Backing off – letting your child be and building their resilience

2019 was surely the year when the term snowflake really did start to melt away – the activism of Greta and young climate campaigners across the globe ensured that young people reclaimed their voice, their right to be taken seriously and not dismissed as, well, flaky, overly sensitive without cause.

And yet. As parents we could all probably still learn a thing or two about backing off from micromanaging our children’s lives, from smoothing their paths and fighting their battles. We know how tempting it is – but what is that teaching our children? That they can’t manage their own lives? That problems can only be solved by grown-ups? We’re not talking about reverting to the time of the stiff upper lip here, but there are some simple ideas as we start the new year for helping build resilience in your son or daughter.

 1.       Think twice before diving in – so your child got told off at school / got a detention / got dropped from the A team. Your teen might think it’s ‘so unfair’ but before protesting along with them, are you sure it might not be justified? Listen to your teen’s complaint. Give a hug and sympathetic noises. But trust the school and the teacher. Present the other side of the argument. And then leave them to think and work things out on their own. Similarly, if they are struggling with a friendship issue, listen but try and get them to see the bigger picture. What can they do to solve the problem themselves? “Three before me” is a helpful mantra. What three things has your child tried to resolve the issue, before bringing it to you?

2.       Don’t confuse loving your child with idealising them. Yes we all have blind spots as to our own children, we indulge. Refrain from calling your daughter ‘princess’, with all the laden passivity that suggests. (And if you do call her that, don’t be surprised to find she starts behaving like Verruca Salt).

3.       Lead by example: don’t overly curate your own online life. Encourage a healthy scepticism of social media feeds – schools are brilliant about giving advice on this, but as parents we’re often guilty of posting a perfect family photo (when behind the scenes everyone was bickering) or the carefully choosing and filtering holiday photos (and not the one where you were all hunkering out of the rain). Social media can offer great support for young people, but the negatives are well documented. Have honest conversations that empower your teen to ‘unfollow’, to stick to their principles and avoid getting swept up in someone else’s supposedly perfect life.

4.       Be open about failure – share stories of things that have not always gone smoothly in your own life. One bad mark is not a disaster. Don’t catastrophise.

5.       Speak to them frankly about the real risks – the lure of experimenting in other (for parents and teens) scarier areas – parties, drink, drugs.

6.       BUT give them opportunities to break away and make their own choices. Allow them to get to and from secondary school independently where possible – who wants to be stuck in traffic with your parent and their choice of music? Let them try (and possibly fail) at cooking a meal, inventing a recipe. Retreat from view and forget about the mess in the kitchen that will ensue.

7.       Encourage them to BLOW THEIR OWN TRUMPET: to be really proud when they have put a load of time and effort into something and that’s paid off in success. Celebrating success appropriately is something that teens – and girls in particular find hard. But DON’T praise things they have no control over (‘cleverness’)…

8.       Encourage them to be proud of belonging to something bigger than themselves – pride in their school, their team, of their friends or community. Help them find their place in the world and a voice in that world without you.

9.       ARGUE, DEBATE, DISCUSS. Hold the robust conversations over the dinner table. Let them fight for their views and opinions, encourage them to take a different view from you and listen to their opinions. Developing their own voices, their own views and their own approach to life – is part of the great fun of growing up – and it’s exciting to witness it as a parent.

10.   ABOVE ALL, stay off the parents’ WhatsApp chat! When your children are in secondary school, it’s time for them to take control of homework and other logistics. Don’t join the group. Embrace FOMO (fear of missing out) and let everyone else work themselves into a frenzy. What’s the worst that could happen? A homework detention? We’re back to point 1…


Jane Lunnon

Head, Wimbledon High School GDST

Selecting the Class of 2026

A few years ago, a year or so after I’d started as Head at WHS, I wrote about the cloudy world of the 11+. I was a relatively new Head experiencing the South West London entrance exam frenzy for the first time and I was dismayed by the whole thing. It struck me as a truly regrettable and unedifying bun-fight, with ten year olds as the buns. The pressure, the intensity, the number of schools children were applying for, the trophy-hunting for scholarships, the neurosis around selecting schools, the unregulated and expensive coaching industry growing up around 11+, all of it seemed crazy to me. (At least my previous experience, Common Entrance, for all its faults, targeted children at 12 rather than 10.) But above all, of course, was the impact on the children themselves. In a world where the mental health of our young people is a growing concern, loading the whole business of senior schooling with this degree of angst and pressure, even before the children start in their schools, felt simply daft – and something we should really try to solve.

I write now, four and a half years into this headship and just after our 11+ tests have finished, with a new perspective and a sense of burgeoning hope. Perhaps it’s only a little ray of sunshine but it is there nonetheless. Because on Monday this week, after a brilliant drive for change led by our registrar, my deputy and the senior team here, we completed the first iteration of our brand new 11+ tests. Long gone are the dreary English comprehensions or the standard -Jean has ten green apples, Abigail has seven red ones, how many oranges does Sophie have- maths papers. (My predecessor wisely got rid of these back in 2012 for WHS.) The VR and NVR papers (our previous staple decision-making factor) have become stage 1 – important as a gateway to something much richer and more exciting. This was about collaboration in group activities, girls solving problems and creatively using their unique strengths as team members (we were not looking for a whole cohort of extrovert leaders – we assessed listening as a skill in its own right).  These candidates were demonstrating skills that we know the C21st workplace will require.

All this we had explained in 11+ Toolkit sessions to parents and girls throughout the autumn term. We offered the sessions so that we could give general pastoral advice too. Avoid tutoring – keep a sense perspective and allow these children to well, be children! The madness of 11+ can disrupt the whole family and we were keen to dispel some myths and encourage a sense of calm. When offer season comes, there will doubtless be disappointments alongside whoops of joy; we will be giving parents more tips at that point. But for now, I am pleased that for one morning at least these girls were forgetting about the pressures of the 11+ and having fun. The levels of engagement, energy and intellectual resolution were extraordinary and truly inspiring to see. If only we could transport that to the House of Commons right now, I think we’d all be in a better place!

