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Specialists in girls' education

The Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) represents independent girls’ schools in the UK.

President Louise Robinson opens the Girls’ Schools Association Annual Conference, Liverpool 2012

19 November 2012

Girls’ Schools Association president Louise Robinson opened the Association’s 2012 Annual Conference by addressing over 200 conference delegates. She said:

“Good afternoon and welcome to Liverpool, Capital of Culture, home of the Beatles, Everton and Liverpool football clubs (and of course Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher), the Liver Birds and the two Cathedrals.

“I have been reading and listening to a lot of the TED talks, (technology, entertainment, design), so as part of my welcome, I am going to reflect on Liverpool’s musical heritage by quoting some song titles: in this current climate I am sure many of you are thinking ‘money’s too tight to mention’, or for the pension’s debate, ‘will you still feed me when I am 68’. And of course in our ‘hard day’s night’, we still want ‘8 days a week’ to fit in all our work, but we know in the end ‘we can work it out!’

“So we are into the eleventh month of the second decade of the c21st and there are already the signs of a dramatic shift in demographics, economic and social fault lines. I am not qualified to speak about the economy and China, but when we consider that there are more Gifted and Talented children in Asia, than we have pupils, there will be a different world out there for our students than the one for which we were prepared and the one for which our schools are designed. The rapid change in technological and scientific advances, the developments in ICT, medicine and digital communications are changing our world.

“We all know that knowledge is power, and we revere the people who have that knowledge: doctors, lawyers, professors, etc, but in this world of Wikipedia all knowledge is available and accessible to all of us. This means the power-base which the professions held, is crumbling. Not only that, even the interaction between people is changing; the Facebook revolution has enabled other social revolutions, for example, the Arab Spring or the Pussy Riots.

The Star Trek society is upon us – but where is the Star Trek School?

“What will our world look like when our 4 year olds are leaving school, in 2026?

“To predict the future is never going to be easy, because it’s volatile, uncertain and complex. We know that there will be integrated technology, limits on resources and more fluid boundaries, but how will this affect the arts, entertainment, financial services, medicine and engineering; how will they change? Apparently, one of the most desirable careers of the future is going to be a nano-surgeon. What are we going to do to help our students face this new world that we can hardly imagine?

“I am a huge Star Trek fan and I like all things techie, but when I read about how many aspects of the Star Ship Enterprise’s fantastic facilities have become facts of life, even I was impressed: what about the light sensors when we walk into a room; the mobile phone and speaking directly to a computer (have you experimented with Siri on your iPhone?); touch sensitive screens; 3-D printing which eventually may become a transporter; scanning body devices (we have them in airports now, they just need to be linked to a database to start diagnosing any medical problems we might have). The ‘Star Trek’ world of technology is already upon us. Although I cannot wait for the auto-car that will drive me home so I can do something else in the car or the universal language translator embedded in my skull so I can understand and be understood no matter where I am in the world. Or what about the glasses which are linked to my MIS so that I can correctly identify a pupil and know why her name has crossed my desk in the last few days. (It will happen as a result of ‘grapheme’ which was discovered because some research students sharpened a pencil – creative thinking indeed) So what do you think our schools, teaching and learning will look like in the future?

“We know children learn better by discovery, creation and problem solving; through debate, discussion and communication. The consumerisation of office based tools and equipment with human-friendly interfaces means that our children already interact in a world which is far in advance of our educational provision (think of how the Wii interacts with body movement, voice and touch sensors). If you watch a child playing a game, whether it is a technological game or not, they learn by doing, failing, trying new pathways and techniques. Being killed off in a game is not a failure. Most children will continue with determination, and persevere for a long time; and before you think it’s about ‘shoot and kill’, have you watched an 8 year old playing ‘build a zoo’.

“We already know we are in a situation where our school-based provision lags behind the technology of the C21st. The question we must ask ourselves, as education leaders, is what are we going to do about it? We must do more to prepare our pupils for the world as it is and as it will be.

The Government must stop looking for the holy grail of education

“We also know that the characteristics of our students are just as important as qualifications (because qualifications are not good enough for this world of employment – a good degree from a good university is not good enough! Just as satisfactory is not good enough in our schools).

“Sebastian Thrun, a Research Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and former director of their Artificial Intelligence Laboratory imagines that in 10 years, job applicants will tout their ‘Udacity’ degrees. In 50 years, he says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a good chance of being one of them. Already Stanford is celebrating MOOC – its Massively Open Online Courses! What will be the point of our education system when university degrees can be accessed without A-level qualifications? Will we have a freer sixth form curriculum and will our education system look more like the American one? And if we lose the necessity of our narrow 3 A-level prescribed university route, will there be need for GCSEs or even English Baccalaureate Certificates – personally I cannot see one and we all know that some of us are questioning the validity of them anyway.

