Pupils Question and Heads Answer

Insight invites pupils – in this issue from Bromsgrove School – to pose the questions they would like Heads to answer

Emma Hattersley (The Godolphin School)

Alex Hutchinson (Woldingham School)

Will Phelan (The Stamford Endowed Schools)

As Head, what do you consider your main role in your school to be?

AH: Aside from smiling, my main role is to ensure that the girls in school are always at the centre of our decision making. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that in the midst of everything a busy day or week throws at you, hence the importance of pausing for breath and refocusing on this central tenet. Close behind this is the concept of being a role model – evident in the way that as Head I present myself, how I interact with people, how I behave, how I respond. Our founder, St Madeleine Sophie Barat, said ‘Your actions even more than your words will be an eloquent lesson to the world’ and that is something I try to place front and centre every day.

WP: As the Principal of Stamford I work closely with three very talented Headteachers in each one of our schools. My job is to make sure that that convoy is always striving forwards, always seeking to improve. In all the schools I have worked in and many of the schools I have seen, the leader, whether that is Principal or Head or both, sets the ethos and culture of the school. This is often evolutionary, but not always, and purveys every corner of the institution. I work with the Heads to set the overarching aims, vision, values and strategy for the schools and ensure that we are all heading in the same direction as Stamford, but making sure that each school has its individuality, which is vital.

Do you believe in the mental health crisis in schools that is often mentioned in the media?

EH: There are those that would argue that more young people are prepared to speak out about mental health issues and this, coupled with media hype, has created a crisis situation. It is much more complex than this. When I ran a boarding house over ten years ago I certainly didn’t encounter as many pupils who were struggling with anxiety, self-esteem and other mental health challenges although there were of course some who needed additional support. The pace of technological change and the impact of screen time, coupled with pressures such as the relentless drive for perfectionism, exam stress, university debt, and future life satisfaction, have all contributed significantly to the fragility of the teenage years. I am deeply worried about this. We are fortunate to lead schools that provide numerous opportunities to help combat stress, build resilience, offer counselling and provide other support services, but not all young people are so privileged or lucky.

WP: I get very irritated by the term “Snowflake”: I don’t believe it is accurate at all. Students today live in a world where their lives are in continual broadcast, 24/7. This is the modern world, but it is also a burden. Being appraised continually is not good for anyone, whether that is Theresa May or my daughter who, within 24 hours of signing up to Instagram, had 814 followers. I dislike the term snowflake because it infers weakness. Living in this environment, and learning to deal with it, is very hard and requires great strength, which most people aren’t born with, and can find hard to achieve. I believe that social media, which has its great points, has amplified the mental health issue, but I think that we are better at talking about it. I wonder whether Winston Churchill would have been able to take the decisions he did if every nuance was broadcast to all and sundry, and everyone had the means to make their opinion heard.

Do you feel that Heads can truly engage personally with individual pupils?

EH: Heads do their utmost to get to know their pupils, otherwise, why on earth would one do the job? It is often those chance encounters and conversations that occur on a one to one with a particular pupil that can yield really useful information about what’s going on in the school and help me as a Head understand something more from a pupil perspective. It’s unrealistic for a Head to know the pupils on the same level as a Tutor might, for example, but monitoring individual academic progress, knowing names and interests, watching sport, taking note of talent in school productions and concerts all help to build a picture of the individuals that make up the pupil body. I aim to have lunch, tea, supper and occasionally breakfast with pupils in groups of no more than ten so that I can get to know them and they can get to know me as an approachable human being rather than as simply the leader.

AH: Absolutely, yes, and it would be a sadly diminished job if I didn’t feel this was the case. I make a huge effort to know the name of every girl, because individual engagement begins with knowing who someone is. Sometimes it’s a quick chat or sharing a joke. And for some it is a much deeper relationship, perhaps because personal circumstances have meant that student has needed my support and direction. A highlight of my diary is a weekly catch up with the Head Girl team who keep me in the loop. The natural tendency is for Heads to see more of those girls in leadership positions or those facing sanctions. It’s easy to miss out on those pupils getting along just fine, playing an invaluable part in the community but not necessarily relishing the limelight. In my experience across six schools and in talking to countless parents I’ve seen how much difference it can make to keep these pupils in focus. I free up time to make sure that no one gets left out: I meet every Year 7 and 9 tutor group, I teach a Year 9 Chemistry class and talk with every girl in Year 11 about options and future plans.