A Levels – A Defence

There is nothing like August to focus the mind on the nature of examinations and our reliance on them as a society. One bad couple of hours can result in a mark that loses you a university place and a future career. Other students simply do not ever show their real strengths in a tightly time controlled situation. There is no doubt that all exam systems play to the strengths of people who work in certain ways, regardless of overall ability, intelligence, motivation and sheer hard work.
There are various alternatives to A Levels around and KEHS has reviewed these in depth and will no doubt do so again in the future. No system is ever perfect. All have the inherent problems mentioned above. All offer the best student experience where there are able, inspiring teachers and a less satisfactory experience where there are not.
A Levels are taken by the huge majority of 18 year olds and therefore students are tested against a serious mass. It is an exam understood by employers and universities. The fact that we get virtually everyone who has missed a grade in a university offer a place, despite the slipped grade, is largely because universities know exactly what they are getting. A Levels allow time to study subjects and take on activities that are not done for the sake of an exam, but for themselves. Girls at KEHS can take courses in politics, history of art, geographical issues just because they are interested. They all study critical thinking, a philosophy course, and if they want can take an exam in it, though the majority prefer just to enjoy the course free of the limitations exam marking criteria. They can choose to pursue a piece of independent research right outside their A Level subjects, as well as those they do as a piece of course work. This year I listened to a fascinating presentation on the development of fairy tale in film. There is time for them all to take part in community service, not as a box ticking exercise but because they know it is a valuable contribution to society in itself. And then there is plenty of time to choose from the rich array of extra-curricular activities on offer.
Does that mean the girls aren’t working very hard? Well, ask the vast majority of the girls picking up results in August if they could have worked harder and you would get short shrift. They have been through a tremendously packed two years that has offered intellectual rigour and depth where they have been able to play to their strengths as well as freedom to develop as individuals.

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It tells us something about the state of this nation that in a week when the United Nations is falling apart over the fighting in Aleppo, the Euro is collapsing and the UK appears to be entering a triple dip recession, the front page of one of our leading national weeklies has a story about someone paying a bit towards his grandchildren’s school fees.
Sir Jonathan Miller, the Sunday Times tells us, is contributing an undisclosed amount to some independent school to educate his grandchildren. The fact the paper leads on this hardly world shattering story reflects the obsession this country has with the morality of independent education, unlike anywhere else in the world.
Jonathan Miller sent his children to comprehensive schools where they had a miserable time and none of them ended up at university. In the somewhat garbled interview, he justifies his decision on the grounds that by sending children to independent schools, parents ‘guarantee that your children are enveloped in protective devices with the educational equivalent of a condom…it is all to do with prosperity and big money’.
Concern about huge disparity in wealth distribution in the UK is something many share with Jonathan Miller for all sorts of reasons. But it is a reality and the idea that spending that money on education is the source of all social problems is very strange. In my view, there are few better ways of spending money. If disparity in income is the issue, then that should be tackled directly.
The condom comparison is exactly the wrong one – condoms prevent something from happening, good education allows something to happen.
There will be many who come forward to say what excellent experiences they have had at state schools. Those who are critic of independent education often can’t quite decide whether state schools are just as good and the choice of independent education is all about social snobbery or that independent schools are so superior that it is vastly unfair anyone is allowed to go to them.
Of course there are excellent state schools and there are not so good ones. There is no school, independent or state, where every single child will say they had a wonderful time. No school is right for all children. Parents need to decide what they think will best suit their own child and it is worth remembering that the majority of parents who can afford to pay school fees, don’t do so.
Jonathan Miller goes on in his article to sing the praises of the good state school another grandchild attends ‘but it doesn’t’ he says, ‘have the sort of lustre and prestige that guarantees entry to Oxford and Cambridge’. On what planet Jonathan Miller is living, I don’t know, but if you speak to anyone involved in university admissions, they will tell you that Oxbridge and other prestigious universities spend millions on ensuring they find bright children from state schools and have done for years. Such universities are looking for the brightest and the best and they are delighted if they can find them in the most challenging schools in the country.
We have the most awful hang-up about independent education in this country. Parents should be applauded for spending money on something as valuable as education rather than fancy cars and yet another foreign holiday. For those who can’t afford it, many schools like KEHS and KES have means tested bursaries and everyone in education is working towards the improvement of all types of schools. Knocking independent schools is a distracting side-show from the real need to progress all education.

