Today’s question is “How can we empower girls to be fiercely independent?” and I’m in conversation with Beth Dawson
Beth is a teacher of drama who has worked in a range of schools since starting teaching twenty years ago. Now as Head of Sutton High School, within the Girls’ Day School Trust, she feels she has the best job in the world.
Please note, the transcript is auto generated.
Pooky Knightsmith: Welcome to Pooky ponders the podcast where I explore big questions with brilliant people. I’m picky. Night’s meth. And I’m your host today’s question is how can we empower girls to be fiercely independent? And I’m in conversation with Beth Dawson.
Beth Dawson: Yeah. I’m Beth Beth Dawson. And I’m the head of a girls school in Sutton.
Um, and that’s, uh, that’s kind of my whole life, I would say your whole life.
Pooky Knightsmith: Um, our question today is how can we empower girls to be fiercely independent, um, and we will get onto that, but I’m interested, first of all, just you are ahead of relatively recent head and you find yourself as the head of school during the pandemic.
If you have any idea
Beth Dawson: what you were letting yourself in for. No. And it’s been, it’s been. The classic kind of baptism of fire. Um, and so many people have said that to me as well, over the past six months, but I think any anyone’s first year as a head is not going to be easy. Um, I was really lucky that I was deputy head before.
So I knew the systems. I knew everyone. I knew the direction of the school. I knew the girls that was really important. Um, and I, and fundamentally I had buy-in from the staff and that, that was really important. So. I think then you just go into crisis management mode and you just, and every day you think, Oh, this, this is going to be a challenge.
We just get through the day I started, you know, in headship thinking, Oh, I think you just, you plan ahead. And you’re strategic. And there’s a real balance in headship of strategic planning and firefighting. And I think then what happened with COVID, it’s just been firefighting. Yeah. And it’s only, now that school’s finished for some of them I’m back to kind of, okay.
So we’re back to the strategy now, and we need to think about five years time, rather than, you know, in some cases, five days where we had to make changes. So I think it’s, there are so many positives, so, so many positives that I, you know, obviously it’s been terrible for the country and everything, but I think as a school it’s.
It’s bought us. It’s, you know, it’s brought us closer together as a community and it’s, it’s made me, it’s reaffirmed for me what I love about the school and what I love about my staff, what I love about the girls, everything that they’ve exhibited over the past 14 weeks is exactly what I would have expected, but you just never know how people are going to respond in a crisis.
Pooky Knightsmith: and what, what is it that you’ve loved about the way they’ve responded to me a bit more about
Beth Dawson: that? I think they’ve just risen to the challenge of it. They have not, you know, they could have. Not engaged. They could have not bothered. They could have, you know, it’s very easy when you’re on your own in your bedroom or you’re at home with your parents to not engage with what’s being offered and they have done.
And the work that they’ve produced, some of the things that they’ve done, some of the ideas that they’ve had, I think in adversity and it may be a generalization, but it definitely a generalization to say. But I think in a first in diversity, women and girls are their most creative and their most kind of, um, Innovative.
So some of the things that the girls have come up with some of the videos that they’ve made, some of the, I mean, I watched a rap video about physics equations. I’ve seen star, but anti Starbucks adverts, I’m not anti Starbucks, but you know, adverts about the plastic use and Starbucks things that I don’t think those girls would have considered even things like designing t-shirts or, you know, thinking more deeply about faith, things like that, which they’ve had a chance to reflect on.
And I think school can sometimes be. So, um, you’ve got the commute and you’ve got the lessons and you’ve got lumps and you’ve got all the social interaction and all the, all the different things are coming at you all day. They actually at home, you have more, more chance to think, and that’s where the creativity comes.
So. That’s how they, that’s, how they’ve made me proud really, but you’ve
Pooky Knightsmith: provided very clear vehicle for that creativity and structured. It haven’t you mean the, the, um, uh, learning unleashed, isn’t it? The curriculum that you’ve introduced?
Beth Dawson: Yeah, the, the guided home learning. Yeah. And the teacher unleashed stuff.
I think that was important because the research right from day one from countries like Hong Kong that had been in lockdown for a much longer. Um, and my best friend actually works in Peru and they’d been in lockdown for a lot longer than us as well. And all of the research was about structure and routine and how, you know, that’s what, that’s, what kids needed.
So for me, it was about. Okay, how can we give them that school structure at home? And, and also then the freedom in the first, in the first few weeks, there was an adapting stage. And so some of them did opt out. Some of them did not, not attend afternoon lessons or they needed to go for a walk or they needed, you know, we were constantly having to evolve what we were offering as well, because.
You don’t think about, you know, silly things like your parent emailed me after the first four days and said, um, it’s great. So you love guided home learning, but she’s not having a chance to go to the toilet because we haven’t considered that, you know, in, in a normal school day, they would travel from lesson to lesson and that’s when they popped the loo.
So then we had to be okay, well, we need to build in rest and rehydration breaks in between each lesson. And we were just constantly trying to evolve things so that. With the girls at heart, really? That, that was the main focus is trying to keep them. Secure. And I think there’s a, there’s a security in school.
There’s a sense of wellbeing that comes from knowing what the next step is. Especially if you’re a, uh, you know, any, any school of girl who has any sort of, which is a lot of girls. Anxiety issues or worries or anything like that. There’s a, there’s a definite sense of security and wellbeing that comes from, I know where I’m going next.
I know what my next lesson is. I know who my teacher’s going to be. I know what equipment I’m going to need in that lesson. Um, and so we, we tried to keep that for them.
Pooky Knightsmith: And you seem to have made a very specific, uh, kind of, because on the kind of years, uh, Lebanon, 13, those girls who weren’t going to be doing their exams and where a lot of that sense of purpose might have come from that, and that’s suddenly been taken away from them and that kind of curriculum.
