Christmas at Saint Martin’s School is a very special time! The last two weeks have been filled with heart-warming Carol services and Christmas concerts, wonderful Nativity plays, festive and thought provoking assemblies, the hilarious pantomime, the delicious Christmas turkey dinner and the excitement of the Junior School Christmas Fayre. The end of the Autumn Term is truly magical and sets the scene for girls and staff alike to enjoy their holidays with family and friends and have a well-deserved break from school.
The last half term has been as busy as ever for staff and girls. In November we celebrated the school’s 74th Birthday during Commemoration Week. We were delighted that Professor Erika Rackley was able to present the prizes at our annual Prize Giving Ceremony. Professor Rackley works at Birmingham University Law School as Professor of Law. Her research focuses on judicial diversity and gender equality in the legal profession, and has shaped and informed policy and public debate. It has been discussed by the UK and Scottish governments, in The Guardian, and on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour and Law in Action. In her address to the School, Erika shared her thoughts on how women through time have worked together to make a difference. She commented “History abounds with examples of extraordinary women who most would agree have made a difference, who have changed the way society thinks about things, added to our collective knowledge, who have enriched and improved the lives of the women and men they knew, and many who they didn’t. Their names will be familiar. The names of many others, however, will be less familiar, whose names have been forgotten, or perhaps were never known. The names of ‘ordinary’ women, who were anything but.” Erika finished her speech with the following quotation which received resounding applause from girls and staff. “For in words attributed to Laura Ann Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders: ‘Women are like snowflakes, alone we may melt but together we can stop traffic’.”
At the end of November I attended the Girls’ Schools Association annual conference for Head Teachers. One of the speakers asked the room if it was time for us to teach young people to slow down, pause for thought, switch off our electronic devices, reflect and find time for silence in our busy lives. There’s no doubt that a school is an energetic, dynamic and, sometimes, hectic place to be. We pride ourselves on the multitude of opportunities we offer our students both academically and on the extra-curricular front. Our girls lead busy lives, learning to organise their commitments and interests alongside friendships and family life. Amid all this there’s no doubt that technology and social media are great enablers. But as we harness the many benefits of 24/7 human interconnectivity we also need to ensure that we are not swamped by the tidal wave of data, shared, or overshared, emotion and demands that come with it. There’s a very real risk that for the ‘always on’ generation there is nowhere to get away from it all, at least not without their absence itself being cause for comment.
A quick survey of Sixth Form students showed that 98% of respondents use social media regularly to keep in touch with family and friends. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said that social media was sometimes or often an unwelcome distraction from daily life, while 65% admitted that they suffered anxiety when they were unable to access social media for any reason. Demonstrating that they appreciate the distraction caused by networked socialising, 75% confirmed that they consciously turn off connected devices when they are trying to concentrate. Asked whether they felt under pressure to be always available to respond to social connections the view was more balanced, with 57% of the girls saying they did. It is clear, and a not unexpected finding, that social media is affecting the lives of students and that its effects are not always welcome.
Even as we teach a generation of digital natives who, let’s face it, navigate the technical side of social media far more fluently than we do, it is part of our role in preparing students to lead balanced and fulfilling lives, to equip them with the skills, and the recognition of the benefits, of switching off both mentally and digitally.
Encouraging students to ‘do nothing’ can be quite a difficult message to convey in a school environment, where the primary focus is helping them to achieve as much as they possibly can. Pausing gives us perspective, a moment to step back and evaluate, to get to know ourselves better. We must be very aware that even as we become ever-more connected we ironically run a very real risk of cultural isolation, of closing our minds to thoughts and opinions other than those we choose to ‘follow’ and of basing our self-worth on casually bestowed ‘likes’ – a fragile self-esteem based on the servers of social media and the availability of a phone network.
While the internet makes a vast quantity of information and opinion available, the ability to set your personal filters so that you see only that which reinforces your own opinions can be very dangerous and as we have sadly seen can have the deeply damaging result of radicalisation. Having the desire and facility to step away from the fire hose of information and opinion is a vital skill for those who will be shaping our future world.
Teaching students to pause, to switch off and to reflect gives them a much-needed opportunity to find that still, small voice of calm within and release the pressure and expectations contingent with being ‘always on’.
I hope that you enjoy a restful, peaceful and joyous Christmas with loved ones; all the very best for the New Year and wishing you health and happiness for 2016.