Behind the Selfie-Stick Smile – Schools’ Commitment to Wellbeing for Girls 

I’m a mother first, teacher second. But it was as both of these that my heart sank at the recent

removal of Natasha Devon as mental health champion for schools. I teach in an independent school

so Devon’s ousting won’t affect our relatively enlightened approach to pupil wellbeing. But what a

message it sends out to the nation as to how we value good mental health, surely educators’ most

fundamental obligation – at a time when self harming is up 70% in two years and 48% of 11-14 year old

girls avoid some school activity due to hating the way they look *.
As one pundit recently put it ͚’Education is too one-dimensional to cope with the complexities of 

being human’. We can’t just expect children to ‘get through it’ like we did. They are not like we were. Yes,

I did spend some of my youth in front of Little House on the Prairie with a Waggon Wheel while my

mum went out to work. It didn’t verge on the child abuse and I survived without PTSD. Yes I did have

a few detentions once; I was embarrassed, but not broken. Yes I spent summer holidays not on the

Algarve but in our damp caravan with my sister, the dog and a packed lunch. We learned how to tell

imaginative stories and make gloriously messy lemonade. Yes, I did get a D in Maths and had to redo

it before achieving the heady delights of a C. It didn’t stop me pursuing an academic career, albeit not as

an accountant. Today,  it’s a completely different world. The demands on our youth are quite

terrifying and their fear of getting it wrong greater than ever.

I worry for our daughters. Some of them seem to have every hour in the day spent in structured

activity. Tutored to the point where they can’t think for themselves anymore they suffer

performance anxiety, body image issues (what is this obsession 13 year olds have with big lips? 13)

and friendship anxiety, fuelled by social media obsession feeding a whose-got –the-most

friends/best party/coolest boyfriend/straightest hair/highest results paranoia.

This is not exclusively a female issue, of course. My 14 year old son recently had experience of a

friend of his taking his own life. I’m not about to go into the details – I don’t even know all of the

details – suffice to say it shook the community to its core and so it should.

We all want happiness first for our children, don’t we? Or if that͛s too nebulous – a contentendness,

a peace within themselves. What parent would value 12 A*s over that? Yet it is the latter by which

society continues to judge our schools and our children. Schools whose mission statements rate

wellbeing as a priority generally maintain that this does not come at the expense of excellent results

– they would wouldn’t they? But where does this leave our children? Once again, the pressure is on

them to excel academically as well as the playing field, the debating chamber, the art studio, the

orchestra pit – all with a with a selfie-stick smile on their face that says ‘I’m a girl and what I do best

is to please everyone’.

 

If my daughter was 10 and I was looking for a school now, I would be asking: How will you help me 

as a mother bestow the skills of being resilient and strong; of having values, imagination, grit, 

emotional intelligence, problem solving, creativity, people skills, honesty, loyalty, integrity? I

would really push for specific examples. The overarching philosophy needs to be there of course, but

until the Government puts wellbeing back on the agenda, I would want the details. What is the

questioning policy and practice in the classroom? How is marked work fed back? How do girls play

to their own strengths in the classroom? Where are the opportunities for girls to take risks? How

does the joined up thinking work so that girls are not overloaded? How do you manage the provision

of the academic with their overall co-curricular opportunities? How do you check in on girls͛

wellbeing? How do you know they are as happy as is possible for a teenage girl to be? And I’d be lobbying

the Government like crazy.

* The Guardian ‘Teachers have to be therapist one moment, social worker the next’ 31 May, 2016

Sitting the A-level CREW exam with my students? What was I thinking?!

Sitting the A’Level CREW exam with my students last week felt a little like I was teetering dangerously on that precipice that says brave on one side and utterly foolish on the other. Everything to lose surely, and not much to gain. Everyone would expect a Head of English to shine at the subject she teaches, right? Well, I knew it was a risk and hey, I have no idea how it all went. But I’m very glad I did it.

It’s been *coughs* quite a while since I sat an exam. The adrenaline was pumping fast as we entered the exam hall. My fixed grin and thumbs up to the girls was met with nervous smiles and it hit home that this was just one of several similar ordeals they would endure this exam season. How we forget that intensity of pressure! My worst fear last week was public humiliation, possibly that joyous ignominy of a two line diatribe in the Mail on teachers failing their pupils etc. But these girls? their future – or their perception of it at least,  their university places hanging in the balance, their hopes and dreams and desires are all wrapped up in this.  Last week, my heart went out to them in a way it hadn’t before.

But just for a short while, my job was to be just like them: focussed, confident, clear-headed, in the zone. The invigilators, necessarily strict and serious, gave me that reassuringly guilty feeling you get when walking through Customs. My contraband pink squash was removed at the door. So far so good. I was pumped. And you need to be for this exam.

The ‘Writing on Demand’ paper in the AQA A’level CREW exam is all about being a journalist writing 300 words to a tight brief and to a tight deadline. You don’t know what type of journalist you are til you see those questions – what kind of voice you will need to adopt, who your audience is, what tone you’ll need to take, what the purpose of your writing is, what the subject is, whether it’s a blog, newspaper article, report or leaflet… This is quite an ask. No other A’level English exam demands this of our students – which is just one of the reasons we need Ofqual to make it stay… but that’s another blog for another day.

Of the four questions, the one asking us to address our writing heroes and how they have influenced our own writing stood out as something of a gift. I was delighted to discover that many of our girls opted for this one. Ruminating on our writing Gods and their choices, whether it be that of the first person, the present tense, their sparse style, the engaging first line… was simply a joy for any of us slightly obsessive writer/readers. Keeping it to 300 words was a challenge but I just kept with the mantra I’d been spouting to my girls for the past three months: refine, edit, distil, every word must earn its place…  The other question I opted for was asking for personal experiences of education – for a government website I think. I don’t believe even one of our girls went for this option. Was it because they felt their own experiences were somehow limited? Had I not taught them to be whomever they so wished when writing? to embellish? to lie? Mixing some personal experience (to really nail that authenticity of voice) with a little bit of embellishment for ‘entertainment’ value was the approach I took but I must say, that’s a question I will be revisiting with my next cohort as an exercise on writing in a different persona.

Two of the other questions demanded that candidates digest information – in one instance, two pages of copy on social media – before synthesising, summarising and rewriting. I steered clear of these as to an old hack like me they seemed more restrictive, but it was interesting that quite a few of our girls opted for one or both. I wonder if it is because there is that sense that they have something concrete to work with – some definite idea of content right there in front of them. I made a note-to-self to boost girls’ confidence by preparing them to write something out of a mere idea a bit more, to bravely find their own voice as they did with their coursework. But let’s face it, if they did it well, (Please God, they did!) what more can I ask of them?