I have to say, when I, when I, when I saw that curriculum that you’d put together, I hadn’t seen anything like that coming out from anywhere else. And I just looked at that and thought, okay, What a gift to those girls and what an amazing way to be able to spend a few weeks. And it struck me as something that for some of them would be literally life-changing that this would be the moment when you would do something more deeply for the first time and maybe connect with the subjects.
I mean, what was your, tell us a little bit about how you developed that curriculum and what drove it and what you hope to achieve from it and how it’s gone.
Beth Dawson: I think that teaching can be, especially in year 11 and 13, a lot about teaching to a specification teaching, to an exam teaching to an outcome and the girls.
Work towards that. And everything that they do is driven by that. Unfortunately, that’s not the system that I would like actually, but that is the system we’re in. And when that, when that eventual outcome, that goal gets taken away, what are you left with? You’re left with kind of chaos and confusion. And I think a lot of the girls.
Were incredibly upset. They wanted that chance to, to show how deeply they’d learned things to express. You know, some of them, it was just about that one grade. They might’ve gotten that one subject that is their passion, and that can be anything in our school that can be drama. It can be English, it can be science.
It can be, you know, someone who’s amazing at physics or who’s excellent at computing. And they just want that opportunity to prove that that’s where their passion is. And that’s what they’ve really put all their effort into. Um, And so we wanted to give them an opportunity to show that, but without that eventually outcome of the exams.
So right from the start, what we said to staff was this is about passion. This is a passion project it’s, you can do anything. And we had, you know, we had a French teacher to develop an amazing, um, unit that I loved looking at myself on, on Chanel and the fashions of from, and that is nothing really to do with, you know, they wouldn’t be examined on the ever, but that’s something that.
It’s her passion. And she then conveys that to the girls and they make, like you say, I hope they might find a spark in that they might find something that they then take on somewhere. And it might just be that, you know, they it’s something that becomes, so they they’re interested in it if they ever visit France or it might be something that sparks more than that.
So. Some of the units. I mean, I, I got, I had the privilege of judging the outcomes. Yeah. Some of the units. So we did try to make outcomes of some description. So we had a marketing unit, which was about our new cafe and the girls put the proposal together for, you know, how it would, how it would engage the community, um, and how they would market that.
Um, and I think, but those girls, we did find a spark and a passion for marketing. They might not have, you know, they might not have considered before. Um, But I think that’s where teaching is. It can be really difficult because you’re, you’re constrained by the content you have to cover. And suddenly we weren’t.
So we had a whole half term of being able to teach what we thought would encourage the girls to be independent learners in that. In that subject. That’s why we called it teach unleashed because really were unleashed from the freedom that, that, you know, we run leads from the constraint rather, and we have certain freedom to teach things that our teachers.
Loved. And that’s when teaching at its best, really. And did
Pooky Knightsmith: give the teachers complete freedom? Cause certainly reading through those brochures, it looked to me like, uh, you know, everyone had been able to go what I love to teach if I could do that
Beth Dawson: was, and that’s actually what we said. So I said to the staff, you know, W w this is about inspiring the girls to want to learn independently because there was, we couldn’t force them to do this their year 11 or year 13, they would have gone on study leave.
Um, and as I say, the engagement with it was amazing. So that shows a lot about the girls that actually wants to learn. They want to find something that sparks their learning and their passion. Um, so I just said to self you can. Teach, whatever you want. If there’s a unit that may be you taught because specifications change so frequently.
Um, for me, there’s a unit that I taught when I first, when I very first started teaching, I’ve always loved, but you never get a chance to teach it because it’s not on the exam. So, you know, you couldn’t teach, you can fit it in. And I, and I said to them, that’s the unit I would now be going well, I can take that unit that I love to teach, and I’m not teaching it for any purpose other than.
To, to impart knowledge and to impart a love of, of my subject. Um, so yeah, that’s how we ended up with crazy varieties of, of units. I think that was important. So yeah,
Pooky Knightsmith: no, no, no. I’m not saying that. Yeah. I thought it, I thought we looked fabulous and I, I kind of what I I’m interested to know as well. Was that really about the learners or the teachers
Beth Dawson: or both?
I think it was about both because like I said, I think the best learning from a teacher comes when the child knows that that teacher loves their subject and is passionate about what they’re teaching. I think girls in particular that, but children in general are incredibly perceptive and they know when a teacher is bored of content or when a teacher is not engaged in what they’re actually trying to teach.
So. That was about the girls in that I think if, if you’ve got engaged teachers, teachers, teaching things that they love and that they’re really interested in, then the girls are gonna learn more from them.
Pooky Knightsmith: And do you think that this kind of helped with your, you know, that going back to that central question about sort of fierce independence and that, that you
Beth Dawson: strive for your girls?
Yeah, I mean, for me the fierce independence. So when we, when we thought about fiercely independent as a concept, which was just after I took over as head. I think there was a weariness maybe of the word fierce because fierce can have negative connotations as well as positive. But for me, the fierceness is about boldness.
It’s about strength. Um, and it’s about self belief. So you, I think you can be independent, but quite passively independent. So for me, being fiercely independent is about the girls, knowing what they want and knowing how they’re going to get that. And that teach unleash scheme was all about that. It was about, you know, as a student, you’ve now got this time where you would have been, you know, sticking to a revision plan and all the things we’ve equipped you with over the past two or three years, you’ve now got this openness to pursue three or four units of work that you actually are interested in.
