Today, most of us in this room have in our pockets or handbags a computer that is many times more powerful than the one used to land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Our smart phone. Most young people across the globe arrive to their secondary schools every day with this powerful computer in their pockets as a matter of course.
In just fifty short years since we first landed humans on the moon, we have experienced nothing short of a revolution in technology and the way we live our lives, work and communicate as a result.
Toddlers now learn how to swipe before they learn how to turn a page.
At our fingertips we have all the knowledge in the world – the answer to any question anyone anywhere ever wanted to know can be answered by a brief click and scroll.
If all our young people have this powerful tool in their pockets and the ability to use it far more effectively than most of us adults, do we really need school in the same way that we used to?
And do we really need to continue making our young people learn knowledge for exams?
Certainly our young people are asking this question. “What is school for?” some of our year 10s asked us last year – “why are we learning all this stuff when we could just look it up and move on?”
Well, it is a fair question and fortunately one which we at the high school feel we have a strong answer for.
First and foremost, schools are for discovery – not the superficial discovery of a bite size google search but deep and lasting discovery. A chance for new and rich experiences on a daily basis. School helps an individual discover themselves, their talents, their passions and their path.
By way of example, on Sports Day, at the end of the summer term, Neptune were short a javelin thrower in year 7. So the house captain went off in search of a willing substitute. “I’ll be back” she cried and so she was, with a Year 7 in tow. “Have you ever thrown a Javelin before?” she was asked – “no but I’ll give it a go”. A few brief and expert tips from Mrs Reece – how to hold it, arm position, where to aim it – that sort of thing and she threw her first javelin –straight and true and a very long way. In the end she came an impressive third – she discovered a talent she did not know she had and experienced the value of having a go and being courageous. She took the risk, in part because her house needed her and one of the things I love about Shrewsbury High is the way that our sport unites the girls in a common endeavour and pushes them out of their comfort zone.
Alongside the physical benefits, their involvement in school sport builds grit, discipline, a deep appreciation of team work and the value in being part of something greater than yourself. It is also a huge amount of fun. Yesterday we took 43 girls, from every year group to the GDST Northern Trust Sports Rally where we competed against 6 other schools in an array of sports. I won’t list each of the 43 here but you know who are you are – we were so proud of you yesterday – for your talent, your sporting attitude and your support of each other. Our year 13 Sixth Form leavers will tell you that the bonds formed through being part of school sport see you all the way through your school career and well beyond.
For some students, school helps them discover an academic passion and a fascination with a particular subject or discipline. For some, that discovery was Science, and working with Mr Lefevre they decided to pursue their passion for Science by producing Periodically, a brilliant magazine dedicated to all things Science and one which showcases not just their passion and mastery of the subject but also spreads the wonder and love for it.
For others it was English Literature and working with Mr Aldridge they pursued their love by founding and producing Scribble, our literary magazine. Our Head Girl generated that passion in others by working with our wonderful Friends’ Committee to introduce an essay competition allowing other pupils to develop their passions.
Perhaps the most important discovery that takes place at school for many of our young people is finding out who they are and developing their unique character.
We spent a long time last year talking to pupils and parents about the character traits they valued and wanted to develop – we used them to identify our school values and qualities. Confidence and kindness were the most popular choices. What a combination. I was also glad to see ambition a popular choice – a quality so often misunderstood and negatively viewed in women. It is time to be proudly ambitious for yourself, for others and for humanity and if you match it with kindness and compassion then it will always be positive force.
Confidence and ambition were in abundance at the House Drama. It is entirely organised and driven by our superb year 12 House Leaders who adapt well known dramas and musicals into masterpieces of creativity, talent, and experimentation. Girls who have never done anything like that before found the confidence to perform to both parents and their peers in two packed out shows. There were many stellar performances and I cannot list them all now though it was wonderful to see how many of our younger years took part and the talent that is coming up through the school.
You will notice I’m sure that I’ve not mentioned the performance of the staff who took on cameo roles. With good reason. Perhaps the less said about Mr Warner and Mr High as nannies, or Mr Allen in a nun’s habit, the better! Although once again it was lovely to see the strong relationships between pupils and staff in action. I know our new year 12s are already looking forward to when it is there turn to put on the greatest show.