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I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Canada organised around visits to our two partner schools there – York House School in Vancouver and The Study in Montreal.
I took our two students who are this year’s visitors to York House, out with me and delivered them safely to their families. We were met at the airport with balloons and hugs! I later saw them at the school about to embark on a challenging outdoor education exercise equipped with huge rucksacks and lots of sensible clothes. Everyone was smiling!
York House is a delightful school that has much in common with KEHS. They have just finished one huge building project that has included a new underground theatre and are about to embark on another rebuild – all paid for by fund raising by the school. The site is smaller than ours so they have to make creative use of every inch.
The Study (what a wonderful name for a school!)is situated in a gorgeous part of Montreal and our two KEHS girls seemed to have settled in very well. I was fascinated to learn more about the bi-lingual nature of the education there. Quebec Province is both French and English speaking so it is a unique opportunity for our girls to hone their French and consider the implications of such a culture. I watched a very interesting French lesson that used a particular method based on signing and gestures to give young children the language skills they needed as early as possible. What a huge advantage it is to be fluent in two languages by the time you are in your teens.
I had very useful discussions with both Principals about the areas I have been looking at during my sabbatical. I shall be able to draw these into my thoughts as I start to pull together some conclusions.
As well as schools, I saw the Rockies for the first time, beavers, a moose, bald headed eagles and fell in love with Quebec!

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The religious life

In searching for organisations run by women for a long time, of which as I have found there are not many, I decided to approach women’s religious orders. I visited two different Catholic orders, one in London and one in York and indeed stayed at the York convent.
I was particularly interested to consider women’s organisations operating under what I, as a non-Catholic, see as a highly patriarchal umbrella.
I didn’t find quite what I expected but both visits moved my thinking on in new directions.
There was absolutely no criticism or even interest in what I regarded as patriarchal structures. There were odd throw-away comments about women’s orders being less hierarchical and male orders having more of a career structure with roles meaning a lot more to men, but these were presented as insignificant matters.
From the little I learnt, the organisational structures of both orders were very clearly defined and, to me, hierarchical but nevertheless, the feel was that decisions were reached through consensus and all nuns had a part to play in choices about leaders and direction. This was seen as important. It was stressed that women were running the orders in every aspect – except for the religious duties of the (male) Chaplain, only men of course being priests. Women had control of often large finances and estates and had had historically.
In one sense, my questions about leadership were gently shown to be off target for the nuns. The vow of obedience taken by nuns is seen to legitimise authority and make any questioning of the fundamental principle of hierarchy, irrelevant. The reverence for authority was such that the Provincial Superior ‘holds the place of Christ for us’.
On the other hand, I found unexpected interest in the foundation of the two orders. Both were started by two quite exceptional women of whom I had never heard – reminding me yet again of how women are ‘hidden from history’ – Cordelia Connelly (1809-1879) and Mary Ward (1585-1645).
Cordelia Connelly’s history was personally and spiritually fascinating in that she married an Episcopalian minister in Philadelphia, who after fathering five children decided he was called to become a monk. This necessitated Cordelia taking a vow of chastity and joining a convent. She had already a very powerful spiritual life and despite the odds, went on to found a strong and successful new order that started its life in Derby.
Mary Ward came from a Yorkshire Catholic family suffering under the horrific religious persecution of the time. She felt called to become a nun which was not at the time from her sort of family, particularly remarkable but what was extraordinary was that she believed that through a series of visions God was calling her to establish a female order along the lines of the Jesuits. This meant a female order that was unenclosed and reached out to meet human need where ever it was. This totally radical concept for women was pursued by Mary and her followers through endless trials and tributations. The many European houses she had established were supressed by the Catholic Church and she herself was imprisoned by the Inquisition. It is a long and harrowing story of a woman’s fight to fulfil her God given mission in the face of a lot of male opposition, to which she herself gave legitimate authority.
Mary’s life is now far more widely known about and I strongly recommend anyone interested in the role of women in religious life to look her up.
So where has this all taken me? Certain concepts about strenghts and concerns of women do run through so many organisations however different they seem from each other on the outside (‘being data-driven is so very male,’ said one nun, ‘women are people driven not paper driven’.) Individual wowen have had huge social significance historically but they are not as widely acknowledged as men, justifying in my mind the idea of women’s history. Oh and vows of obedience seem a pretty terrific tool in the leader’s tool box!!

