What role does the House system play in a modern school?

Miss Hannah Johnston, Head of Houses at WHS, examines why the House system is as important in the modern world as it was in the famous tales of Mr Chips and Harry Potter.

Identity

Mention ‘Houses’ in the context of a school and for a certain generation it is hard not to be instantly transported to ‘Hogwarts’ and all the connotations of the sorting hat. Originating from boarding schools where students lived in a ‘house’ the inclusion of a House system is popular among schools, and, thanks to J.K Rowling and those 4 most famous of Houses there is more awareness than ever of the advantages the House system brings.

While we do not rely on a sentient hat, each year we have the ‘Stepping In’ ceremony where our new girls are warmly received into their House, a pivotal moment in their entry to senior school. As girls and staff cheer from the side-lines, the initial ties of camaraderie and identity are being formed.

The Specialist School and Academies Trust (SSAT) found that in 2008 16% of Year 6 students did not feel ready to begin senior school. They advocated the House system as a way of ensuring students felt supported by their peers from the beginning; “Ensuring students feel comfortable in their new surroundings and making them feel part of their new environment as quickly as possible” (Garner, 2008). By dividing the school into 4 smaller groups (Arnold, Hastings, Meredith and Scott) we allow students to develop their sense of belonging quickly and help to remove the fear of ‘small fish big pond’ that can often follow, particularly if a girl has joined from a smaller primary school environment.

Above: Year 7 Stepping In; 2019

Collaboration

One of the main strengths of the House system is giving students of all ages the opportunity to work together, creating a truly cohesive environment and ensuring that age is not a barrier to friendship and collaboration. This reflects the life that we are preparing our girls for outside of WHS, nowhere beyond the confines of a classroom will they be required to work / interact with those only of their own age.

As David Tongue (Head, Brighton College Bangkok) said of the value of the House system; “camaraderie and solidarity is second to none and the benefits of this vertical interaction, where the young look up to the elder and where the elder look out for and support the younger, are profound”. We see this throughout the year in WHS but perhaps nowhere is it as evident as during House Drama. Watching the Year 7 and Year 12 students plan, rehearse and perform is one of the highlights of the Winter term. The dedication shown by all involved and the support given by fellow House members at each performance is wonderful.

Of course it is not only students who are allocated a House, staff are also involved. The sense of community that pervades throughout the school would, arguably, be incomplete if students were not given the opportunity to interact with teachers beyond those they see in the classroom, thereby encouraging stronger relationships between adults and students” (Green, 2006). Our recent ‘Connections Fortnight’ highlighted the importance of celebrating the relationships formed in school. Where better than to see this than through our Houses, small communities within the larger whole formed on shared interests and challenges.

Above: House Drama 2019

Competition       

To talk about the House system and neglect to mention competition would be foolish. Potentially it is the competitive element of the Houses that people think of first. The all-important termly round up where the current leader is announced to great fanfare, the selection of mini competitions each term and, of course, Sports Day. Competition is good, it drives our students to improve, improves collegiality and teaches how to fail.

The House system is first and foremost inclusive of all learning types and interests. We have sporting (swimming, netball, hockey and sports day), artistic (Big Draw, House Music and House Drama) and cross-curricular (Robot Wars and the upcoming Spelling Bee and House Escape) events.

As was seen in a study between engagement and performance the sense of belonging provided by House membership, and the opportunity to enter into competitions with your peers can have numerous academic benefits as well as the social-emotional (Lee, 2014). Those who feel comfortable and supported enough to participate in House events are more likely to feel able to commit themselves fully to academia.

Leadership

Above: Current House Captains

The House system allows for the promotion of student’s responsibility, “giving pupils the chance to learn and develop leadership skills is an outstanding benefit” (Tongue, 2016). The House Captains hone their leadership skills in the role, managing not only their peers but also learning how to ‘manage up’ among the staff body.

In another case of preparation for life beyond school, our House Captains rise to each challenge set, developing impressive time management and delegation skills.

In the upcoming House Robot Wars, the Captains have delegated the training sessions to those in KS4 that they have identified as having leadership qualities and the necessary Computer skills. Events such as House Music promote team work and communication. It takes a small army of girls to form the small group, organise whole House rehearsals and teach the choreography, yet everyone throws themselves in with dedication.

While we have our 4 House Captains there are opportunities throughout the year groups to take on smaller leadership roles, recent House Jigsaw saw students in Year 9 take charge and each inter-house sports team has a captain.

