A small, still voice that needs to be heard

A small, still voice that needs to be heard

In November I was privileged to spend time at a fascinating event – the WISE (World Innovation Summit of Education) summit in Qatar – at which I met many interesting and talented, thoughtful and innovative educators from around the world. I also hosted the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) annual conference, which included discussion of topics ranging from the place of neuroscience in education to risk taking without fear of failure, and from dealing with a generation of ‘screenagers’ to unconscious bias.

Leaving the school environment to attend events such as these provides school leaders with opportunities to think about wider educational and well-being matters holistically, before returning to the busyness of operational and domestic endeavours that necessarily take up much of our time in school. I wanted to share with you just a few of the key issues regarding the education and well-being of young people that resonate with me and were discussed during these two events.

We need to encourage grit

In order for young people to have the courage to face failure, and the resilience to bounce back, we need to ensure that between school and home, students have the chance to develop ‘grit’. Grit can be thought of as the ability to maintain core purpose and integrity among unforeseen shocks and surprises. Crucially, key to developing grit, is striving for excellence as an attitude, not an endgame.

The need for adults to invest in developing grit in young people isn’t new. It isn’t an issue that has arisen this year, and so it doesn’t necessarily make headline news. But it is not yet something that has been resolved either, and so school leaders and parents need to take seriously the challenge to work together to support children in aiming high, certainly, but not to the extent that they put their mental well-being or physical health at risk.

Schools then should provide supportive environments in which students can learn to take risks gradually and, by practising doing so repeatedly, they can test out their imperfectly formed ideas in a safe space, as they develop and mature into confident young adults who are able to articulate, and justify, their outlook on life. One of the 12 Characteristics of a Mary Ward School that we focused on during the 2016/2017 academic year was ‘Coping effectively with failure’, which involved helping the girls to work out for themselves what success and failure look like to them. The range of role models we welcomed into school illustrated that success is different for everyone – it’s not about everyone fitting into one mould, nor about being good at everything. It is important that young people understand that they must work out what their own values, passions and talents are for themselves. Additionally the work we began - to instil a growth mind-set in students - is imperative in helping them to believe that brilliance is not innate and, therefore, there is nothing wrong with finding something difficult or needing to work hard to achieve the outcome you would like. In fact, we encourage all students to review and improve their work, their skills, their outcomes, as this benefits those who found something easy as much as it does those who found something challenging. 

We need to provide young people with critical tools to challenge even the most cherished beliefs

Given the rapid pace of societal and technological change, shifts in the employment market, and dramatic changes to our tertiary education system, we need to engage in frank discussions about how the ‘DNA’ of our schools can evolve in order to continue to offer an education that is relevant now, and will remain relevant in the coming decades.

Education should provide young people with critical tools to examine the most cherished of beliefs, and to challenge orthodoxy too when it no longer provides a sustainable framework for the lives we are living today. It should give us the courage and confidence to acknowledge the inevitability of change, and to celebrate life as a work in progress.

The recent overhaul in the PISA assessment framework highlights how the expectations of education systems internationally are changing. Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), explains:

“PISA’s assessment criteria have now been moved into line with those skills which… our current and future world requires most urgently from our young people: ways of thinking involving creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision making;… communication and collaboration;… tools for working, including the capacity to recognise and exploit the potential of new technologies; and, last but not least,… the social and emotional skills that help people live and work together.”

There are many ways that our school develops such skills in our students, from humanities subjects and STEM learning to our Days of Reflection, and throughout our High Performance Learning approach, from the Junior School into the Sixth Form.

We still need to eradicate the prejudice and discrimination that young women today face

As 2017 draws to a close, we find ourselves on the eve of the centenary year which marks the first great achievement of the Pankhurst sisters and their fellow campaigners; the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which granted women the right to vote. Full equality for girls and women, however, remains to be won in areas including the persistent pay gap; unfair treatment in the workplace; pressures girls and young women face from gender stereotypes in matters from social media behaviour to relationships, to the choice of GCSE or Higher Education subjects, and the roles they play in the domestic environment.  

Bruce Hood, Professor of Developmental Psychology, University of Bristol, spoke at the GSA conference about issues of neuroscience and that it is culture, rather than biology, which is the major determinant as to whether females take STEM subjects. Professor Hood is working with Physics Partners to coordinate a network of female STEM graduates who will visit schools to talk about their experiences and journeys to Higher Education. This is one small but positive action to stop gender stereotypes from influencing students’ decisions about their careers.

Making progress in any or all of the areas outlined above will mean that our students and alumnae feel further equipped and hopefully inspired to lead, with courage, competence and empathy, without a fear of failure; to challenge limits; to explore new possibilities and articulate new ideas; and to demonstrate and celebrate their intellectual capacities and curiosities.

The most powerful message a young person can receive is that there are no limits to what they can pursue, and that their most ambitious goals are worth pursuing tenaciously. That is what we embed into our students throughout their time at our school. This is our daily endeavour at St Mary’s School, Cambridge.


While you will have probably seen coverage over the past fortnight of some of the more ‘headline grabbing’ comments that were made during the GSA conference presentations (granting some key issues ‘five minutes’ of air time only to be dropped the next day), there are many more issues that are imperative to consider in depth, and in a more thoughtful and nuanced way, year-round.

Issues including the three educational and well-being issues mentioned above, or those related to global or local inequality or to climate change or conservation, are important all the time. Whenever we support a particular day of recognition or campaigning in school, such as International Day of the Girl in October or International Women’s Day in March, we are always careful to caveat our activity with the preface that gender equality matters every day, not just once a year. In a similar way, giving issues any publicity, whether positive or negative, may go some way to raising awareness but, if limited to a few headlines once a year, progress in any of these areas is likely to be slow.

I have been talking to students last week and earlier this week about the role of advocates in bringing about change – and encouraging them about the need for perseverance. What they care about needs to be considered on a regular basis if they want to see change; that’s what I want our students to learn. It is up to each of them to be wise and passionate advocates for the causes that they believe in. Each of them has something unique to say and has a small, still voice of calm that needs to be heard.