“We are facing so many problems with our examination system: too many examinations with poor standards of consistency in marking; the awarding bodies seemingly making profit on training and books; and more and more questions about the integrity of controlled assessments. The changes that are being proposed to Key Stage 4 assessments appear to be taking us back to a bygone era, as well as introducing changes at an unprecedented rate. It is good that these issues are now in the public domain, but do we really think that the solutions should be in the hands of politicians and not educators?

“We have currently a liquorice all-sorts approach to education with four different systems within the UK, and a multitude of types of school: academies, grammar schools, city technology colleges, specialist schools, as well as mainstream comprehensives and of course ourselves: diamond schools, 7-18, 4-16, EYFS with and without nurseries, city day schools, rural boarding schools, brother/sister schools, federations and proprietorial schools. However, good schools are good no matter their provenance or structure and the best schools have a richness about them that pervades all they do:
• 50 years ago schooling had the philosophy that it was to develop character – if it hurts it was good for you.
• 25 years ago academic achievement was more important and we had the 1988 introduction of league tables
• 10 years ago, we were introduced to emotional development and the SEAL curriculum which stated that EQ was twice as important as IQ for success
• Which led onto the development of ECM; but we have always known that every child matters
• More recently AfL has become the buzzword for success
• And just within this last year, research has shown that feedback is the most important gift in a teacher’s toolkit.

“The Government need to stop looking for a perfect solution, and allow educators to do what we do best. As we have proven within our own Association, good schools come in all shapes and sizes.

“Einstein said you can’t solve today’s problems with the same tools that created the problems in the first place. We can’t keep doing the same things we did year on year. This is not a criticism of the past or present, but recognition of striving to keep improving, to keep providing the very best for our students.

“So for the classroom of the future – will we recognise the technological availability of information and knowledge, with flipped learning exercises? Where using the Khan Academy children can learn about Pythagoras theory at home and then do the consolidation in lessons. Will we be able to use online/remote delivery of lessons with local support via Skype or use the gaming world: modelling and epistemic games of decision making and role playing to discover solutions to the world’s problems (for example, immune attack – which is a game to stop the body being overrun by a virus and the teachers can see how well the facts are known by students as they can assess whether the game is approached with logic or by a random approach.).

“How will we, as leaders, adapt to make sure our schools can continue to flourish? Others in the sector, not least The Good Schools Guide’s Ralph Lucas at last year’s conference, have reminded us that girls’ schools and their heads cannot take their expertise and strength for granted; we must shout about it and shout loud.

“On my visits around the regions (and I would like to thank you for your hospitality and welcome), I have heard of many examples of excellent practice. We have fantastic schools in the GSA and our USP is a strong one. But, our girls-only environments are not reflected in the world outside our schools, so we must challenge the stereotypical perceptions of girls’ schools that sometimes follow. That is one of the many good reasons why the Association is about to embark on a campaign to develop a definitive Charter for Girls’ Education; in the knowledge that we are providing for the needs of girls and that we do so very well indeed.

Stop asking for our DNA and allow parents full choice with Open Access

“The current government cannot decide whether they are for or against independent schools: they want our DNA, our sponsorship of Academies, but we know Academies are not the answer to everyone’s prayers. Originally they were designed to help failing state schools and schools that become Academies now are not going to get the money that the early convertors received. Michael Gove has been very clear about the rules of co-operating with us, asking us to share our resources or facilities (as Liz Sidwell said at the first Cross Association Leadership conference earlier in the year and Lord Adonis said more recently). Many of us happily do this already with a wide variety of schools on our own terms, but when we are squeezed between the tightening rules and regulations being imposed upon us, the rising cost of our provision and the ability of middle class parents to pay our increasing fees, it seems a bit beyond the pale to ask if we will share aspects of our USP with local competition. And competition it is; why should my school offer its CCF expertise and experience to parents who could have sent their children to my school, but chose not to, or to a Government who criticises my morality?