Above: House Masterchef

The House system searches for ways that students and staff can feel more connected to and involved with the community around them. It facilitates discussions between the most junior and most senior of school and fostering friendly competitive spirit along the way.


References

Garner, R., 2008. State secondaries urged to bring back the house system. [Online]  Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/state-secondaries-urged-to-bring-back-the-house-system-913930.html

Green, D. G., 2006. Welcome to the House System. Educational leadership: journal of the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, N.E.A, p. 63.

Lee, J.-S., 2014. The Relationship between Student Engagement and Academic Performance: Is It a Myth or Reality?. Journal of Educational Research, pp. 177-185.

Tongue, D., 2016. The House System: a typically British educational institution. [Online]
Available at: https://www.relocatemagazine.com/articles/education-the-house-system-a-typically-british-educational-institution

Being Head Girl at WHS

Front of WHS

Jasmine, Year 13, describes what her role as Head Girl entails and gives a brief overview of the initiatives for the year ahead

I’m delighted to be Head Girl for Wimbledon High School this academic year! My role as Head Girl entails a lot of different things, most of it being meetings, talking and organising things so I’ll give you a quick rundown of what goes on behind the scenes and our aims for this year.

Head Girl Team
Saskia, Jasmine and Ella – the Head Girl Team at WHS for 2019-20

I work with Saskia and Ella, the Deputy Head Girls, to lead the Student Leadership Team, coming up with new ideas for whole-school events such as the annual WHS Pride Week (taking place just before half term to celebrate our recent Stonewall Bronze Award!), the school birthday (taking place after half term) and a range of new initiatives that we feel would make the school a better place for all of us. One of our main initiatives this year is PAWHS, standing for Pause at WHS, where we want to recognise the different ways in which students just relax and wind down, without forcing any specific methods on them because we understand the same exercises and activities don’t work for everyone.

We also run school council and have worked closely with Mr Turner, Assistant Head Pastoral, this year to “re-invent” our school council. It now has Year-reps and specific committees with representatives from each year so younger girls can really be involved in leading the school and getting their ideas heard. We also chair student parliament and feedback all the students’ comments and suggestions to the Senior Management Team.

Last year we came up with our overall pastoral theme of Connections, as we felt we wanted our focus to be on how we connect with the wider world, our school and the people in it, and of course how we connect to ourselves. We pitched this to the Senior Management Team and Head of Years and they liked the idea; it is now our pastoral theme for the year. Our aim for this year is to create an environment where students feel connected to each other but also the world around us. Our other aim is to connect to our school, looking at its history, present and future in light of our 140th school birthday, and we are organising a massive school celebration day called “Year-to-Year” to focus on this (linking to the opening line of our school song), which will hopefully be great fun and a memorable day not just for all of us but also for the school in years to come.

Our pastoral theme for 2019-20 – connections. This theme was chosen by our Student Leadership Team.

Being part of the Student Leadership Team is a large responsibility but it is a great opportunity to make even the smallest difference to our amazing school. It is the responsibility of a leader to serve the people around them, to include everyone and their ideas, to set an example and stand up for what is right. I may not have Priyanka’s poise and teacher-like authority, Jessie’s seemingly effortless organisation skills or Ava’s fierce intellect and extensive vocabulary,  but I’m learning that’s the beauty of being a Head girl, or any leader, is that you make it your own; for me I think it’s all about being a friendly, approachable face in the corridor, welcoming every girl as she steps in to Wimbledon High.

Wimbledon High Junior School: Reflections on 16 years of Junior School Leadership

Ms Kate Mitchell, Head of Juniors, retires at the end of this academic year after 16 years as Head of Juniors. Here she explores some of the changes that have occurred that have enabled the WHS Junior School to go from strength to strength.

Kate
Above: From here…
Above: …to there!

Wednesday January 8th 2003: from this, my very first day, I wanted so much to get it right and be the best Head I could possibly be. Who would have predicted heavy snow? Not everyone made it into school that day and nothing could have been considered to be normal for those first few wintery days of my first term. What a very strange way indeed to begin to get to know your staff, parents and girls. I got to know them very quickly, as we played outside, built snowmen and had lots of fun together. What did I learn? The great Monty Python mantra which has stayed with me throughout, ‘always expect the unexpected’!

The very first Year 6 production I saw was ‘Bring Dad Home’. Performed at The Polka Theatre, the girls had the weekend to rehearse in the theatre and it was performed twice on the Sunday – matinee and evening. I then brought things ‘in house’ and for a few years, we used the Junior Hall for our shows, until the Rutherford Theatre was built in 2007 – hurrah for that!