Only Connect – the prose and the passion

Jane Lunnon
Head, Wimbledon High School GDST

In a world of AI, much has been written about the challenges of 21st century life – what will work look like and how can we help our young people prepare for the unknown? As so often, I’ve found myself looking back in order to look to the future. To 1910, to be precise, and the work of E.M. Forster. Margaret’s famous exhortation from Howard’s End exhorts us to “connect the prose and the passion … to live in fragments no longer”. Writing over a century ago, Forster was confronting an increasingly alien, rapidly industrialising world, which seemed to threaten the very business of being human and being alive. As we all wrestle with what the explosive impact of digital innovation means for us all, in the way we live, the way we think and the way we connect with our world and with each other, nowhere is this discussion more important than in schools. This is one of many reasons why, at WHS, we’ve been talking so much this year about how academic subjects connect, thinking beyond the “fragments” of what were in essence C19th constructs (let’s call this Biology, let’s put this into Geography, let’s make this History and this Classics) and instead really exploring what can be gained when learning is properly cross-curricular.

So how best we can do that in our approach to the subjects we teach in school?  Arts education is seriously under threat in this country. With the national focus on the ebacc (no requirement for arts subjects to be an examined part of the KS4 curriculum), with government cuts in funding and therefore monumental pressure on state school budgets, with an increased (and entirely laudable) emphasis on STEM learning and with a growing shortage of teacher supply, we are sleepwalking, nationally into a cultural vandalism which will leave us all utterly impoverished. If Music, Drama, Art and Dance are marginalised in our schools, if our children are not, routinely being taught when they are young about the wonders of Mozart, Da Vinci, Pinter and Balanchine, then who will care, defend, talk about, understand, visit, or promote the Arts in future years? More importantly, what will the furniture of our children’s minds be made up of? What will replace this kind of learning and knowledge? Youtube?  Vines? Meme-culture: “It’s Wednesday my dudes….aaaaaaaah” /  “Oh you don’t understand, let me explain it again, the exact same way”…

This is not an argument for some kind of middle-class elite long-dead world. Arts education (based on historic knowledge of what has gone before and a delight in experimental, current self-expression) is not some nice to have extra on the side. It is utterly integral to who we are. How have we lost sight of this? This is an argument for humanity. As human beings, we painted on cave walls whilst we were learning to make weapons out of stones. Prose and passion. Arts and tech. We have always found voice, meaning and an essential outlet for our hearts and our imaginations in artistic expression and it is deeply concerning that short term budgetary constraints or the expediencies of a capitalist, market-driven economy, is driving artistic experience in our children to the margins in this way.

None of this is to deny the necessity of excellent teaching in the rest of the curriculum. I have written before about the shocking national shortage of girls and women studying STEM subjects in this country for example. This needs addressing and I applaud the government for trying to do so. But it should not be at the expense of those subjects which apparently will have less immediate commercial value when our children become employees and tax-payers. What kind of robotic, soul-less, money-grubbing, technical world do we want to live in? And (critically) what kind of people do we want our children to become?  Must one kind of learning be sacrificed for another?

Well, no. Not necessarily. In this, as in so many things, I feel Forster had it right… only connect.  We can find ways of meeting both the needs of a C21st jobs market, with its emphasis on technical assurance, resilience, problem-solving and creativity by taking a less categorised and more fluid approach to learning – especially at the critical 11 – 15 age range.  The secret is to stop thinking in subject boxes – to break down the borders between subjects and to think, instead, about the fascinating ways in which they might connect.  We’ve made a start with that this year, in our prototype STEAM room, staffed by three wonderful scientists in residence. In it, we’ve run many collaborations over recent months: students studying how post-traumatic stress disorder could have influenced the World War 1 poet, Geographers having a go at designing a wind turbine, musicians looking at the physics of music, artists inspired by biological dissection, the creation of the dyes which might have been used to make Joseph’s technicolour dreamcoat and so on. The possibilities for this kind of connected approach are endless and deeply exciting. All our Heads of Department have been asked to build it into their schemes of work next year and with our new STEAM tower part of a building project that starts in January 2019, we’ll be further developing physical space to match our educational philosophy.

Crucially, we have also decided that this new approach must inform our 11+ testing. If we’re serious about encouraging intellectual agility, why not assess just that when recruiting the cohort of new Year 7s? For entry in September 2019 and beyond we’ll thus be adding a dynamic creative assessment to our testing that’s entirely based on group activities. Following a narrative (about which we are not giving any details beforehand, to avoid tutoring, of course) girls will move through different rooms and face different challenges. They will have to listen, collaborate and think on their feet. I’ve already been asked what preparation would be useful for this, the second stage of our 11+ (we will still be testing in Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning in stage 1) and I was delighted to answer: having family conversations over dinner, being curious in the world around you, climbing trees. Because in valuing all these things, we are appreciating the passion and the prose that bring alive learning and bring about a deep joy in learning for its own sake.

Of course, until the government radically re-thinks national assessment at GCSE (and playing about with numbers instead of grades isn’t really what I mean), we can’t lose the subject silos completely. And actually, nor would we want to. The pleasure of deep absorption in a specific subject area is a critical part of growing up and is another way of ensuring scholarship, academic rigour and a close connection with learning. But, the inter-disciplinary approach can enhance and develop understanding of and engagement with one particular subject in the most exciting ways. We have found our students’ tendency to remember, retain and reproduce key information (necessary for assessment) is enhanced by a STEAM approach. Consider the impact when an art teacher takes their class into a biology lab, to look closely at the dissected heart. The biology teacher talks through the technical processes: “here is the vena cava, here are the four chambers of the heart, the left ventricle is this colour and this thickness because it pumps the hardest…” and so on. Students are scrutinising and learning – and THEN they paint – responding artistically to what is in front of them, in any way they choose. They are not drawing a diagram – because this is art – not science – but it’s wonderful to see how scientific understanding can inspire, refine or provoke their artistic responses.