Um, Because you want to, because that’s, you know, something that you aspire to rather than, because you have to say it changed the whole dynamic. I think, of, of those year groups where it’s normally quite horrible, you
Pooky Knightsmith: don’t sound like a massive fan of the kind of exam
Beth Dawson: factory system. Um, I I’m very realistic about it and that I know that it’s, you know, it’s.
The best system we have at the moment. Um, but I’m a drama teacher, so there’s, there’s all manner of debates about whether you can examine creativity, whether you can examine drama as a, as a discipline. Um, and that’s always something that’s been in my head ever since I started teaching, but, um, I think that exams have become, especially since 2016, since the new specifications they’ve become about memory and rote learning and memorizing.
Um, and I’m not sure that that’s a skill that you ever actually have to use in life. I can’t think of a time when you. Would have to use kind of rote learning. I suppose when I give an open morning speech, I’ve memorized some of the speech I thought about the points that I want to make, but in, in very few professions, are you, you know, constantly accessing learning perhaps in medicine, I suppose, where you’re you’re accessing, but then you do your research.
You would prepare for a big operation. I don’t know. I just think we’ve lost our way slightly and the content has become more and more and more. And you’ve now got girls who, if they’re sitting 10 GCCS or possibly sitting 22, 23 different papers. Wow. Um, and more, in some cases, you know, some exams have three papers and I just, I’m not sure what you’re gaining from that.
I don’t think it’s an accurate assessment of what. People can do. And I don’t think it measures either the really important skills of life, which are actually nothing to do with your knowledge. They’re about your, your self-awareness your self belief, you know, all that, your self esteem. I suppose, those things are far more important.
And I think the exam system can actually do great damage to some of those things. Okay. And what
Pooky Knightsmith: does that mean for you as a leader? Because you are leading a. You know, independent girls school, where presumably many of your families are buying into good results for their children at the end of the day.
I mean, do you think that’s why families come to you or what do you think they’re looking for something wider?
Beth Dawson: I hope they’re looking for something. Well, I did, because that’s what we’re trying to provide. And I think for us, it’s about knowing that the girls will achieve those results almost as a byproduct of what we do for them, which is the greatest indicator of exam.
Success is confidence and. The, the higher achieving students in exams, that actually one of the biggest indicators is about autonomy. And whether you feel like you own that exam result, and that’s what we try and do for the girls. So. Although they will get great results. You know, they do get exceptional results.
I like to think that they get more than those exam results because at the end of the day, everyone in a, in an independent sector is going to come out with good exam results. What we want is for them to also come out with this sense of who they are and where they’re going. That that’s the most important thing, really.
Pooky Knightsmith: So what does it mean? So something like for your girls then, um, you know, how do you know that you’ve done a good job? So it gets to, to results day and they’ve perhaps finished their career with you and maybe they’re holding a clutch of great results in exams, but what else would you hope that they,
Beth Dawson: well, I hope they have a sense of self that’s for me, the most important thing.
So for us, it’s about knowing who they are as an individual. Um, I, I hope they’re proud of themselves. And I think that that pride looks different for every girl. So some girls might need straight nines in their GCCS or a story story. Start to feel that pride because that’s what they’re judging themselves against and others.
Like I said earlier, they might, they might just need that grade in that one subject they’ve really tried hard in, and sometimes it’s not their passion project sometimes it’s, I don’t know. They’ve, they’ve really struggled in physics and they’ve had to work hard to overcome all the difficulties in physics to get that seven that they really, really wanted.
And it might not even be their highest grade that they come out with, but they’ve worked hard for it and they’re proud of it. Um, and, and beyond the exam results, I’d like to think that they leave us knowing. That they, that they are. Okay. Because that’s fundamentally, what’s going to get them through life is actually a sense that they, who they are as a, as a young woman, when they leave us is, is okay.
And that it’s there isn’t a right or wrong for who they are. It’s about them having a self-assuredness that they, that who they are is okay. And I, I know that sounds, it’s a difficult thing, but you can tell you, you just can tell when someone. Is confident in their own skin knows who they are. And confidence doesn’t have to look like confidence in the kind of traditional sense of the word.
Confidence doesn’t mean they can speak in public and they can, you know, I don’t know, do it, do a great piece of English literature or something like that. It’s about it’s confidence for me. And what we try to develop at the school is that they themselves have confidence in them in who they are. And we do a lot to get to that point, but most of it is about not trying to develop a type, not trying to, um, to tell them who to be, but actually letting them find that out by themselves.
Um, And so I, I, one of the things I’m most proud about, and one of the reasons I wanted to be head of the school is because the girls just go off in a variety of directions that there isn’t a, you know, you must go to Oxbridge or you must be a vet or a doctor. Many of them will choose to do that. And that’s great, but we’ll also have girls who go off to be artists or sculptures or physiotherapists, or they really want to be an event manager.
And they found this great course and it’s become their passion project. Um, You know, and, and some girls that don’t go to university because they found an amazing apprenticeship and that’s where they want to go. Um, and for me, it’s just about them knowing that and having the confidence to, to pursue that.
Pooky Knightsmith: how do you instill that kind of, that, that confidence, that sense of self, that autonomy
Beth Dawson: independence? I think it has to start right from the time that they join us. So. Um, and I, and I’m talking about right the way down into nursery, whenever I speak about joining us, because we have girls who join us at three, but it’s about choices.
It’s about them being able to make choices confidently, and then to actually accept and reflect upon the consequences of those choices. Because often they’ll make the wrong choices. That’s what being a child is about. I’m still making wrong choices and I’m faulty, but as long as I can reflect on those choices and actually take ownership of them, And that’s.
That’s what we try to teach them. So it’s trying to give them a lot of choice. And you know, when they come in in year seven, they start making those choices. We have a kaleidoscope program, they get to choose which, which ones of those units they pursue. They get to choose what their language is going to be, that they pursue.
