It was interesting to see a feature recently in the media on a “reading dog”, Fernie, who was part of the staff at a primary school. Aged only two years old, Fernie was able to read and respond to flash cards – although judging by his performance on “This Morning” some homework might be needed to truly embed that skill!
Joking aside, it is well established that dogs in school offer real benefits to children; that goes for staff and parents too. There is something very calming about the presence of a dog; research has showed the act of stroking can lower blood pressure. Certainly reading to a dog has been proven to raise confidence in children, reducing stress levels and making them less self-conscious. The charity Bark and Read attribute it in part to the non-judgmental canine response – unless you count a wagging tale!
For so many of our girls it is simply impossible to have a dog in families where both parents work; it is lovely to see them over-coming fears and getting to know Florence, Blackheath High Juniors’ resident dog. Florence has been coming to school for over three years now. Assemblies are something of a challenge (just too exciting) but she has been a regular, generally authorised, observer of Chamber Choir practices in the hall. A little band of Year 5 and 6 girls take particular care of her but most of the time she hogs a sofa in my office where she has visits from girls through-out the day. I get the benefit of a relaxed chat with them while Florence gets a cuddle. Girls who have been upset are calmed quickly – ditto parents and staff.
While girls have read to Florence, even at six years old she cannot match Fernie in her own reading ability. I’m happy that she hasn’t acquired any literacy skills; I fear a doggie email to the NSPCA, complaining about enforced attendance at Health and Safety meetings, so she will not be attending booster classes, receiving one to one support or getting extra homework to remedy the situation; she will however continue to be available for stroking therapy and, being the hypoallergenic labradoodle that she is, that facility is open to all.
Mrs Sarah Skevington
Head of Juniors, Blackheath High
At the heart of Blackheath High’s mission statement, sits the commitment to inspire and equip girls to strive for personal excellence in all her endeavours: intellectual; physical; creative; cultural; social and moral. In seeking to educate girls for life, as well as achieve high grades, we have an unfaltering commitment to a genuinely balanced education. Not only do we believe that a balanced approach provides girls with a sustainable approach to the life after school, but we also know that opportunities to exercise their creative, spiritual and physical muscles improve students’ academic performance and motivation. It is the greater shame therefore, that some schools (especially in the state sector) are increasingly narrowing their curriculum and co-curriculum to focus on a smaller and smaller range of E-Bacc subjects, to the detriment of the musical, artistic and sporting life of the students. Government League tables, that exclude interesting qualifications like IGCSE and focus on an increasingly narrow range of measures to rank schools, seem increasingly uninformative and unhelpful for the discriminating parent.
The benefits of a broad and balanced curriculum are abundantly clear. Students will learn some of their most valuable lifetime lessons on the sports field, on the debating podium or in the orchestra pit. The discipline required to practise a musical instrument for a performance or the memory techniques developed to recall lines for a play directly benefit students in a wealth of other areas. The creativity, originality and enterprise necessary to stage a fashion show or develop a fund-raising initiative and implement it, are exactly the skills that employers are seeking and that businesses require. The teamwork, enthusiasm and commitment demanded by belonging to the Netball team are highly valuable attributes that feed into continued success academically and in the world of work. I say this with particular conviction, having also helped to start up a school in South Korea, where students joining the school had not benefitted from this breadth and balance in their curriculum. A didactic, rote-learning approach that focuses solely on the ‘core academic subjects’, to the exclusion of creative and sporting activity had left most students: unconfident; physically unfit; unquestioning and unhappy.
Students at Blackheath High are privileged in this context. The wealth of co-curricular opportunity is mind-boggling. A girl can star in a play at the Greenwich Theatre; organise a mock election; enjoy the richness of poetry with like-minded souls in the peace of the library; spend a blissful hour at crochet collective; perform a solo in the Chapel of the Old Royal Naval College; find a new society or befriend fellow netballers from over 20 other GDST schools at a weekend tournament. The love of these subject areas can be further developed with a broad, balanced curriculum that embraces Mandarin, Sports Science, Astronomy or Theatre Studies alongside Further Maths, Physics, Philosophy and History. I believe that makes our students much happier and successful young women. Sadly, none of these opportunities or strengths are reflected in Government League tables or E-Bacc scores. It is our good fortune, therefore, to enjoy the support of intelligent open-minded parents who see the value of a truly balanced and meaningful education as one of the most important gifts to bestow on their daughters. For this we, and their daughters, are truly grateful.