Connecting the prose and the passion, in as many ways as we possibly can, is not only a good idea. If we are to meet the demands of a rapidly changing and highly technical workplace, if we are to ensure that our children develop and retain the sensitivity, heart and cultural understanding which the Arts provide and if we are to find ways of flourishing in our new world, it’s an absolutely essential one.

The Importance of Privacy

“Solitude sometimes is best society.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Every teenager since time began has felt the truth of these words from Adam in Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost. And every teenager’s parent has looked at closed bedroom doors and known that space and time to be alone is no indulgent fantasy or stroppy repudiation of the family but a clear need for adolescents to be private as they grow and find out who they are and what sort of world it is they are living in.  And no matter how small the space, teenagers need to carve some out for themselves. I shared a bedroom with my twin sister all through my first eighteen years but my space still mattered to me and we each took ownership of our half of the room in which to be ourselves. And, indeed, to find ourselves.

Not that we knew we were doing that of course. But the hours spent reading on my bed, listening to Genesis, Pink Floyd, The Damned (!) and gazing at the ceiling, dreaming, wondering things, running over scenarios both past and future, real and imagined … those were the times when, little by little, almost without noticing it, we were forming ourselves and the women we were going to be.

Solitude was not only best, it was necessary and thank goodness we could have it. But Adam’s comments come only a few hours before Eve is tempted to disobedience and Paradise is lost forever. It turns out, his anxiety about leaving Eve alone in a world where temptation lurks, is a just one. And Eve’s downfall was everyone’s downfall.  Equally, our teens today, can’t just shut the door on the world and enjoy the bliss of privacy and solitude. In our uniquely connected world solitude is not just rare for our teens, it is nigh on impossible to achieve.

Eve reached for an apple, our kids reach for an Apple device and there is almost no room left for contemplation, reflection, boredom, intellectual wandering in the ubiquitous and unending whatsapp, snapchat, insta conversations. The fact is that somehow we’ve allowed a world to grow up around us, where our teens are endlessly communicating online, often about nothing very much. Indeed, it’s not just about teens. Our whole world has abandoned privacy. My Alexa sits in the kitchen and maps my desires and silently waits for my voice, storing a world of information that I have willingly given it, as it does so.  Google maps tracks my journeys, follows my paths. Knows where I’ve been. Big companies know what I like and adverts (depressingly suggesting innovative ways to reduce belly fat) are specifically and carefully targeted at me because of information about myself that I have shared. Anyone in the world with access to Google, can see what I look like.

Our digital footprints are enormous and they give us away like Man Friday’s footprint in the sand. We are there for all the world to see and in that context I worry a great deal about the implications for our teenagers. During the Second World War, in his famous ‘Weight of Glory” sermon series, C S Lewis bemoaned the fact that: ‘we live in a world starved for solitude, silence and privacy: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship”. Interesting then that this is not an issue unique to right here, right now, although of course, the digital revolution seems to have accelerated the problem. But Lewis had it right. When privacy goes, so too does proper and deep reflection and perhaps also the true connections and relationships that come from having the time and space to know ourselves and then to know others properly. The chance to really contemplate life and think things through also goes. Time alone means our minds can percolate, assimilate and process ideas, experiences, events. And it is critical to the human condition that we have that time. Especially when we are growing up.

It’s not that the government doesn’t recognise the importance of privacy. The extensive and demanding GDPR reforms, coming into force in May, present stringent measures to try to protect and preserve the security of individual data. Schools and all public institutions are being asked to be much more cognisant of the data they hold about individuals and others’ rites of access to it. We will be information gatekeepers as never before. But I fear this isn’t enough. Or at least, it doesn’t really get to the nub of the problem. What does protecting the privacy of an individual mean, in a world where so much of what we do is tracked and monitored and where so much of the lives of our teens is out there not because information has been unwittingly leaked, but because it has been enthusiastically and globally broadcast by our kids?

We live in a world which is re-framing itself, it seems, by the minute. And it seems increasingly critical for us to reconsider what privacy actually is in an eternally connected and digitally public society. (Our GROW Pastoral Festival on 24 March will address this, amongst many other questions.) What can and should be protected?  What perhaps has already been lost for good? And what, above all, can we do to give our young people back their vital right to time which is truly private and truly theirs. I think these are the key questions to answer and the GDPR reforms do not do that. Albert Camus puts it beautifully in his 1950s Notebooks (written, I suspect, in perfect privacy!): “Find meaning or don’t find meaning but ‘steal’ some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.” If we are doing a good job of educating and bringing up our teens, part of what we should be doing is just that. Helping them to find the time and space just to be. And we might just find some time for ourselves to do that too whilst we’re about it.

Owning your voice

I’m much struck, perhaps particularly over Christmas, by how much our voices resonate with people. I was so excited on New Year’s Day, to get an email from Miss Pett with a post from The Times, of the story by Eleanor Hetherington as the winner of the national Write Stuff competition which they had published on the 2nd January. It’s a wonderful story – do read it. And a great example of a WHS girl using her voice for good.

Almost regardless of what they are saying, there are some voices that are instantly recognisable and make us feel things, just because of the voice they have and the way their voice sounds. Not necessarily all voices make us feel good … but it’s amazing how many do.

I don’t know how many of you listened to the Queen’s Christmas day address. It was the most watched broadcast this year on Christmas day, with 7.6m tuning in for it. And her address this year was, I felt, particularly poignant, as she paid tribute to her consort and husband of more than 60 years, the Duke of Edinburgh. Who at 96 years of age, retired, having ‘done his bit’. But it isn’t just the Queen’s message that resonates with me. It is, also, very much her voice. Her voice speaks of tradition and honour and integrity and of years of British history. And for me, anyway, when I hear it, I feel reassured. As if there are some things, in a whirling, shifting, rapidly changing world, that will stay constant.