And then they have to reflect on that. They have to think about what they’ve learned from kaleidoscope. Oh, they’re going to actually carry on with the TaeKwonDo that they took up or, or have they learned that actually self-defense may be not for them, but it is for another girl who chose it, you know? Um, And that, that choice, um, that guidance comes through all the way.
So we do guidance meetings with them all the way through one-to-one and that’s about them being able to express who they are. I think a lot of it’s about them finding their own voice as well. I think girls in particular can be quite wary about speaking or having their voice had a lot of girls. Don’t like the sound of their own voice.
And so we give them a lot of opportunities to talk in lessons, a lot of debate, a lot of, um, group work. So that, that they’re ex they’re expressing themselves their views all the way through. And that’s, that’s the only way that you can learn who you are, is by listening to the things that you actually say.
I think sometimes that’s, um, a really hard thing to do and it can be it’s really, you know, I find, I still find it hard now, but it’s, it’s even harder at 10 years old or 11 years old. Um, and it becomes particularly difficult call around sort of 14, 15 years old. I think when you, when you really hit kind of peak teen, um, And so we just, we just have to persist with, with that, uh, level of, of autonomy, I suppose, over the choices that they make.
We have. You know, I think probably more choices than most schools. So we have an open auction system, for example, at GCSE. So the girls can choose the subjects they want to pursue. They have to think about what their strengths are. We go through a process of analysis. What, what are you good at? Y you know, what skills are those subjects using that, uh, your, your great skills, the things that are going to make you a success in the future.
And for some girls that will be doing GCSE is in, you know, Oh, music, drama, DT. And for other girls, that’s going to be doing triple science, computing, you know, and a bit of extra coding on the side because they, they want to go in that direction, but there isn’t a right or wrong at school. So, and
Pooky Knightsmith: do you find that the girls do make choices quite freely or do you have to work hard to kind of ensure that, um, they are tapping into what might be considered more sort of traditionally masculine
Beth Dawson: subjects as well?
I think they make, they make very free to voices because there are no boys that I think removes an incredible amount of scrutiny or what are perceived scrutiny. So we have, you know, when we look our options subjects at GCSE and A-level, we have really high uptake for subjects, which would normally be traditionally male dominated, I would say.
So physics computing, the sciences, maths, further maths, things that are traditionally associated with boys. The girls will choose here because they, they are free to do so. And there isn’t that there isn’t the judgment coming, you know, we tell the girls, they can do what they want. They can be who they want.
Um, in spite of, I suppose, expectations, which I think, uh, uh, lessening anyway, actually, certainly since I was at school, you know, when I, when I was at school, girls did. English literature, um, potentially history and, and were very much kind of pushed down the humanities route. And now that doesn’t, you know, that doesn’t happen.
And I think it doesn’t happen at our school primarily because girls can be who they are without the need to have to impress boys or worry about boys or worry about teachers judgements of what they should be doing. Um, and I think when parents have chosen an all girls school, That is a real driver.
That’s the main, you know, if I have to think about why, um, and obviously I’ve chosen it for my own daughter. And the reason is because I don’t want her to be, to be constrained and hemmed in by expectations of her. And I have no idea where she’ll go or what she’ll do. She doesn’t either. And that’s also fine, you know, and just because we’re allowing girls to make decisions all the way through doesn’t mean that they’re always going to know.
Well, what direction they’re going to take. And a lot of them don’t decide until they’re in year 13 and that’s fine as well. Um, but it, yeah, it comes down to just not having a type, not having an idea of fixed idea of a mold of a girl that you want to produce at the end. And I think I’ve seen schools where that is the case.
And I think I went to a school where that was the cakes. Um, Where whereby there was just, you know, you will do this, you will, you will get these results. Then you will go to this university. And these are the careers that are sort of open to you. Um, as our careers advice, which I think is a really big part of the independence that we teach is, is all about what’s right for you, not what’s right for us as a school.
Pooky Knightsmith: And does your, did your own school experience that you kind of alluded to that, is that influenced you as a hat?
Beth Dawson: I think everything about my childhood has influenced me as a head, but yeah, definitely that, that is, I mean, I, the biggest thing that’s influenced me as a head, I think is actually my own parents.
My parents gave me a lot of choice and autonomy and that. I wouldn’t be in this job. I wouldn’t be who I am if they hadn’t given me that autonomy. Now, obviously they also gave me very firm boundaries, which I think is another, is another thing that’s very important, but I went to a girls’ grammar school.
Um, One of the best girls grammar schools in the country. And I was deeply unhappy there because I was, I was feeling that I was being pushed into, um, maths and, you know, history and English and my passion was in drama and music and, and business studies as well, a little bit, um, And then it got to year nine and I had the opportunity to apply to the Brit school, which is where I ended up in year 10.
Um, and my parents had to decide at that point between the school that I won’t name, which I was at, which I was at, which was obviously kind of. Very very high exam results, amazing things. And the Brit school, which was at that 0.2 years old, and, uh, the GCSE results were 11% ACC. And I remember that my mum said to me, well, you know, this is gonna affect the rest of your life.
So if you can, if you can come up with the pros and cons, if you can talk to us about, you know, why you want to go there versus what might be the negative things she wanted me to. To show that I was aware of what might the downfalls be and how was I therefore going to avoid the downfalls. Um, and I remember sitting with her and my dad and I was, I think, 13 probably because I must’ve been because I was in year nine and talking to them through, these are the positive things that could come out of it.