In 2003, hockey, cross-country and tennis were not on the curriculum. The girls simply played netball throughout the autumn with rounders and athletics in the summer. Our only strength was in swimming. My first meeting with parents concluded with them asking me to address the perceived mediocrity that existed in sport. I’m not going to describe to you what you know exists today (take a look at our many recent triumphs detailed in High Ways) but you can see that we have come a very, very long way, in terms of variety and excellence in sport.

Referencing sport leads me to reflect on how the House system has changed. At least in the Junior School, we had a House system; it wasn’t introduced to the Senior School until 2005. Named after four famous women, the girls meet fortnightly, compete in lots of different arenas including sport, music and chess, raise funds for chosen charities and generally make inter-year friendships that last throughout their time in Juniors. A great development in recent years is the cross-fertilization with the senior school where we have the same colour house days and house captains lead house assemblies together. This has become a major part of our vision to create a truly unified school where the playground is not the metaphorical divide between seniors and juniors.

I can’t emphasise enough how important residential visits are in the lives of children. The range we offer to the girls is, as you would expect, carefully matched to the taught curriculum but more importantly, the girls are learning the skills of being away from home. From Year 3, these are stepped up age appropriately in length of nights away from home as well as distance! I included Bushcraft knowing that it is a truly formative experience for all involved – including staff. This complements the recent introduction of the Outdoor Ed programme in Year 6 which leads to national certification. In addition, for Years 5&6 we offer a biennial ski trip and we are about to launch, in the alternate years, and in response to parental demand, a sports tour open to all.

It is what goes on in the classroom that is fundamental to girls’ learning. However, when I meet ‘old girls’ who are now beyond university, it is all of the above that they recall fondly and speak about, rather than the day they learnt their 6x tables.  Why is this? I believe co-curricular activity relies on the strength of the human relationships which inspire the girls to develop and grow their confidence and creates happiness from within. Of course, none of this could be achieved without the dedicated staff who are prepared to try new ideas, give their time and support the myriad of opportunities open to the girls; and it is through the strength of these relationships that deep learning takes place.

I too have been on a learning journey which has been rewarding, fulfilling, exciting, sometimes scary and above all great fun. As I now prepare to stride out I know that I am leaving behind a Junior School which is in truly great shape. I feel privileged to have been at the helm for 16 years and am very proud of all that we in the Junior School have achieved together.

Happiness Festival 2018: Peace Edition

Wimbledon High School Happiness Festival 2018

Ava (Head Girl, Y13) talks about the latest of Wimbledon High’s annual Happiness Festivals, discussing what makes such an event special and uniquely Wimbledonian.

Last Friday marked a truly extraordinary day in Wimbledon High School’s calendar: Happiness Festival 2018. From start to end, the day served as a wonderful reminder of all the warmth and support ever-present here within the walls of WHS.

When the Student Leaders and I sat down to start the task of planning the event some months ago, we thought long and hard about the properties of happiness we wanted to focus on. For us, we decided that happiness could be explained through a combination of inner peace and global peace and subsequently decided the theme of this year’s event would be “Peace”, providing a perfect tie-in to concurrent celebrations of Remembrance.

The day itself provided many opportunities for contemplative reflection, along with moments of pure fun and laughter. Our inaugural FeelGoodFest opened the event, a combination of effortlessmusic performances, beautiful poetry and heartfelt messages read aloud by students from all years. Particularly prominent in the morning’s proceedings was a lovely sense of friendship, provided not only by girls themselves thanking their friends for supporting them through thick and thin, but also through a heartwarming rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve got a friend” from Louisa and Anna (Year 13).

Later in the day, as part of our “Laughternoon” festivities, students and staff were treated to a very special performance from comedy duo Harry and Chris, who have appeared on The Russell Howard Hour and sold out three consecutive Edinburgh Fringe shows. This was a real treat indeed, with giggles heard all across the room. Harry and Chris ended their performance with a funny yet touching message of self-love, encouraging everyone to remind themselves that they are “a ten” every once in a while.

A huge thanks must of course go to The Music Department, House Captains and Music Rep for the fabulous House Music event in the afternoon, which may or may not have included a whole-school dance-along to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, a firm Wimbledonian favourite. It was lovely to see students of all ages putting themselves forward to compete on behalf of their houses; a special mention goes to Meredith for winning the House Song category, and to Arnold for their win in the House Ensemble category.