David Attenborough is another such voice.  At 91, he is the same age as the Queen. And, rather like her, he has basically been doing the same thing for almost all his life. He has built his life around his passion and one of the reasons why we all love him, why he has become such a national treasure, why he is the epitome of much of what we hold dear, is because he is so richly and so absolutely himself. He found what he loved and he made it his life’s mission to share that with the rest of us. What a gift. And what a way of living.

That, girls, is what I most want for you. The great privilege and delight of finding what you were put on earth to do and doing it with your whole heart and your whole mind. “What I do is me, for this I came.”

2018 is an important year for us all, when we think about voices. Because it is 100 years, as I’m sure you all know, since women were granted the vote.  (SLIDE WOMENS’ VOTES) In 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed which allowed women over the age of 30 who owned property to vote. Although 8.5 million women met this criteria, it only represented 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK. It would be another ten years, 1928, before full suffrage was granted to women on the same terms as men.

We have probably all heard about the work of some of the noisier campaigners for the vote for women- those who became known as suffragettes, the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, women voteChristabel Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Mabel Capper and Emily Wilding-Davidson. And we should bear in mind that the victory celebrated in 1918, with the granting of the vote to women, wasn’t just about the work of some radical women in Edwardian England. The struggle had been going on for nearly 50 years. The first women’s suffrage bill came before parliament in 1870 and after its defeat, many groups were set up, both regionally and nationally all over the country, to agitate and argue and press for votes for women. So, a century ago, women petitioned, marched, were arrested, went on hunger strikes, boycotted censuses and even died because they believed in the fundamental importance of the right to vote. I think we owe it to all of them to not squander their sacrifices, but to make full use of the right that they fought so hard for.

And think girls, for a moment about how they used their voices so we could use ours. Think what that meant. Years of abuse and contempt poured on them from all quarters. Arrest, imprisonment, forced feeding, indignity and torment of all kinds… and still they would not be silenced.

Listen to these words from Emmeline:

“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers. You must make women count as much as men; you must have an equal standard of morals; and the only way to enforce that is through giving women political power so that you can get that equal moral standard registered in the laws of the country. It is the only way. My parents, especially my father, discussed the question of my brothers’ education as a matter of real importance. My education and that of my sister were scarcely discussed at all… Trust in God, she will provide.”

That voice, amongst many others, helped to change the world. For us. For us. And we should never forget it.


And girls, it’s not just the militant, famous suffragettes we should remember. It seems to me that we have a duty to remember the women who made the wider case for girls to be taken seriously. Because, by being members of Wimbledon High, we are all, absolutely, part of that cause and inheritors of that legacy. Because the fight for women’s suffrage, was part and parcel of the fight for women’s right to education. For girls to have equal access to schooling and good quality learning.  The likes of Frances Bus (who founded my school – NLCS ) and Dorothea Beale (Cheltenham Ladies’ College) and of course, the pioneer founders of the GDST: Maria Grey and Emily Sheriff, who, as early as 1872, called a meeting at the Royal Albert Hall to establish the need for girls’ schools in London and thus created the GPDST.  They therefore, were also using their voices to insist that girls and women be taken seriously and be judged equal to boys and men in the eyes of the state and the law.

So, this year, 100 years after that first critical victory, it seems important to me that we consider not only how much we owe to those people who used their voices to fight for ours, but also, therefore, what a privilege it still is, to have the freedom to speak and to be listened to. To have voices that can influence and change things and help make things better. We all know that there are plenty of places in the world where women are still voiceless.

Nowadays of course, our voices can be heard in all sorts of different ways. Not just on street corners, at public meetings, in newspapers or broadcasts, but online, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, in blogs, in vlogs… there are so many ways that we can and do make our voices heard.

You may know that every year the Oxford English Dictionary names a word of the year. One word has been judged as not only reflective of the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past year, but as having lasting potential as a word of cultural significance. Last year’s word was post-truth. This year, the Oed’s word is youthquake. The noun, youthquake, is defined as ‘a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people’.

How exciting and what a gauntlet to lay down. So, as 2018 starts, consider how you use your voices. Both publicly and privately. Emmeline Pankhurst shows us how important and powerful it can be to use your voice when it matters, to stand up for something that you absolutely know is right and to fight for it if need be. David Attenborough shows us what it is to use your voice to share what you love and what you care about and the joy and satisfaction that can come from sharing that with others. And perhaps Donald Trump shows us how equally important it can be to not to use your voice. Why at times, it’s just as important to keep quiet. That the dignified and sensible and proper thing to do, is to stay silent and not give voice to the petty, unkind or indiscreet things we might be tempted to say. Either online or in person.

One thing I know, as this New Year starts, as Wimbledon High girls, your judgement will be sure and you will be governed by the right kind of instincts. And as ever, I look forward to all the ways in which you choose to use your voices for good and for the better this year.  Good luck with it.

The importance of belonging

Yet again this week saw some alarming headlines. The Millennium Cohort Study (research by Liverpool University) suggests that 25% of girls describe themselves as suffering from depression. And this has given rise to much commentary around the ‘mental health crisis’ besetting our young people, girls in particular.  At the same time, research published last week by the Girl Guides, suggests that girls as young as 8 years old are feeling the pressure of gender stereotyping. There’s no doubt that the mental health landscape has altered considerably over the last few years. Although of course it’s important to note that the 25% figure is not actually about medically diagnosed cases of clinical depression, but about how girls see and choose to describe their mental state. Some of that I suspect is about the appropriation of medical language by teens who come across medical lexis used casually and inaccurately all the time online. Sometimes, what is being described is not clinical depression but simply being fifteen!