But these are the negative things that I’m totally aware of what I’m getting and how I’m going to get past those is this, this and this. And I can remember actually even what the sheet of paper looked like. Um, and they let me, which I think. Was a big leap of faith for them at the time. But they, by doing that, by having that, um, faith in me to go there, I believe that meant I got higher GCSE results than I ever would have got in the grammar school, better levels than I ever would’ve gotten the grammar school.
And more than that, I got a sense of my own, um, Ownership of my, of my destiny, which I think is really important. So, so yes, it does influence how I am as a head, because I think that choice is so important. And then the fact that you are, you fundamentally have ownership of that choice and therefore the outcomes are your, are your doing really?
And for you to deal with. Yeah,
Pooky Knightsmith: I guess you, you probably had to, you had something quite big to prove by making that leap across to the Brit school. You enjoyed your time there.
Beth Dawson: I loved it. Yeah. It was like suddenly discovering who I was. And again, that, that is. Something that I think has influenced me because I felt for the first three years of my senior education, I wasn’t who I was.
I was who the school wanted me to be. Um, and, and to a certain extent who my parents thought they wanted me to be as well, maybe. Um, and then you go to a school where there’s no uniform. Uh, where the teachers are called by their first names at the time. I think it’s probably changed now, uh, where you’re in a really small environment as well.
And that’s really important because the grammar school, I was in a year group of kind of 200 or, you know, a hundred. And I think there was six forms of 30. So probably 180, um, And then to go to a school where you’re in a class of you’re in a year group of 47 and your you’re therefore known and everything about your experience just changes because you can be seen, you can see the head in the corridor and they’ll call you by your first name.
And that there’s an accountability that comes with that, which I, which I like to have at Sutton, because I like the girls to know that if they’ve got an idea, they can come to me. But equally, if I hear that, you know, maybe they’ve. They’ve done something silly or you know, that I’m going to hear about it.
And that the size of the school means that I’ll talk to them about that. And I might see them in the corridor and we’ll have a chat about, um, you know, something that they suggested that’s come to fruition. That’s really exciting, but equally they therefore know, and it very rarely happens actually, that.
That if something goes wrong or if they decide not to have our values at heart and to be kind to, and curse yes. And behave well that I’m going to find out about that in the same way that I found out about their amazing idea and the great thing that they did, you know? Um, so, so those things influenced me.
The fact that I, that I was known, uh, is really important. And the fact that I. Could suddenly discover who I was through my clothes and make awful decisions about boats. Um, and, and so some of the things I’ve done is head, I suppose, a reflective of that. So we had a sick form dress code. Uh, when I took over, I, I.
Took that away. Cause I really feel strongly that in the sixth form is your chance to make those mistakes, dye your hair, you know, rainbow colors and realize that you can’t go back to blonde from orange. You know, all those things that I learned because I was at a school that didn’t have uniform, um, and to express who you are through through those clothes.
And I. So that’s maybe a small way it’s influenced me, but that’s part of independence as well, because you have to, you have to make those mistakes. Independence comes through. I think self-awareness of, of. The decisions we make. Um, how
Pooky Knightsmith: important do you think that just picking up on that kind of idea of uniform, how important is uniform?
Because your school has a very strict uniform as lots of schools do and yeah, having just one of my daughters moving from one DDST school to another, like the, the cost and the amount and the length of license needed is, is yeah. But is that an important part of your girls? Like sense of belonging and then how does it feel when they step out of that, into the independence in sixth
Beth Dawson: form without that uniform?
Yeah, I think that’s where the balance comes. So for me, the reason the uniform is so important in prep and lower down in the senior school is that sense of community and belonging. And we’ve, we’ve, we’ve added some freedoms in there as well. So if the girls want to wear trousers, they could wear trousers.
A lot of them are now where Charles, is that something else I did when I started. Um, was to introduce the trousers, not to ask them the ones I could have been mean, but I went to the, um, but it, it also, it means that there’s not that thought about what am I going to wear? What am I going to, you know, how am I going to wear it?
Do I have to worry about kind of what someone’s going to think of my, my dress code and all that sort of stuff. Um, I think you’re more ready to make those decisions when you’re 16, 17, 18, um, And, and not, uh, not worry, you’ve got the confidence then not to worry about it. I think 11, or, you know, as, as your daughters are at sort of nine, 10, you’re more wary about what others are gonna think of you.
So just removing that worry, you know, even with the small amount of choice that they have, I think there’s still that worry. Um, and I would like that to not be there, but I think it just is as a product of our society that we, that people feel judged on what they wear. And how do your
Pooky Knightsmith: girls choose to dress in, in the sixth form then?
Do you get kind of wild and wacky stuff or do they tend to conform and create their own sort of non-uniform uniform
Beth Dawson: or, uh, they are all totally individual. I think when, when you first remove the dress code, the natural warrior or the worry from staff, I suppose, was will they wear appropriate clothing?
So, you know, will they, will they be, I dunno. Wearing a bikini to school or, you know, wearing their pajamas. Um, and that was kind of not what happened at all. So I think there’s a comfort that comes with the clothes that you wear when you’re having to wear a business suit, which is what they, they were wearing before.
You don’t have that. That comfort of I’ve chosen these clothes. They are me they’re representative of me. And for most of the girls that is jogging bottoms and a t-shirt, to be honest, that’s what a lot of them wear. But then for other girls that were bright, colorful prints that they really, you know, or secondhand stuff they’ve got from a charity shop.
They’re really proud of because it’s, you know, something they’ve got as a bargain. Um, we’ve seen a lot of hair changing color, which I think, as I say, as is. It’s a good thing. Um, they always find it strange. I used to have red hair, like dyed red hair. Um, and I, and I think you, then you then learn from. From those, from those decisions you take about your parents.