Kindness is also of great importance to pupils, staff and parents and rightly so. 8R showed that we were a community of kindness through their random acts project of the spring term. Notes and cards started to appear around the school, slipped under doors or left on staff desks and chairs with messages of thanks and encouragement. Gifts also began to appear – notably Bodie received 4 brand new tennis balls and was delighted.
No one knew where they came from and that was exactly the point. This wasn’t about recognition, it was acts of kindness to lift individuals and community spirit. And it spread across the whole school – a contagion of kindness and appreciation for each other. And all driven by a remarkable group of girls in 8R. We ended the spring term with 8R delivering an assembly to the whole school and challenging each of us with an individual kindness mission as we left for the Easter holidays.
It is very important to us at the high school that our school is for allowing our children to have a childhood. Back in 1833, we decided to stop sending children into factories, down mines, up chimneys or anywhere else that we couldn’t fit – we did so because we had finally worked out that our children should have a childhood. So school must be about having plenty of fun and play. When we reflect on last year I hope the pupils in this room can remember plenty of both. Laughter in lessons, co-curricular fun, Halloween celebrations, carols around the tree, staff netball in support of Comic relief.
Part of having a childhood is that you are allowed to make mistakes and plenty of them. We build our character by learning lessons from failures or setbacks and schools are great places for such lessons. It might seem an odd thing to raise on a day of celebrating success but as I’ve said to the pupils many times before, most successful people have a string of mistakes and setbacks behind them.
We must help our pupils escape from the curse of the good girl. Many young people set themselves incredibly high standards and work very hard to keep everyone happy but they must be allowed to get things wrong and make mistakes. They must feel that when they do they can tell us, safe in the knowledge that we will not overreact and that if they get found out it’s better to be honest. This might mean the occasional detention, the odd order mark, a parental meeting and sometimes a good old telling off and that is okay. We challenge our pupils to be independent and find their voice and so we have to accept that on that journey they will occasionally find a voice we don’t entirely approve of. The one word I hope never to hear in relation to a high school girl is compliant – of course we have rules, as any community must, but those rules are based around respect not blind obedience
And of course the rules help us achieve our core purpose – for despite all the advances in technology school is still about the business of gaining qualifications. And here at the high school we are unapologetically in the business of getting our pupils the best grades possible for we know that good grades still open doors and ease the passage to whatever future they want. So we were thrilled with our results at both A Level and GCSE.
At A Level we are the best performing girls’ school in Shropshire, both state and independent, and we outperformed all bar one of the Shropshire Co-ed schools.
There were some exceptional individual performances with 12 out of the 51 achieving straight A*/A grades, 4 girls achieving straight A* grades, one of whom arrived to us in year 12 with predictions of 3 C grades, well, she knocked that out of the park – a remarkable outcome. At GCSE 9 girls achieved straight 8 & 9s and one girl achieved straight grade 9s joining a select group of 293 students nationwide and 97% of all grades were graded 9-5. We are equally proud of those girls who might not have got a clutch of A grades or number 9s but still achieved impressive personal results, exceeding their potential and rising to the challenge of our high expectations. We truly mean it when we say we want our pupils to learn without limits.
We are so excited by the girls’ ambition and the diversity of their undergraduate choices at world class universities. You will see from the programme that girls are heading to Oxbridge, medical school, dentistry, architecture, politics – essentially a rich variety of STEM, Languages and Arts courses at notable institutions.
So that’s the showing off done for now but you get the idea – we were really really pleased – at both A level and GCSE because these results truly reflect the brilliance of our girls and the expert support and inspirational teaching of our fantastic academic staff.
Of course what we must not do is turn school into an exam factory which is a little how it can feel at GCSE but I would urge our 10 and 11s not to give in to that feeling. Time and again the students who get the best results also take part in music, sport, drama, art and other co-curricular activities. They are busy, yes, but they are also balanced. And I would urge year 10 and 11 to talk to our new Year 12s, who are thoroughly enjoying the fresh new experience of our Sixth Form and embracing all that it has to offer as they embark on their new courses.
So, to turn our school into an exam factory would be a disaster for our young people and as the job market evolves we would also be doing them a huge disservice if all we did was get them grades. To thrive in the modern world, the soft skills are just as, if not more important for making your way.