All that said, I think there is an issue. And it’s one we ignore at our peril. I am often asked why there is such a worrying decline in the mental health of young people and I do my best to answer. I talk about the impact of commercialised childhoods, of exam pressure enhanced by league tables and economic gloom and the perceived impossibility of ever being able to realise adult aspirations, of the omnipresent digital landscape with its relentless messaging about various forms of unattainable perfection, of crazily late nights and reduced sleep poring over snapchat and of the over-protective adult generation which has worked so hard to contain the recklessness of youth that it has unwittingly taught children to be fearful and timid rather than independent and self-assured.

All of these things and probably a whole lot more feed into the problem and there are many many people much better qualified than me to speculate on them. What I can do though, is talk with great certainty and with my whole heart, about when I see it all working. About the things we can (and do) do, in our schools, to enhance wellbeing and to keep our girls engaged and truly grounded in their work and play.

For me, in the end, there are two key ideas which seem to matter most in helping to develop the happiness and confident achievement of our young people.  Firstly, it’s about belonging. And I don’t mean this as a weak sentimental cliché. More than ever perhaps, our teens need to feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves and their social media echo chambers. They need to feel that they are part of something that matters and has a sense of continuity, value and resonance far beyond the latest baby that Kim Kardashian is paying someone to have for her. In the past, that need might have been filled by the Church or by the local community, by the family, or even by an accepted collective sense of nationhood. And I know that many young people of whatever faith are lucky enough to still find solace and identity through some or all of these things. But this is not invariably or universally the case now. And that is where schools come in. They can fill a vacuum where and if there is one. No matter what or where the school, every child in it belongs to something larger than themselves. They are part of a joint, collective enterprise full of the energy, industry, imagination, beliefs and expertise of large numbers of people who broadly care about stuff that really matters: learning, their subjects, the development and wellbeing of other people.  And that is hugely powerful and hugely inspiring. Their school connects children to the past – the generations who have come through the school gates before them – and to the future – all those who will follow after them. And every school has its own story, which it will be telling in its own way. This matters and is one important ingredient in our bid to help our children make sense of the world and their part in it. They will find themselves by looking beyond themselves. And that’s an important skill for teenagers to learn.

The second key thing is about wonder. One of our school aims (perhaps the one that resonates most strongly with me), is our bid to nurture scholarship, curiosity and a sense of wonder in our girls. That idea – which is about the delight and satisfaction and joy that can come from the process of questioning, exploring, discovering…feels absolutely central. Of course, the wonder can be in many forms. It may be from finally unpicking a torturously challenging maths question, or from suddenly spotting something beautiful in a line of poetry, or from asking something crazy in a science lesson and finding out the astonishing answer. It could be from playing your violin in the third row of the school orchestra and finding that collectively you are making an incredible sound. Or from finally nailing a move on the football pitch. Or from finding that you had a powerful voice in a debate or as an actor or as a stand-up comedian. It could even be from simply looking afresh at the playground with your mates and being glad that the sun is shining briefly on your school! It doesn’t much matter what it is but it does matter that we work hard to develop it. Not least because that is what makes working in schools such enormous fun for us all. So, schools as a place full of collective wondering…that’s what we need to be offering, that’s where power is. As Edgar Allen Poe pointed out: ‘it is a happiness to wonder; — it is a happiness to dream’.

Perhaps that’s as good a response as any to the malaise of our times.

The Power of Restraint

“I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself.”
― Jane AustenSense and Sensibility

I’ve just finished reading Naomi Alderman’s excellent and award winning novel ‘The Power’.  It’s a fascinating, unnerving and at times deeply troubling account of a society which inverts the status quo; women rule the world through the physical and psychical exercise of painful electrical shocks. A power which, it turns out, has been latent in women ever since Eve ate the apple. The conceit is shocking indeed, weirdly so, and that in itself is probably an interesting insight on centuries of gender conditioning.

I’ve also just finished watching the wonderful adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale – which presents another dystopia – albeit a more familiar one, where the domination of men and the misfortune of a ravaged planet, finds expression in religious extremism and a puritanical horrifying oppression of women. Atwood’s vision is stark and terrifying and this particular adaptation, with its sinister composure and hush and ominously under-lit scenes had us all peering myopically into the dark shadows of a mad world.

Perhaps I have been unduly influenced by both these narratives, but it does feel as though disagreements between the sexes is on the increase. And it’s not just because of the casual and depressing misogyny of the most powerful man in the western world. The end of July was full of online carping and irritation about the UK pay gap – men on average earn 18% more per hour than women – and at the BBC, the top 7 earners are all men. Of course, the picture is much more complicated – and this is not actually about equal pay but about average pay over years – reflecting, as much as anything, differences in the length of time that men and women have historically worked – but there was a fair amount of outcry about it regardless.

Equally, the furore around comments made by former Google engineer, James Damore, has been intense. He recently wrote a memo citing the evolutionary differences between women’s and men’s brains in which he concluded that the research presenting women as more naturally neurotic and more focused on pleasing people than men is one of the main reasons why they are not generally successful in STEM orientated roles. And it is true that in the US, only a third of STEM degrees and only 4% of the jobs in construction and maintenance are taken by women. At U.K. universities the picture is much the same with, in 2014 (according to the WISE campaign report) 86% of Engineering & Technology and 83% of Computer Science degrees taken by men. WISE similarly reported in December 2016 that women make uschoolp just 17% of IT professionals – a figure that is static ‘despite continuing strong growth in job opportunities’.

There has been absolute uproar online, recriminations on every side. James Damore perhaps inevitably was sacked. I can’t but feel that whatever the merits or otherwise of the research he cited, he really should have recognised the likely outcome of his inflammatory comments. Perhaps he did. He’s likely to be dining out on it for some time I suspect.