“We know that those parents who send their pupils to our schools have chosen us for the curriculum, the smaller class sizes, the diverse extra-curricular programme, the service provision for niche groups and, of course, because we are selective. Despite the fact that only 6-7% of the population has children in the independent sector, over 35% of the members of the highly successful Team GB in the London 2012 Olympics attended an independent school. Our parents value the independence and ethos that contributes to this kind of performance. They recognise the quality of our provision and dedication of our staff, as do the 54% of parents who say they would send their children to an independent school if they could. This is why so many of our schools have shown an interest in, and intent for, Peter Lampl and the Sutton Trust’s Open Access Scheme. We also welcomed the Achieving Fair Access report by the MPs Rob Wilson, Elizabeth Truss etc: their idea of partnering with independent schools to recruit bright pupils who are on ‘free school meals’ through a direct grant or passport funding system is indeed a valid way of providing fair access to university. Rather than damming our expertise and trying to change the rules on access by academic achievement, their suggestion that some funding arrangement is reached would be a huge positive step forward and a recognition of our expertise that we would be keen to explore further. In the recent report by Alan Milburn, there was also a recognition that universities should put some funding into schools to help socially disadvantaged children access the top universities; we would support this too, if some of the funding came our way.

The future calls for adaptability and the ability to be bold

“In the current economic climate, with our very diverse membership, we need to help each other thrive by actions such as: – Controlling costs (through sharing resources, buying consortiums, sharing a H&S or ICT manager, even teaching staff in specialist subject areas). – Marketing ourselves in a smarter way to a wider audience. – Planning to adapt, being bold and brave, making courageous decisions with each other so that we can give our students the ability to be successful in a very changing world.

“So rather than try to predict the exact form our education system will take in the future, it makes more sense to give our students the capabilities we think they are going to need, allowing them to practise and develop skills such as: foresight; curiosity; making sense of a complex system; excellent empathic, negotiation and communication skills; being able to use accelerated learning skills to synthesise, organise and recognise patterns; critical thinking and problem solving skills; to be tolerant of uncertainty and failure, whilst being able to see the wider picture and the details. We cannot forget the skills of innovation, adaptability, flexibility and most important creativity. (Just sounds like the skills of being a head teacher doesn’t it?)

“Now I am not recommending immediate wholesale change, but creative curriculum decisions, use of projects and links with industry, to create opportunities for these skills to be developed. Which is why we used the Council weekend to produce the good practice document that gives many examples of how we can all be ‘bold schools’; modern, cutting edge and well-connected.

“We also have to ensure that our pupils know they are entering a world that is truly global and science-led, and that they must be technologically literate and entrepreneurial in their decision-making. That’s one of the reasons I initiated the Ahead of the Game competition (and thanks to the hosting schools and Liz Laybourn from Burgess Hill). The report by the Institute of Physics, published in October, celebrated what we already knew: girls’ schools buck the trend of girls not studying physics at A level and beyond. We also know that it’s not just a trend in physics either. We need to make sure that we continue to provide the scientists of the future, but also encourage the non-scientists in our schools to continue to engage with the technological world. I also firmly believe that our careers advice is second to none and I am so pleased that the highly successful My Daughter website now contains a careers advice access portal.

“Ours is a leadership role and it is our responsibility to envisage the future, and although that is quite a daunting task, we must continue to prepare our students for any and every future before them. We know that we have been called to a role of service in our leadership and I have used this as the theme in the church tomorrow. As a leader of my school, I believed that I had to be a role model to my students and as such accepted the role of President, putting my ‘head above the parapet’, so to speak, to serve the membership. I hope that you, individually, will also consider nomination at some future point.

In the midst of change and uncertainty, the good teacher is a constant

“Governments change, ministers change, even examination specifications change, but what remains are children, schools and teachers. We must remember that teaching is the best vocation in the world. I love the quote from Donald Quinn “If a doctor, lawyer or dentist had 40 people in the office at one time, all of whom have different needs, and some of them didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and without assistance, the doctor, lawyer or dentist had to treat them all with professional excellence and care for some 9 months, then there might be some conception of a class teacher’s job”.

“In the future, we may have to use avatars or virtual teachers, but we will still need teachers in some form or other to direct the learning of our students. Nothing else provides quite the same subtlety and effectiveness of communication our body language and immediate presence can provide. In the midst of change and uncertainty, the good teacher – and the good school – is a reassuring constant. The Girls’ Schools Association has exceptional teachers with exceptional skills and we must do everything we can to keep our schools and our Association strong.

“I hope that over the next few days you will have the time for reflection, thought and planning; this conference has focused on the future as well as giving you food for thought over current issues. We welcome input from ASCL, ISC, ISI and from the representative from the world of Higher Education through Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Howard Newby. I have invited speakers who will challenge our thoughts on education and where we should be going, as well as thoughts on why creativity, and the creative arts, are essential for our future success.

“Martin Luther King, Jr., said “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” I hope you find the conference educational in the true sense of the word.

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