So they’ve, they’ve taken those decisions. And like I say, they might have to live with, as I had to live with, when I tried to go from red to blonde, the fact that my hair went orange, you know, bright orange, yellow, and I couldn’t get, couldn’t get rid of it. And I had to live with that. And like, there were some horrific photos of me at my uncle’s wedding with them.
What can only be described as Cindy LOPA yellow, which I try and tell the girls, but it’s far too much of a retro reference for them to even understand who Cindy Lopez. Um, so yeah, I think in going back to your question, the prep uniform and the lower down the school uniform is really important for them to feel part of a community.
And that’s, you know, when we’re out on school trips or when, when they see each other. You know how they wear that uniform is always going to be different because how they are it’s different. So we’re not, we’re not incredibly strict on that. So some of the, you know, there are choices there about, are they going to wear tight?
So they’re going to wear socks and they’re going to wear cardigan. Are they going to wear a jumper? They get to wear their summer dress. That they not, there were some choices there, but fundamentally that tartan and that the colors of the uniform is our identity as a school. And it’s powerful, which is great.
And it’s my favorite color. So I’m definitely okay with it. It’s quite funny. Cause when I was well, I’ve always, I’ve always grown up near the school. I always used to say to my parents, that’s what I want to be. That’s what I want to work because I love purple so much.
Pooky Knightsmith: Has that influenced your decision to lead at that school?
Beth Dawson: How does it
Pooky Knightsmith: having a background is kind of drama? So you spent many years as a, as a drama teacher. Does that influence how you
Beth Dawson: lead. Um, I think it does because I think what drama teaches you and I’m real Africa of arts teaching, not just drama, but creative arts is, is about the self and self-expression and soft skills.
What used to be called? I mean, people still use the expression soft skills for me. They’re not soft skills. They’re the hardest skills to actually develop. Um, And so that influences what I want the girls to learn. And, you know, when I do assemblies or when I have a chance to speak to the girls as a whole, it will be about those soft skills.
It will be about collaboration. It will be about self-expression and awareness and the things that I think you’d get that from drama, which I think you can get from every subject, actually, if, if they’re taught, right. And that’s why we. When we report on girls, when we assess them, we’re always looking at those skills.
So we give them marks on their collaboration or, you know, on their focus, on their ability to, to work as a team on their ability to listen to other people’s ideas and develop them. And it’s those skills that are most sought after in the workplace. Problem solving collaboration, innovation, having ideas, and being able to bring them to fruition, being flexible, being adaptable, those things I learned through drama, but I totally accept that girls learn them through, through any other, you know, subject as well.
One of the great things about our school when I, when I go around and look in lessons, which I do a lot, um, Is I see that in other subjects. So I, I was, I see amazing debates happening in RS. I see girls really passionately debating equations in physics, and I didn’t learn them through, through those subjects cause they weren’t my passion.
So I was really not very good at physics actually. Um, and will always regret my B in my DCC. Um, But I, you know, I learned those things through drama, but I think as a school, if we can focus on those skills and we do across the whole curriculum, then girls will learn them in the subjects that they’re they’re most interested in.
Pooky Knightsmith: And will that be an important role for the creative arts as you look at how the school responds in the next stage of, you know, return to some kind of normality post lockdown.
Beth Dawson: And I mean, I think. For me during lockdown for the most magical evening that I spent in lockdown. And I will remember it forever.
Actually it was the virtual concert, which we, the first virtual concert that we had, um, and the fact that so many girls had contributed to that concert and we’re watching that concert and parents were watching it and grandparents were watching it. And then we had another two. So we had a prep school, one and another, um, online concert as well for the senior school.
It was really, I mean, it comes back to what I said at the start that the things that they’ve done in lockdown that have made me proud is the creativity. And that doesn’t necessarily cut. Like I say, it can be in a rap song about physics equations. It doesn’t have to be performance-based creativity. Um, there’s been some amazing artwork produced.
There’s been some really creative responses to questions in philosophy and in RX. Um, so that creativity, it has to be what. What drives us forward. I think when we come out of this, because that’s what they’ve shown in droves, that’s what they, that’s what the girls have exhibited that they’re good at that they love.
And it’s, I sat an Easter challenge over the Easter holiday. Um, and I said that we would have an exhibition of lockdown work w that they’d created and some of the work that’s come in to me. It’s just been absolutely amazing. Um, So, yeah, I think there’s, I think it will have a really important role to play.
Obviously, there are going to be limitations on some of it because you’re not allowed to sing in groups of four and 15, and you’re not allowed to, you know, do practical drama where you share a script and we’ll have to work through some of those limitations. But, um, The bit that I think girls have missed, and that is very different, difficult to replicate is collaboration and communication in that, in that collaborative sense.
So a lot of what we’ll do in September will be about trying to bring that back debates, talking expression, that sorts of thing, which you can, you can have or Microsoft teams, um, but with a delay and with people speaking over each other, it’s much harder to kind of navigate through that. So, um, I think that we as teachers then went towards more kind of independent autonomous learning rather than that collaboration.
Cause it was, it’s very hard to navigate that on, on zoom or teams. Um, so we’ll get to that.
Pooky Knightsmith: And when you return in September, how will you kind of, you know, lead people through a time when presumably there’s lots of worry about expectations and covering the curriculum and, you know, there’s lots of different challenges to juggle that aren’t there and what’s your kind of plan.
Beth Dawson: Um, I think I’ve had two, two mantras, which I’ve repeated throughout the whole of lockdown. And I, and I think I will adopt them for, for life actually. But, uh, the first one is you can only do your best and I’m a really firm believer in that. That’s why, when we, when we judge girls, when we assess them, when we Mark them, it’s about them.