But for those of us involved in bringing up and educating children – boys as well as girls – there is a much bigger and perhaps more important issue than what one hapless Google employee meant to say. It’s the response to these two issues which has most struck me this summer. Perhaps it’s just a feature of lean summer time news (although sadly the US is doing its bit to fill in any gaps there). It just feels as if July’s Love Island has become already August’s break-up. And I worry about a world where social media air time is given to some ill-judged conclusions in Silicon Valley. I worry about the escalation of irritation which leads to online battle cries and such impassioned intolerance on both sides.

Of course it matters that girls feel able and happy to work in STEM careers if they want to. Indeed, it is vitally important that they do. The very differences which Damore’s piece highlights, indicate the richness which true diversity of approach and thinking can bring to any workplace.  And making it absolutely crystal clear to girls that they can bloody well do STEM subjects and they can do them bloody well, is without question, our job.  And it’s the job of all of us involved in educating children. (We certainly hope our new STEAM room at Wimbledon High, opening this September and nothing to do with jacuzzis, everything to do with science, technology, engineering, art and Maths, will help us do just that. It will be a place for our girls to play and experiment and explore and have fun with science and technology and Maths and art combined… just what we need to properly empower our girls.)

But, we have another equally important task which feels daily more important. And that is to continue to teach all our young people about how to care and not care. How to know what matters and to be ready to fight for that, but to do so with restraint and calm and good sense. We need to show them how to remain rational in the face of provocation, no matter how fierce or ill-considered. How to make a persuasive case (even in 140 characters) that is thought-through, evidenced, sensible and non-inflammatory. How to operate with reason and mutual respect in a discourse on Whatsapp or Snapchat, avoiding shooting from the hip. The intellectual virtues of the Age of Enlightenment – which have held good in the Western world for so long: elegance of mind and expression, understanding based on well-researched evidence and argument based on the primacy of Head over Heart, they are the corner-stone of education in this country and they feel more important now than ever before.

So, no matter what Trump is doing on Twitter, no matter how cross we feel about age-old arguments and injustices recurring, let’s keep the gender wars fictional. Let’s let the real world be about welcoming and celebrating tolerance, respect and diversity, wherever and whenever we can. That, I think, is where the real power lies.

Jane Lunnon

Head, Wimbledon High School GDST

Wonder Woman

The following is from an assembly with the Wimbledon High Junior School…

The Wonder Woman film came out on Friday this week. I haven’t seen it yet but  I gather that it is one of the best performing films – making record amounts of money in its first weekend and also, getting some rave reviews from the critics.  And more exciting than that – Wonder Woman has been made by a female director – Patti Jenkins – and apparently it has had the most successful first weekend ever for a film directed by a woman. Hurrah.  Pretty amazing.

So, I thought it was a good idea to find out a little bit more about this Wonder Woman character. Where did she come from originally? Patti Jenkins has decided to re-tell her story in a 2017 film but Wonder Woman has been around for a while.

In fact, she started in 1941. And to begin with she was really a kind of publicity stunt. Superhero comics had just been created – the likes of Superman, Batman, Spiderman – were hugely popular and they were flying off the shelves (the comics – not the superheros!). Children loved reading them – and they only cost a dime – which was about 10p in UK money.

But the thing was – so popular were the comics that parents got worried. Indeed, the superhero comics in 1941 were a little bit like Instagram and Snapchat today. Children spent all their time looking at them and parents got more and more concerned about it. They were worried about the violence the comics portrayed and about the fact that Batman (initially) had a gun. They were described as “blood-curdlingly masculine”. And so in some states, comic books were actually banned – they were even publically burned in some towns.  Can you imagine that?

So, the publishers had to do something – and they had to do something quickly – or their comics (and their brand new superheros), would all die out. So, guess what they did…

That’s right – they came up with an idea. They decided what they needed was a female superhero.  And especially, a female superhero who was opposed to violence, and whose strengths were love and truth and beauty. And that, girls – is how Wonder Woman started out.  And the character they created wasn’t just a myth in her own right – she was also associated with past myths – Wonder Woman, they decided, would be the daughter of Hippolyta – queen of the famous fighting female tribe the Amazons – and she would have powers given her by the Greek Gods – including Aprhodite –  goddess of Love. William Marston, who created her – was inspired by early Feminists in America – and certainly, Wonder Woman is a striking example of female strength and independence as well as feminine beauty and charm.

Now, I’m not certain that the 2017 film version which has just come out is entirely free of violence – Wonder Woman does, single-handedly, bring about the ending of the First World War I gather and I imagine that involves a certain amount of fighting  – but, as you can see from the images – she is certainly beautiful – and pretty charming too I think.

So all of that is quite interesting isn’t it. We tend to think of superheros as mostly male – but if it weren’t for the super-speedy creation of Wonder Woman at the hour of need – the other superheros would not have survived and we probably would never even have heard of Superman or Batman.

So why is this relevant to us today?

Well, firstly, because I love the idea of starting off the term thinking about a strong, principled, tough woman who uses her many gifts – to help make the world a little better. To rescue those who need rescuing and to bring kindness, love and virtue to the world where it is needed.

That seems an approach worth following if we can. She also makes me think a little bit about what we think of as Wonderful. Of course, she has lots of really wonderful gifts –she’s obviously strong and beautiful and brave and rather helpfully, she has a lasso of truth and some indestructible bracelets which seem to be able to save her from all sorts of nastiness – I’m sure we could all do with some of those…  And it could be argued that we don’t have such gifts – and we were not, in fact, sculpted out of clay by Greek gods and goddesses many thousands of years ago. Nor are we fictional Amazonian warriors  – you could perfectly well point out that Wonder Woman is made up – this sort of wonder doesn’t and couldn’t exist in real life.

But, I wonder… (the pun there is absolutely intentional). I want to talk to you about just one woman – living in the UK – who has been, truly wonderful – in every sense. And the woman I want to talk about is Malala Yousafzai.