We don’t prepare our students for university – we prepare them for life. That is why alongside their A level studies Mrs Rumble took our Sixth Formers to join with the boys and girls of Shrewsbury School for a challenge of management day. It is why Mr Allen resurrected house debating and to see our pupils argue it out on stage it was clear that these young women belong in our corridors of power. It is why Mr McCarthy runs the Model United Nations and Mrs Aktins leads the Duke of Edinburgh award. It is why we ask our pupils to be tour guides and show round prospective parents and develop their presentation skills. It is why Mrs Parish works so hard to help pupils gain experience ahead of job and university applications, supporting one year 12 to win a coveted place on the GDST Insight day at Jupiter asset management, and another to gain no less than 4 industry apprenticeships. It is why the eco committee led our whole school in an amazing day of activism, action and reflection at the end of last term. Because this school, the High School, prepares them to be future leaders, future problem solvers and future global citizens.
And it is lovely today to welcome back Amy Williams, a former pupil who is living that future – the United Nations International women’s day celebrations featured Amy as one of a select group of women ‘impossible to ignore’ because of their innovation and ground breaking achievements – so we are honoured to have Amy with us and so looking forward to hearing from her shortly.
And so to our most recent leavers, these talented young women who are about to embark on that future. We have so enjoyed working with you and I speak on behalf of the staff here when I say that it has been a privilege to watch you grow up into the beautiful young women that you are. And when I say beauty I don’t just mean in the superficial way of good looks. (although of course you are gorgeous) I mean the kind of beauty that comes from a young person when they are confident, compassionate and full of energy and promise and poised for the adventure that lies ahead.
Next week the GDST Summit’s theme is new rules to reflect the changing world our young people are entering. I said at Speech Day last year there was no better time to be a girl or boy about to go into the world and that is still true but as I pointed out to you at your leavers service it is not a straightforward or easy world that you enter. In fact, at the moment it is an extremely uncertain world which is both scary and exciting all at the same time so remember this – You are the certainty – your character, your appreciation of endeavour, your achievements that you take with you for life, your resilience, your courage and your potential, they are certain.
There is a lovely saying that I’d like you to add to the 10% braver advice.
We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails – none of us know what the future brings but you have the skills, the character and the talent not just to navigate what lies ahead but to flourish whatever the future holds
So two little mantras from me that I hope will stand you in good stead.
I hope that you recognise the part your school has played in setting you up for a successful adult life and I hope that you will keep in touch with us and return some day, as Amy does today, to inspire future SHS pupils. Make the most of your GDST network – not all schools can boast quite such an extensive contacts book so use it well.
I also said last year that there was no better place than Shrewsbury High School to prepare for that world and that is truer than ever. So, to our current pupils….
What is your school for? In an ever changing world SHS is for belonging, for preparation, for discovery of self, others, for knowledge, to build character, make mistakes, and to have plenty of adventure and fun along the way.
The word education means to train, mould and draw out or bring forth and that will always be necessary whatever advancements or revolutions take place
Schools continue to provide something far more precious that the right answer or a bite size piece of knowledge – that super computer in your pocket is a tool, a wonderful one, one that probably could power the Apollo craft to the moon but that’s all it is. A tool. One of many.
And to our parents and the adults who support our wonderful pupils – in this time of rapid change we can feel uncertain and we can worry about the future for our children.
One of our biggest worries as the adults who guide these wonderful young people is that smart phone and the fact that it takes so much out of our hands when it comes to bringing them up.
History is helpful here – consider the reaction when they first printed books and turning a page was as radical as a toddler swiping a touch screen. The invention of the printing press heralded a new era and revolutionised society at the same speed as technology is doing now – and we called that period of history the Renaissance, synonymous with empowerment, progress, humanism, art, literature and great rediscoveries in science and technology. The first of the great information ages. Who knows what we call this period of history but let us be excited for our young people and let us trust in our young people as we guide them to adulthood.
Social media use is in decline for the first time, including usage of Facebook and Snapchat. Instagram are trailing the removal of the like button. Our young people are digital natives and they are learning how to control this super computer that is the smart phone whilst also studying, saving the planet, engaging in politics, juggling a full timetable of work, sport, music and socialising – they truly are remarkable.
When you work with young people you worry less about the world because you realise that the future of it is in very safe hands.
Ms J Sharrock
Speech Day 2019