility in practice.
As leading schools in the UK and offering a world-class education, we are being asked to help failing schools in the state system. We may be perfectly capable of succeeding where the state has failed, but we must not forget our own pupils and their parents. The pupils who attend our establishments know they are lucky to have the benefit of an excellent education, the opportunity for which has been provided for them by the hard work and commitment of their parents and families – a fact which is often overlooked. Why should our parents – most of whom struggle hard to pay the fees to educate their children – prop up the state system and so effectively pay twice?
We have an undeniable moral imperative to educate our broader society – I certainly came into education to do this – but who does it serve if we are expected to over-reach ourselves and self-destruct? The demands of government in this respect, I would venture to say, might only begin to be fair if the long-talked about pupil premium could mean pupils opting out of the state system could bring their ‘state funding’ with them. (They do this in Australia, by the way …)
Pressure on independent schools to prop up the state system is just one more example of the state trying to politicise education. Education should not be a political issue with schemes chopped and changed at will by different governments for political capital.
I have great hopes that the era of free schools and academies will help to free the state sector from unnecessary controls which are stifling their ability to teach. I say give a school, any school, the freedom to run itself, its budgets and its curriculum, and it will soon find a proud place in its local community. Just look at what is happening in Bangladesh, where school councils empower the children themselves to reach out and draw in vulnerable children and their parents, encouraging community involvement and community action, and demanding excellence in their education. Sometimes, we have much to learn from the developing world.
Give more independence to this country’s schools and you free them from becoming the dependents. Only then can they truly be free to teach pupils how to think, not just what to think, and encourage them to want to learn and to love to learn. That is what education means.
And I stand by, also, what I have said during my year in office, that at the heart of the education system, even with the cracks papered over with some shiny new schools, still lies its creaking, archaic, past-it exam system which urgently needs looking at.
If there is any aspect of our education system where political intervention is most keenly felt, it is in our exam system, and the time has come to begin a genuine debate about how and what our education system should be preparing our young people for, and how we should be testing them. This needs to be free of political interference and short-term solutions – this should be a debate involving Heads and leaders of education, and not politicians.
Our life is education, and we live, breathe, eat and sleep education (especially in a boarding school!); we are not interested in the next election, but are instead committed to the growth and development of each and every child in our care, and we have invaluable experience to bring to bear on such a process.
It is no secret that I have said that I think that GCSEs are no longer fit for purpose. They were intended as a guide for employers of a school leaver’s academic standards and potential. Now, for many – taken as they are at 16 – they provide a poor match for the demanding A Level years and are undervalued by employers. Besides, I strongly believe that the relentless pressure of GCSEs, AS Levels and A2s followed by the race for a university place is too much to be crammed into two such important years of a teenager’s development.
We should look at reforming the whole system so that academic standards can rise, and the importance of the vocational qualification which has somehow been lost or forgotten amongst the drive for university for all – can be rediscovered. Students should be able to choose a vocational course, apprenticeship or professional on the job training as something that is right for them – not a second or third choice because they can’t get a university place. Our university system is at breaking point because teenagers have been made to feel unfairly that university is the only way. Today’s students do not need to be shoehorned into the new English Bacc to ensure schools keep up their league table place. They need help, advice, inspirational teaching and the freedom to develop their interests into a passion for their future. They need dedicated, committed professionals such as you find in our Association’s schools, who will give them guidance on how to make the right decision for their future. This is not about dumbing down aspirations for the future; it is the complete opposite – it is about encouraging young people to aim high, to make the most of themselves and their lives, and to have a range of pathways that lead them forward. Schools need freedoms in this respect, and young people need choices.
Perhaps Mr Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Schools, will give us some insight in his speech tomorrow into his plans in this respect might make a world of difference for us as Heads.
At the start of my presidential year, I was, of course, keen to do all I could do to promote the excellence of girls’ education in the UK and promote single sex education which I believe wholeheartedly is the best way to educate young girls and young women! I wanted to make a difference, to help the GSA have an even stronger voice on behalf of young women and mark out girls’ schools as an ever important force in the education world. I hope that I have continued to put the case for single sex education with verve and vigour, and I promise that I will continue to do so!
Earlier in my speech, I talked about how small the world is. We are living in an unprecedented time, a 24-7 world where the internet has revolutionised communication. Small world has become a phrase that is more appropriate than ever. We are all living in a global village. Not only do we have the wonderful opportunity of educating young women in the UK in some of the country’s finest establishments but we have a chance – through our voices and our actions – of making a world of difference to children and girls worldwide. I hope that we all can.
As most of you now know, I have also found myself on a personal international path which proved to me again just what a small world we live in, when I was approached with the fantastic opportunity of heading the great Australian girls’ school – Ascham in Sydney – a post I will be taking up in 2013 after a decade in my present post at St Mary’s Calne. It has been a life-changing decision for me and, I hope, there will be many more challenges for me personally – and for my family – to make a world of difference, albeit it from the other side of the planet. I have no doubt that we will keep closely in touch, however!
Before this, though, we have a conference to enjoy, and I shall delay us no longer from embarking upon it. Thank you all for your support this year and for joining me in supporting and educating today’s girls and young women, and tomorrow’s leaders. Together, I believe, we are making the world a different, a better place.
Dr Helen Wright
St Mary’s Calne
GSA President 2011
GSA – Rachel Kerr 0781 681 6180
Dr Helen Wright – Liz Ivens 0758 412 1388