I know many of you will have heard about her already. She was born on 12th July 1997 (almost exactly 20 years ago) and she was born in Mingora, Pakistan. Pakistan, which was being controlled by the Taliban at that time, did not support the education of girls – because they believed that girls were not worthy of an education and they issued threats to girls who tried to go to school. From a very young age, Malala resisted this. And she became a passionate and very courageous advocate for girls’ education. So much so, that the Taliban issued a death threat against her. Malala knew full well that she was in danger, but she carried on blogging for the right for herself, her friends and girls around the world, to go to school. And then, finally, on October 9, 2012, when 15-year-old Malala was riding a bus with friends on their way home from school, a masked gunman boarded the bus and demanded to know which girl was Malala. When her friends looked toward Malala, her location was given away and the gunman fired at her, hitting her in the left side of her head.

Amazingly and miraculously, she was not killed. But the shooting left Malala in critical condition, so she was flown to a military hospital in Peshawar. She was operated on there and then, she was transferred to Birmingham, in the UK, to receive further expert treatment and care. Luckily, she recovered and in March 2013, she was able to begin attending school in Birmingham. Since then, she has remained here, in school in the UK – she is graduating this year – and she has continued to work for women’s rights and particularly the rights of young girls. Her amazing courage, vision and passion was rightly recognised in October 2014 when she won the Nobel Peace prize. The biggest and most important award we can offer for peace.

So girls – here, is a genuine, living, Wonder woman for the C21st. What I love about Malala is that she was not from an extraordinary background – she had no magical gifts donated by the Greek gods, her father (who I have had the great good fortune to meet), is a proud and principled and intelligent man but he would be the first to say he is not particularly unusual or special or from a very prestigious family or background. And yet, and yet – Malala – truly is a Wonder woman. Her lasso of truth is her absolute determination and belief in what she knew was right and what she believes in and her indestructible bracelets are her astonishing courage – a courage in the face of huge personal danger – and her faith in god and in humanity. Sometimes, girls, we are lucky enough to share our time and our planet with people who are actually heroic – shining beacons of the best way to live – Malala is one of those and we are so lucky to have her with us in the UK – reminding us all what is important. I have been lucky enough to hear her speak. I know she is extraordinary because this is the sort of thing she says:

Let us remember, one book, one pen, one child and one teacher can change the world.

She is talking there about knowledge and about the great power it gives us – to be well educated and to learn things. Maybe, girls, as we embark on the last half of term in this school year – we can all  work hard to remember that…

So, Malala is my Wonder woman – not just because she inspires wonder in all who hear her or meet her or know her story – although of course, she does do that – but because she also, clearly is wonderful – quite literally – full of wonder about the world she lives in and the great opportunities it offers. She has not, perhaps like us, learnt to take it all for granted. She knows and recognises every day, how lucky those of us being educated are – and she clearly still feels great wonder and joy in that.

So, girls – that’s what I’d like you to take into the next busy 5 weeks of term… you are all, in your own ways – wonder women – full of your own special gifts and talents. I hope you can use them for two things – firstly to help make the lives of others more wonderful and secondly to enjoy every day, the wonder of learning about our wonderful , wonderful world. Good luck with that!

Thank you.

Food for thought

One of the great treats of being a Head is finding myself at surprising and energisingly quirky lectures given by passionate people who are imaginative, inspiring and well-informed about whatever their topic is.

Last month, was one such occasion. Stella Lawton, my DFO and I were lucky enough to be invited by our school caterers, Holroyd Howe, to attend the annual lecture of the IFBB (the Institute for Food and Brain Behaviour). The lecture, given by Professor John Stein – Emeritus professor in physiology at Magdalen College Oxford, and his brother, the twinkly and brilliant TV chef, Rick Stein, focused almost entirely on the benefits of oily fish on brain development. Professor Stein cited study after study which compellingly made the case for the simple method of giving children omega-3 rich oily fish (or supplements of the same). This, he argued, produced striking and unignorable improvements in educational attainment and behaviour. It’s because the long chain polyunsaturated omega 3 fatty acid, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in oily fish is essential in brain development and the generation of key brain connections.

Omega 3 and 6 are both essential fatty acids required to be consumed in our diets as our body cannot synthesise them on its own. Omega 3 is generally found in oily fishes (salmon, mackerel and sardines), and omega 6 in grains and nuts. A modern diet tends to be too high in omega 6 and too low in omega 3 resulting in omega 3 fatty acids not being utilised to their full potential for our brain development.

The IFBB have been painstakingly building up evidence – supported by recent advances in neuro-science and brain-mapping, to add ballast to something, on one level, we have long known. Cod-liver oil has long been a powerful nutritional supplement after all. Professor Stein’s take was more alarming and more strident however. His view was that our brains are working less effectively (and less quickly) in part because of what we are feeding them. We are what we eat – again, we know that so well in the context of our bodies and yet the impact on our cognitive processes is less well-known.

It is also suggested that consumption of DHA may be associated with lower risk of dementia due to anti-inflammatory properties. The NHS spends £110 billion a year on the treatment of mental health conditions. If low levels of DHA are a contributory factor, then investing in more salmon and sardine in our diets feels like an enticingly simple (and tasty) solution.

Certainly, Stella and I came away full of fun, fishy ideas to broaden our pupils’ palates and encourage more experimentation at lunchtime. (It’s all about incentivising: Funky fish Friday, where opting for the non-battered cod option to go with the chips, will win junior girls house points, for example. Or bringing in sushi Thursdays in our senior school – what’s not to like? (We enjoyed sushi as part of our Clever Clogs day this week.) I can’t really see why we wouldn’t do this. Even if it’s not quite as simple as the impassioned advocacy of the Stein brothers suggests, more adventurous, healthy and natural cuisine for our children is hardly controversial. Changing the menu a little is small fry for us but could perhaps a big deal for the children!

