We will all experience failure in some area of our lives, but for teenage girls, dealing with the emotions associated with ‘failure’ can be a challenging time. It can be tempting to protect our daughters and pupils from these setbacks, fearful of damaging their fragile self-esteem, but a lifetime of working in girls-only education has re-inforced my passionate belief that this does not benefit girls in any way. JK Rowling’s 2008 commencement speech at Harvard was an inspiring testament to the inner strength that can be built through experiencing setbacks and learning from them. As she argued so persuasively: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.’’
All too often, students, especially young women, can fall into the trap of failing to fulfil their potential through fear of making mistakes, or through negative perfectionism which cripples their ability to take risks. Kay and Shipman’s book ‘The Confidence Code’ talks about a confidence gap that separates the sexes, starting in schools where girls are typically rewarded for being ‘good’ instead of energetic, brave or even ‘pushy’. Research also suggests that women repeatedly underestimate their abilities, are reluctant to apply for promotion and, once in post, can suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ (the false belief that they are somehow a fraud who will be found out at any moment).
At Blackheath High School, students benefit from an approach that means they are far better equipped to risk failure, be courageous and believe and acknowledge their own strengths and abilities. Teaching inspires girls to develop a questioning, evidence-based approach to their studies. They are encouraged to ask questions, embrace uncertainties and develop the problem-solving skills that are so vital in the world beyond school. Qualifications like the Extended Project Qualification or courses like ‘Global Perspectives’ or ‘Matrix of Knowledge’ teach students not only a body of knowledge, but also how they might approach a situation when they do not know what the answer might be. All subjects, including science and technology-based subjects, are considered ‘girls’ subjects’ at Blackheath High and it is typical to see graduates this summer heading off to an array of courses that includes: Chemical Engineering; Mathematics; Anthropology and Medicine, amongst others.
A wide-ranging and ambitious co-curricular programme at Blackheath High enables students to leap outside their comfort zones and try themselves out. This might be testing themselves physically hiking in the Peruvian Andes, like some of our girls this summer; it might be defending the Green party manifesto at a school mock election; taking to the stage for a percussion solo or it might attempting Astronomy GCSE in their spare time. Whatever the arena, the school fosters an environment where girls are encouraged and expected to take risks, learn from any failures and foster their resilience and tenacity.
For such an approach to be successful, a school community needs to be attuned to the emotional and social needs of its students, in our case, exclusively girls. 135 years of educating talented young women, as part of the hugely successful Girls Day School Trust, means we benefit from a depth of expertise and experience in supporting our students. Expert pastoral care and a genuinely balanced approach to education enables Blackheath High girls to go onto the next phase of the lives as poised young women, free from gender stereotypes and confident in their abilities.
Mrs Carol Chandler Thompson, Headteacher
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, ‘The Confidence Code’: http://theconfidencecode.com/books/
The imposter syndrome: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/nov/09/impostor-syndrome-oliver-burkeman