The second half of the Autumn Term is my favourite time of year at Saint Martin’s. It is a special half term as we commemorate the founding of the school in November before moving on to enjoy the events leading up to the Christmas holiday. It is with great sadness that I was absent from school during November as I was recovering from opthalmic shingles and therefore missed celebrating the School’s official 75th birthday. It is difficult to envisage what the school was like in 1941 under Miss Bull and Miss Tucker’s leadership; starting a school during wartime must have been a tremendous challenge for these forward-thinking women. However the principles of mutual respect and courtesy embodied by our founders are still as important today.
We were pleased to welcome back one of our former students, Katrina Handford-Smith to present the prizes at our annual Prize Giving Ceremony. Katrina is now Deputy Head at Nottingham Girls’ High School. Following her education at Saint Martin’s, Katrina joined NGHS from the University of Birmingham at which she graduated in Economic and Social History, going on to complete her PGCE and Master’s Degree in Education. Reflecting on her own educational experiences Katrina said: “I am really privileged to have been educated at Saint Martin’s School and have benefitted hugely from a single-sex education where I gained confidence and was encouraged to be the best I could be. Having experienced first-hand the benefits of an all-girls environment, I am delighted to be able to offer our girls a similar experience to help them develop into the leaders of the future.”
I was delighted to be able to return to school to enjoy the end of term. The last two weeks have been filled with heart-warming Carol services and Christmas concerts, wonderful Nativity plays, festive and thought provoking assemblies, the delicious Christmas turkey dinner and the excitement of the Junior School Christmas Concert and 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.
During my time at home convalescing I had time to read articles in the educational press. I was particularly interested in one which highlighted the importance of “soft skills”. According to the article, earlier this year, prestigious employers Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers announced a move away from traditional methods of recruitment that simply assess academic qualifications towards other methods that assess a broader set of skills required for success in the ‘real world’, the so-called ‘soft skills’. As a new direction in recruitment this is music to the ears of the Head of any independent school. Faced with a national ‘A* or bust’ culture, we have seen an inevitable and dangerous tendency by anxious students and teachers to focus on grades above all else.
Saint Martin’s, like many other independent schools, provides extensive opportunities for social interaction and a vast range of extra-curricular activities can be enjoyed. In all sections of our school from Nursery to Sixth Form, the values, high standards of behaviour and self-determination underpin a strong sense of teamwork and belonging. Over time, these steadily emphasise those ‘soft skills’ which create strong leaders and followers.
Young people may well achieve 9 excellent grades at GCSE and a further 3 or 4 at A Level, but if their energies have been allowed to remain narrowly focused this could ignore the need to foster a complementary soft skill set. It should be no surprise that the Independent Schools Council (ISC) has also become involved in this area recently, specifically looking into ‘Mental Toughness’ – focusing on the four key attributes identified as Commitment, Control, Challenge and Confidence. ‘Mental toughness’ is defined as that which ‘determines, in some part, how individuals perform when exposed to stress, pressure and challenge’. The ISC is interested in looking beyond what independent schools achieve in examination results, maintaining that the success of those educated in UK independent schools has factors behind it other than excellent A Level grades.
Soft skills are valuable and desirable qualities in all areas of life and they are abundantly apparent throughout good independent schools, through dynamic and energising lessons and extra-curricular activities. Competitions in Sport, Drama, Music and Art, as well as Young Enterprise and The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme encourage teamwork. To listen, to persuade, to know when it is time to put others first, or be the one to step up to the plate, contribute to a genuine camaraderie, developing robust character traits and behaviours.
The ability to prioritise, anticipate, and meet deadlines are essential life-skills in all sorts of situations, both personal and professional. Independent school pupils learn how to optimise their time. Days are busy and purposeful, combining academic and extra–curricular activities. Teachers encourage independence, but are also there to support their students as they develop into capable young people, ready to play their part in school and the wider world. Pupils are encouraged to celebrate success and be ambitious, but they also gain an understanding of how important it is to deal with disappointment.
Soft skills include thinking of others. At Saint Martin’s the girls raise thousands of pounds each year for local national and international charities. Girls in Junior School and Senior School are given the opportunity to nominate a chosen charity for the year and, as in many schools, there is always huge enthusiasm for raising money through a myriad of different activities.
Saint Martin’s girls experience genuine roles of responsibility too. From an early age girls are elected as “Nursery helpers”, form prefects, charity representatives before aspiring to house captains, senior prefects or a member of the Head Girls’ team. It would be hard to imagine an independent school without these roles.
A successful independent school will foster in its students ambition and determination. They will be encouraged to make the most of opportunities offered. Sport teaches the skills of how to win and lose graciously. Drama, Debating and Music promote the confidence to perform in public. Reliability, ingenuity, resilience, commitment, courtesy and compassion. Soft skills? Hardly!
My sincere thanks to all the staff who have worked so hard this term and well done to the girls on their progress and achievements. I hope you enjoy a restful, peaceful and joyous Christmas with your loved ones – ready to start all over again in January.
With all good wishes