More significant than all of this though and the real food for thought here for me, is the moral obligation which I think school leadership teams have increasingly to pay due attention to the issue of nutrition and food choice for children. Of course, Jamie Oliver’s brilliant 2005 School Dinners campaign brought this subject into the open for the first time and led to the establishment of the School Food Trust and a focus on addressing nutritional choices to combat obesity. The jury is out about the success of this, certainly, national child obesity levels have not yet fallen significantly, but it brought diet into mainstream educational discussion and that was a huge step forward.

The question now is what to do next and where do schools come into it? The exciting thing happening at our school (apart from funky fish Friday of course!), is an ongoing and enormously constructive dialogue with our caterers Holroyd Howe. They are pioneering in this area (they are sponsoring the work of the IFBB, and so they absolutely should. One can easily see how the link between brain development and food, is utterly central commercially to school catering companies.). But it seems to me that there is a moral imperative here too. Stella and I meet with Ronan (the engaging CEO of Holroyd Howe) at least once a term. I think that really matters. We are engaged together in the business of feeding our children: physically and mentally – that’s what schools do. And we should be working, plotting and planning together to do so. Brilliant initiatives like Holroyd’s ‘half measures’ – using half the amount of sugar in all recipes – effective, simple, healthy and honestly just as delicious – shouldn’t come as a surprise to school management teams. They should be arrived at together and be part of the school’s education development plan. Amy Roberts, Food and Nutrition Director from Holroyd Howe told us: “In addition to ensuring we continually enhance our recipes and menus it is also vitally important that we support pupils’ knowledge on the importance of eating these nutritious fishy dishes, and educate them on the importance of healthy eating throughout the school day. At Wimbledon High School, nutrition education in classrooms and in the dining room is evidence of the partnership we have with the school when enhancing the girl’s health and wellbeing.”

And parents need to see the united front. Teachers and caterers uniting with parents to inform, educate, research and explore the best ways to impact most effectively and most positively on our children’s dietary choices.

So, when it comes to food – it’s not just about school lunch. Like everything to do with education, it’s about imaginative planning, about finding a narrative that will work with our children, it’s about avoiding the red-herrings (and the bad puns) and about ensuring an open and effective discourse between parents, chefs and teachers.

And meanwhile, I have invested in two big jars of cod liver oil capsules – that will cover the next three months until my son’s GCSEs.

Jane Lunnon

The day we went for a walk: 21 January 2017

Today, at the age of 47 and a half, I am doing something I have never done before. I am currently on a train from leafy (and this morning, glistening) Berkshire to Waterloo to join the March for Women – one of many happening in this country and around the world, asserting the essential rights of women in the light of Donald Trump’s inauguration.

In some ways, I can’t quite believe I’m doing it. I have never been an overtly political animal nor am I particularly party political – I’ve voted for all the main parties in my time – swayed, I suspect, as much by personality as by policy.  The closest I have got in the past to direct political action was a very brief membership of the Tory Reform Group whilst at University. (I was actually motivated by two things : my desire to do some community service to offset lots of student hedonism and my desire for one of the chaps involved in running it! The whole thing ended up badly : me scurrying helplessly round a muddy hen coop trying to herd the chickens back into their hutch, whilst the chap I fancied watched dismissively and issued instructions from the gate!).

But here I am now, taking a stand. I feel like I’m going to the barricades. I’ve been warned not to carry valuables, have been instructed to dress warmly but sensibly, to avoid trouble…apparently there might be some. It all feels like something of an adventure.

So why am I here? And why have so many of my middle aged friends, like me, not historically activist, decided to jettison their Saturday morning runs and lattes to be part of this March?  In some ways, for me anyway it hasn’t really felt like a decision. From the moment I heard it was happening, I simply knew I had to be part of it. It’s not just because I am the mother of a lovely teenage daughter whose future obviously matters to me, nor that I am myself the daughter of a first generation-educated, brilliant woman (and teacher) who embodies every day what intelligently strong minded and warm hearted women can and should expect from themselves and from others. It’s not even that I am lucky enough to run Wimbledon High, a girls’ school full of amazing young women who deserve respect and equality and freedom just as boys do. And whom I want to have a clear and unmuddied sense of their place and agency in the world. (How astonishing that that should even need saying in 2017!).

No, it’s none of those things that have got me here.  It feels deeper and more ingrained than that. Exactly 100 years ago, in 1917, the Electoral Reform Bill gave votes to some women for the first time. (The Speaker’s report laying out the plans to Lloyd George, was actually put into his hands on January 27th 1917, only 6 days from today). The efforts of the likes of Millicent Fawcet, the Pankhurst sisters, Annie Kenney, Emily Wilding Davison and the rest of the suffragettes, who had fought and sacrificed so much to win this key step along the way to equality, were vindicated. They had been fighting not only for the women around them but for the women of the future – the ‘sisters’ they would never know and never see but who they knew deserved to be respected, recognised, empowered, just as their contemporaries did. From their efforts came the vote, widespread, good quality education for girls, jobs for women, equal rights in marriage and all the other democratic riches which we now take for granted.  We have all these things because young (and not so young – were any of them 47?) women, a hundred years ago believed in ‘deeds not words’ and would not be silenced. That, I think, is where we come in. We are those women they fought and in some cases died for. Now it feels like our time to stand up and be heard.

I am not marching because I am anti Donald Trump – although, America, really? Really…? I don’t think I’m marching for future generations or even for the countless admirable women and girls I know and work with, who are decent and fun and have integrity and care about what is right. I’m not even marching in reaction to women being lazily and casually sexualised in words or deeds by thoughtless, predatory people.

No. I am marching for the past. And in respect and thanks for those brave women whose ‘deeds not words’ changed the western world. This is my very small deed. And, despite my trepidation, I am very glad to be doing it.

Jane Lunnon, 21 January 2017