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'We have a responsibility to devise a curriculum that gives children determination, resilience and a zest for life'

Hilary French, Headmistress at Newcastle High School for Girls, reacts to recent news that pupils who focus on top universities at primary school are more likely to get into them.

Posted on: 27 Jul 2016
Posted by: Hilary French

Mary Curnock Cook has urged schools to do more to get pupils thinking about their early adult lives at a young age and “reset the barometer reading for progression to higher education to a much earlier age – ten or younger”.

There is nothing new or earth shattering in the research but it is sad that it is yet another thing highlighting the social inequalities that can permeate and shape lives unless we actively work to change attitudes and perceptions.

Children learn by example and are heavily influenced by their peers and family values. We all want to fit in and, for most of us, it is difficult to stand out and do something different. So, as the UCAS research shows, children of parents who have been to university and who go to schools in more prosperous areas are more likely to want to go to the top universities.

They are not “taught” those attitudes and aspirations though – they see them modelled, they hear them being talked about; importantly, they do not have a fear of debt and they are being brought up to have confidence in themselves and a belief that they will succeed.

At Newcastle High School for Girls, we are fortunate to educate girls from the ages of 3 to 18. Our younger girls have ready-made, aspirational role models in school as well as at home. We are, however, becoming increasingly aware that the world post-18 is rapidly changing and there are options other than university. Some higher level apprenticeships in engineering, finance and law are more sought after than an Oxbridge place. Our job as educators is complex and ever changing and we are now working hard to involve local employers in our school. I think we have a responsibility to our region as well as to our pupils and their parents.

The one thing that employers stress is the importance of transferable skills – the so-called soft skills that are soft only in the fact that they are difficult to measure; they are actually the core of an individual and form the bed-rock of our lives and any socio-economic contribution we can make.

We do, therefore, have a responsibility to model all these attributes and to devise a curriculum that gives children the opportunity to develop determination, resilience, patience, compassion, courage, love of learning and a zest for life. If they have all these attributes, they will have ambition, will want to take risks and will value learning for its own sake.

How we do this for everyone is the problem; Mary Curnock Cook has highlighted the issue. Who is going to spearhead a national initiative to address it? There are lots of small, successful projects such as Serious Fun on Saturdays sponsored by SHINE. An independent school will work with local primary schools to give children from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to follow an eleven week programme designed to raise confidence and therefore self-belief and aspirations. The children do different activities every week but have a Sixth Form mentor who stays with them throughout the course.

The impact of this course on young lives is obvious and quantifiable in some respects but it is the qualitative effect which we hope, will endure. The real challenge is to make this a given for everyone, whatever their background.


About Hilary French

Hilary French is Headmistress at Newcastle High School for Girls GDST, a leading day school for girls aged 3 - 18.