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Finance Sector

An investment firm that talks about integrity, about creating an environment where curiosity, learning, candour and accountability are encouraged and there is a culture of constructive acceptance for different points of view seems a wonderful fit for the value-led organisations I have been considering. And it is led by a woman!
Edgbaston Investment Partners is a small, relatively new, start-up organisation and I was able to meet with all the key staff. All except one, for whom this was a first job, had worked for other companies within the financial sector, so had clear views on how Edgbaston Investment Partners compared in terms of ethos and strategy. I am going to group what they told me around some of the central ideas that came out of the discussions.


This is an employee owned organisation and has features that challenge what happens in larger companies. Employees don’t invest outside the company. The growth of the whole business is seen as the key for success, rather than the success of particular individuals within it. It doesn’t matter who has a particular idea, or whose research project is accepted by the team – it is doing the right thing for the company that is of paramount importance. No one has performance targets or individual performance rewards. Decisions are made based on scrupulous research, data analyis and open discussion where conclusions are not presented before discussion has taken place and there is no sense that the ‘real’ decisions are somehow made behind the scenes. There is an awareness that people matter and everyone has a valuable contribution to make. A concern for a healthy and realistic work/life balance ensures the organisation is not dependent on hugely long hours being worked by everyone.


Size is seen as crucial to the ethos. The sense of ownership, not just in the technical sense of the word, but in the sense of moral stewardship was linked by more or else everyone to the small size. Criticisms that were made of other investment companies often stemmed from their larger size, the belief that big is best and empire building is a justified use of client resources. It was small size that allowed success to come from everyone being very involved, being respected, decisions being reached through discussion, transparency and flat structures.

    Gender issues

Though led by women, this is not an all female company and their financial investors are not female. As I have often experienced, people start conversations about gender differences by being reluctant to talk in generalisations – ‘it all depends on the man/woman’ but will nevertheless quickly point out fairly clear gender specific patterns.
Some of the ‘female’ characteristics that we discussed were
*women recognise they can’t do everything themselves and work at collaboration and relationships
*women managers care about the people with whom they work as people not as instruments for profit
*women are interested in consensus decision making
*women are driven but more concerned about the ways and means of achieving success
*women will try to address conflict quickly in an open manner
*women will take a long-term and often pragmatic view
*women are underconfident
*women do not like taking risks or making mistakes
*determined women can be seen as stubborn rather than principled
*women don’t publicise themselves
*women don’t judge success by the length of time you stay at your desk
*women not interested in office politics and jostling for status

The overriding impression I came away with is that the financial sector as a whole is characterised by large egos, short-termism, individual ambition, unhealthy work/life balance and a lack of transparency. Edgbaston Investment Partners has specifically set out to challenge this and whether this is because it is a woman-led organisation or because of the particular character of the women involved was a matter of debate. But there was no doubting that the partnership sees itself as forging a different model of financial success that is ultimately more sustainable and forward looking than the traditional City one.

    Tips for young women

We teased out some ideas that could help young women in their careers.
*Confidence! You can do anything you want!
*You learn from mistakes and move on
*Work at relationships with other women at work but develop networks with men too
*Talk about your successes
*Be open to diversity – it is finding the best in lots of different ways of doing things that leads to success
*Get infrastructure right at home if you are committing to a family and a career
*Question any organisation that expects very long working hours and creates a culture of panic to achieve it


One of the most cheering things I came away with, was that the management style here was having a tremendous impact on everyone who worked there. The men felt they had learnt a huge amount from the women and I was left in no doubt that there was a very specific ethos that they would take away with them, wherever they worked in the future.

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Girl Guides

The Girl Guides has certain similarities to the Women’s Institute. They have both been in existance for more than 100 years and were both strongly influenced in their initial stages by equivalent male organisational structures. But most importantly the Girl Guides, like the WI, is huge with over half a million women and girls involved in this country alone and both continue to be driven primarily by a moral vision of society.

I met with the County Administrator and hope to spend more time at the headquarters in the Autumn to read some of the recent research undertaken by the Guides to help inform their development.

The County Administrator is very positive about the Scouts despite the fact that the Scouts have opened to girls, a move which might have been expected adversely to effect the Guides. In fact the Guides is the larger movement.