It’s about their expectations and expectations of their best potential. And that’s the same for everybody. You know, teachers can only do their best. I can only do my best as head. I’m very open. I S I say to the girls, and I say to the staff a lot, I make a lot of mistakes. I’m not going to get this right.
All the time. I’m going to make, you know, things like not putting a break in for people to go to the loo at the start of this. That’s my mistake. And I, I have to own that and say, well, I didn’t think about it. You know, I’m sorry. I’ll do better. And all you can do is keep trying and trying to do your best.
So that will be the first thing that I say to them in September the girls on the staff. And I think there are going to be different levels of what that looks like. So what one girl’s best is is, is a very different thing to what another girl’s best is. Um, and, and the other thing that I’ve said to her from, from day one is, uh, you know, we just take each day as it comes and we still don’t know what September will really look like.
Um, And it could change. It could change the day before we go back. You know, we could, I have a local lockdown in Sutton and not be able to go in. Um, so I think I’ve learned, and for me that’s been a really big life lesson because like I said, at the start a reason I went into touch, it was about strategic planning and I loved that whole kind of let’s think about where we’ll be in five years time in 10 years time, um, you know, in a year’s time.
And you can’t even really think about that at the moment. So, um, So you can continue to think about values driven strategies and where you want to feel, how you want to feel that day, but you can’t really plan too far ahead. Um, tell me more about a values driven strategy. I love the idea. Well, I think another thing that I always say, and I think is really important in our school is what is best for the girls?
How can we help the girls here? Um, and I think, um, who I worked with in the prep school, she has that mentality too. And that’s why we get on so well, we, you know, everything is about what’s best for the girls. Um, and sometimes that can be to the detriment of the staff. And sometimes that’s a problem that I then have to balance out.
Um, I think a values driven strategy is about how you want people to feel in your school and how you want people to feel on a day-to-day basis and how you want people to feel, you know, in a year’s time. And I try and think about that. And I think my drama training has helped me with that because it’s all about emotion and empathy and feelings rather than, and results, I suppose.
So I think. The, what we’ve done over the past year is thinking about courage, truth, and joy as the values that hold us together. Um, and how people then feel those things. How do people feel joy in a lockdown? Well, maybe it’s through a bingo game online, you know, maybe we can think about silly ideas like that.
So a lot of the things we were doing for joy were actually probably silly ideas or what I would call fun, you know, just for fun sake. And that’s okay, too. Um, if it drives that value of joy, if it drives people, feeling joy in some way, um, I think sometimes people are very caught up on strategy being. You know, in five years, time X number of girls will have a stars in their geography level, or, you know, in five years’ time, we’ll have seven rooms which have been refurnished or things like that.
But for me, it’s about in, in five years time, how will the girls feel about their school experience? How will they remember. What they experienced with us, will they look back fondly? Will they, will they think, Oh, I remember that great time. When, you know, we did something silly or we splitted the teachers or we, I think fun has a really big part to play in school.
When I think back to school. I don’t, I certainly don’t think about setting an example. I think about the really fun things, you know,
Pooky Knightsmith: Theresa and Joey, is that what you want your people to feel, or is it important for staff and
Beth Dawson: families to feel that too? I think it’s everyone. I think it has to be if you’re, if you’re going to have a values driven strategy and values driven school, which I believe we are, then it has to be everyone.
And those three words, you know, they came they’re over a hundred years old. They came from our school model. I didn’t invent them. And I think sometimes parents think that I did, but all I did was translate the lifting and loosely translate it as well in the middle, in the middle. But, um, I, I think. They are as relevant now as they were a hundred years ago.
And I believe they’re kind of universals that are going to be relevant in a hundred years. They’re going to be relevant in five years. They’re going to be relevant in our school, in every school for girls, for women. Um, And I think that fundamentally key components of a successful life, if you, if you’re not, you know, if you have, uh, uh, bravery or boldness about you, a courage about yourself, um, and you’re not afraid to face failure or face challenges, that’s always going to help you.
If you’re true to who you are and you have a sense of who that is, and you’re okay with that, that’s always going to help you. And if you can try and find the positivity or just. I say the girls, sometimes it can just be sparks of joy. So for me, it’s like trying to bank up the times when a girl holds the door open for me or the times when my dog, you know, so happy to see me after a really bad day.
It’s, it’s the small parts of joy. If you can find those. You just are going to have a more resilient, emotional literacy than, you know, you’re going to be happier, which I think happy is a really, I prefer joy to happiness because I think happiness has these connotations of, we have to feel it all the time.
We have to be always happy and that’s unrealistic. That’s never going to happen. No school is always happy. You’re going to go through ups and downs. No girl is always going to be happy. You’re going to go through ups and downs, but joy is kind of a. A thing that you can have in your, or this is going to sound really pretentious, I suppose.
But I think joy is something you can have in glimpses and in sparks. And it’s therefore just in you, if you can tap into it, um, happiness is a pressure, whereas joyous, just something you can’t help. I think if it’s bad. Yeah. And do you
Pooky Knightsmith: try and use those values too? Kind of influenced how you lead. So I guess, what, what am I asking instead of being a sort of safe leader, do you try and take bold and brave decisions that might not always have a certain outcome?
Beth Dawson: Yeah. And we have to, and we have to take risks otherwise, you know, if you, if you, my mum said this to me, when I was young, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always get. What you’ve always had. Sorry. I so therefore, you know, I think it’s F everyone’s always moving forward.
Schools are not, you know, I cannot stand where they are. They have to move forward all the time. You only move forward when you take risks. And that’s, I think in every, in every business, in every place in every person, you only become, you only move forward as a person or as a organization. If you take bold decisions and take risks, and some of those things are not going to be popular.