Overall, the day left me with a real sense of the enduring nature of “Wimbledonian Spirit”, with girls smiling through the wet weather and wholeheartedly engaging in the entirety of the event. A final thank you goes to the staff and sixth-formers who led sessions on Inner Peace and Global Peace throughout the day, and to all those who contributed to the organisation of the event, a real WHS team-effort!

I have to agree with the smiling Year 7 who left the school gates on Friday Afternoon with a resolute “well, that was fun”. I couldn’t agree more.

What’s next? Moving on from ‘Growth Mindset’ – 19/10/18

I am sure we all have engraved in our minds the excitingly named Strategic Objective 3.1? It’s ok, this isn’t a test, and I will not be asking for answers on a GROW card… Mr Ben Turner, Assistant Head Pastoral, looks at the next steps in our pastoral programme here at WHS.

The answer –which of course we all knew – is: “Developing a growth mindset across the school”. Ever since Dr Carol Dweck published her paper about the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence, the education community has been clamouring to implement her findings in schools across the globe. Another well-known theory, Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, depicts the process by which an idea is adopted over time within a community. As Everett’s ‘Laggards’ grapple with how to implement Growth Mindset in their schools is it time for us, as at least ‘early adopters’ if not ‘innovators’ ourselves, to move beyond Dweck’s original research and ask; what’s next?  

 

As we all know too well, the world is rapidly changing, and the landscape for which we are preparing our students is constantly shifting. A recent Oxford University study estimates that 47% of current jobs are “at risk” of being automated in the next 20 years.[1] The subjects we learn at school are mostly static, two plus two will always equal four and the Battle of Hastings will have always been fought in 1066. Complexity theorist Sam Arbesman[2] argues that facts like these have a ‘half-life’ of utility. Even coding, often touted as ‘the language of the 21st Century’, was first taught using the coding language of BASIC which is now defunct, and today Python is the most popular but will likely not be a decade from now. The challenge for students and educators is putting less value on what we know and more on adaption and improvisation.

Should the next focus then be on what we do with what we know, not what we have learnt or how we have learnt it? Laszlo Bock[3], formally the senior vice president of people operations at Google –  i.e. the guy in charge of hiring the talent for one of the world’s most influential and successful companies – notes that test scores are a worthless criteria for hiring and predict nothing. During Bock’s tenure, the percentage of Google employees without a college education rose to as high as 14% on some teams. What then did Bock value in a candidate? Of course, one cannot dismiss ‘good grades’, many jobs at Google require maths, computing and coding skills but the answer does not reside just in STEM and they certainly have their eyes on much, much more. The number one trait that Google looks for? Cognitive ability – the ability to ‘process on the fly’, to pull together disparate bits of information in order to work on and solve a problem.

Interestingly the other key skill sought by Google? Leadership. This is not the traditional leadership of captains and presidents. It is the leader, who when faced with a problem while a member of a team, at the appropriate time, steps in and leads. And, just as critically, steps back and stops leading and is able to relinquish power. This humility and ownership is an intrinsic part of leadership; to have stepped in with a sense of ownership while having the humility to step back and embrace the ideas of others in order to achieve your ultimate goal of problem solving, together. Perhaps the most telling of Bock’s lessons? The least important trait, so called ‘expertise’ – why would you hire someone that has done something ‘100 times’ before – what genuine innovation is there in repeating the past?

So, where then do these examples leave Strategic Objective 3.1?

I am sure that much of this will not be a surprise for most, but in evolving our thinking, it does raise pertinent questions.

  • What is the difference between embracing challenges and persevering through them and seeking out those challenges as opportunities?
  • When obstacles arise, our common response is grit and resilience but can we do more to shift our thinking to look for opportunities and possibilities; what do we do with what we know once they occur?
  • Innovation is not about ‘thinking outside the box’, it is about creating opportunities inside the box you already have; our hard work and effort are continuous, but as a school, how can we look to make time to create new solutions and ideas?

We proudly embrace failure but we cannot afford to be passive or linear in our thinking. Failures and challenges do not simply come in a procession, one by one; the most successful yet humble human beings are the ones that seek the highs and have experienced the lows and have come back for more regardless. Computers will never replace the agility of thought offered by people who can empathise, communicate and collaborate. It is that we want to engrave in our new Strategic Objectives but more importantly, instil into our girls so they can stride out and lead on the challenges facing us in the 21st century.

[1] http://www.eng.ox.ac.uk/about/news/new-study-shows-nearly-half-of-us-jobs-at-risk-of-computerisation

[2] The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman, 2004

[3] Work rules! Insights from inside google that will transform how you live and lead, Laszlo Bock, 2015