The Guides is very clearly structured at all levels and it is largely run by volunteers. The County Administrator sees this as being part of the reason for its ethos and I would agree. Everyone involved in Guides is doing so from a personal commitment therefore what might be called the business model of running an organisation is not particularly helpful. There is no attempt to have a figure head leader, something the Scouts have espoused. Success is not achieved through setting adult administrators targets and analysis of raw numbers is not seen as helpful in moving the organisation forward. At a regional level, the County Administrator works with an executive committee and it was clear that this operated very much through consensus, with agreement being reached by frank and open discussion. As the County Administrator pointed out, they want to make decisions together and this can take time. Developments may take longer than in business but there is a commitment to giving time for reflection and gathering information.

Central principles for running a guide group are instructive. At the heart, there is care for the individual, commitment to working in small groups, a determination to empower girls to make their own decisions, be able to lead, make choices and as a consequence of this, to create safe spaces for girls to make mistakes. As well as the traditional structures and occasions, there are forum days used to engage with the girls in consultations and focus groups to conduct research into aspects of girls’ lives.

The County Administrator told me that the Guides is more political than people realise – another echo of the WI. Doing research with girls about political issues, acting as advocates for girls and young women, including working with the UN, reaching out in those areas guides have not had a strong historic presence and to those such as ethnic minorities and teenage mothers not traditionally involved, it is all about meeting girls at the place where they have the need.

International links (145 countries have Guides) are tremendous offering individual guides wonderful opportunities to meet others from very different cultures to share all they have in common.

I have come away with a sense that the Guides is a huge force for good, continually refreshing its century year old vision, distinctive in its ethos, offering a successful model of women leading a massive organisation that is driven by the moral imperative of making the world a better place.

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women as leaders

Fortunately for young women, there are plenty of women about who are leading organisations. Not as many as men, and not reflective of the number of women in the workplace generally, but nevertheless far more women are heading up things than there used to be. Whereas young women would often only have their female teachers as role models of women succeeding in a career, now they can find female leaders as role models in virtually all sectors of society.
Women leading organisations that have been largely set up and run by men is not the core of what I have been looking at but is nevertheless fascinating and I have enjoyed talking to a number of women in that position.
Sara Weller is just finishing running Argos and is taking up a number of non-executive roles with public bodies. She talked to me about the differences she has perceived between men and women in senior positions. In summary, she sees men as leading through tasks and women through people. Women, she believes, are more customer centred, more interested in doing a good job for its own sake than whether others are noticing how brilliant they are. They don’t like conflict or risk and will tend to work in a collaborative way. She sees this style as having strenghts and weaknesses and is very much a supporter of teams with men and women. However she thinks the behaviours and culture adopted by the leader are absolutely crucial in setting the tone for the whole organisation. So the female style as she sees it in a leader will have a significant impact on an organisation.
I found this interesting because I had been tending to think that yes women who choose to can now lead any organisation. They have the opportunity to acquire the qualifications and experiences needed and there is nothing to stop them. But I had observed that the lone woman leading continued in a male style rather than attempting anything different. Sara Weller suggested this wasn’t always the case and even one women at the top of an organisation could make a huge difference to the culture. I shall try and test this out a bit as I continue to meet people.
When I asked Sara my standard question about what girls’ schools should be doing in order to maximise opportunities for young women, she had some strong views. She was quite critical of some girls’ schools that she felt risked being seen as a throw-back to 1970s chip-on-the-shoulder feminism. (As someone whose political consciousness was largely raised in the 70s, I have thought hard about what she said!) She felt that such schools gave a message that it is a jungle out there in the ‘real’ world for women, and emphasised all the negative aspects of working life for women. She felt her gender had had no significant influence on her career and certainly not been a disadvantage. She has no time for glass ceiling theories. Girls’ schools should be shouting the message that there are no barriers for high achieving girls and the world is their oyster. Interesting. I wonder what other people think.
She did however feel girls needed to learn to take risks at school and schools should address this quite formally with girls. ‘Tell them’, she said ‘that in this school we don’t just want you to put your hand up if you know the answer, we want to hear from you even if you are only half way to finding it’. ‘It might be worth’ she added ‘preparing girls for the fact that boys will talk a lot of rubbish’.

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