So. You know, and, and some of them are not going to work. That’s that’s the other thing is you have to, you have to go, okay, well, I’ve taken this risk and you have to be the person that says it. Hasn’t worked. Actually. I’ve made a mistake there. I’ve made a bad as a leader. I think that’s your ultimate responsibility is to some people and I’ve seen this happen.
And I’ve probably been guilty of it myself as well. When, you know, in middle leadership, I suppose, is you have an idea, you push it through, you bring it to fruition and it isn’t working and you’re not evaluating it. You’re not reflective enough to go, well, actually we need to stop that. It’s not okay. And you can be so caught up in your own idea that you push it forward.
So for me, it’s about being bold, but then being bold enough to go. I may not have got that. Right. I need to step back and either change it or that’s it, or just give it up altogether. Um, and I will keep, keep trying to do that, I suppose. I think it’s
Pooky Knightsmith: brilliant leadership to do that both in terms of role modeling for staff and for students as well though, isn’t it.
And I think it also can mean that the whole community can feel that they’re able to kind of influence and shape what’s happening. And it’s not just sort of dictated. What would you, if we kind of fast forwarded five years, what would you like to have achieved? How would you like things to feel? And have you got any kind of exciting plans bubbling away of what you’d hoped to achieve?
And they sort of first five years
Beth Dawson: of headship. Um, I think I had all those plans about six months ago now, as I said the day ahead. Um, I think I was, I, I was saying to the girls actually in my end of year assembly that my biggest achievement this year was when the year 13, when they were leaving. Which again we had to rush through on the last day.
Cause we didn’t, we suddenly realized it was going to be they’re lost. They lost assembly. They did an impersonation of me where they in the, in a song which they’d written, which was amazing and brilliant. Um, and they, they said they, they basically impersonated me and they said courage, truth and joy girls.
I don’t know. I suppose I see that as a success because I think if, if. If those values can be truly embedded and that takes time, it takes, you know, and it’s silly things like we, some of the ideas that my leadership team come up with is about sparking that joy. So we were thinking, you know, how, how awful it must be for girls to get around these open mornings.
Uh, countless open mornings for schools. And so before lockdown, we were thinking, okay, well, we’re going to get bean bags and they could sit on bean bags and you know, the front and their parents can sit behind them. And that will just make it more relaxed. And too it’s it’s when you start leading with those things, I think at the moment, they’re there.
Um, and they’re definitely felt, and they’re definitely aspired to, but in five years time, I would hope they would just embedded that. You know, that our staff were bold and brave with things that they’re doing and taking risks in their teaching. And the girls were accepting those risks and challenges and really open to them.
Um, and that we, we were a school that was filled with joy. And I think we’re there, but we’re not as there as we come there
Pooky Knightsmith: and I’m interested as well and how your school is sort of, um, perceived because at a time, and I might have got this wrong, so correct me if I have, but at a time when lots of families are facing challenge and that, um, being able to send their children to a fee paying school might be more difficult.
For many. My understanding is actually that you’ve had, um, more people wanting to come to your school.
Beth Dawson: Yeah. So we’re growing, which is amazing. Um, and like, I, I don’t know why I haven’t talked to, to what I think the answer is about parents. It’s becoming more aware of wellbeing and the power that, that has to drive a child’s achievement in, in a, not just in an exam factory way, but in a, in a, and I talk about holistic achievement, but you know, the sense of success for a girl is more than exams.
But those come as part of what we do. So it’s, it’s difficult to kind of take them off, but I think that’s why we’re growing. I feel that that’s why we’re growing. When, when I speak to parents, when I meet parents open days, um, I don’t talk about exam results. I talk about best outcomes for girls and for me, that’s more than exam and we’re, we’re a really mixed school cohort as well.
And I think that. Is attractive. It’s much more representative of the world. We’re incredibly diverse in our school. Um, we are not a school that is, you know, overly traditional, overly restrictive. I think we’re very free. Um, But we also have boundaries, which again, you know, is important. So I, I would like to think it’s, I would like to think that society is becoming more aware of children’s wellbeing being an absolutely key part of their success far more than exam results.
So that’s what I would like to think is. I’m very keen that when a girl comes to us, she comes to us and she, she, she takes a journey and it, you know, obviously being in a borough with grammar schools and being in a grump in a S in a bar with lots of competitors, I suppose, and we’ve really good state schools as well.
Um, That journey might not be three to 18, but I hope it would be because I think that’s when we know the girls, the best is when they’ve been with us and they’ve taken a journey to become who, who they actually are. And they’ve developed that self-assuredness to be that person. Yeah. Um, and to own it, to really own who they are, I think is, is really important.
And it’s taken me, I, you know, a very long, I don’t think I don’t, I think that’s a continual journey and the reason it’s a continual journey is because you’re continually evolving as a person. So you have to get used to yourself many, many times. Um, but I hope that I hope that when girls join us, they become, they start to become the individual that they are.
Whilst also being part of
Pooky Knightsmith: a family, which is just
Beth Dawson: lovely. Yeah. Well, that’s, that’s really, you know, I haven’t spoken about kindness, but kindness is the key to everything. So that’s everything about our school is about kindness. And that’s what I look for in staff. I say to staff, when they come to interview, I’m not looking at your university degree.
That’s not important to me. What’s important to me is will you be kind to my girls? Will you treat them with kindness? Because that’s when they’ll, they’ll do their best. So, yeah. Wow. What
Pooky Knightsmith: thought would you like to leave people
Beth Dawson: with? Oh gosh, very profound. I suppose that when girls feel better, they do better so that when, if you can encourage your daughter or any girl that you come into contact with to feel okay about who she is, she will be successful.
That’s how we empower girls to do well.