A recent study by the Health and Social Care Information Centre revealed that British girls, aged 15 to 19, are competing with middle-aged men as to who is the most stressed. This is not how it should be!
With exam pressures topping the list as the main cause of teenage stress, Antonia Beary, Headmistress of St Leonards-Mayfield School, a successful independent girls’ school in East Sussex, is concerned that the quest for perfection is piling too much pressure on students. She questions whether educational establishments have lost sight of the humanity of their students in a battle to get to and stay at the top of the league tables.
“It is my view that a school’s priority should be to ensure that their students develop into confident and engaged individuals, who, as a happy consequence, will fulfil their academic potential. One of Mayfield’s finest attributes is that it is not an academic hothouse, yet our outstanding examination results ensure that we are recognised nationally as a centre of academic excellence, year after year, with girls going to their first choice – Oxbridge, Russell Group or American universities. I believe that it is the direct result of our holistic philosophy of education. We believe in nurturing the unique promise of each individual girl, supporting and guiding her to achieve her full potential in everything that she does.
This support takes many forms. Academic rigour is very important, and as a strongly academic school, we pride ourselves on the quality of our teaching staff and facilities. It is not, however, all the school does. Perhaps less celebrated are the myriad of other opportunities: the many successful sports teams, the creative clubs and support networks on offer, and I believe they are no less integral to the success of the school.
Teenagers, particularly girls, put themselves under immense pressure to be ‘perfect’, and this combined with the fear of failing to live up expectations placed upon them can prove detrimental to their mental and emotional well-being. As an adult, it is easy to dismiss adolescent worries, but as the alarming increase in uptake of mental health services amongst teenagers proves, we need to take their concerns seriously.
Regardless of ability, a lack of confidence can hold pupils back; a fear of failure can prevent even the brightest pupil from challenging herself and achieving the grades of which she is capable. I feel very strongly that one must never underestimate the importance of the school’s role in developing – or compounding the lack of – a pupil’s confidence and self-belief. At Mayfield we aim to develop within each of our pupils the confidence to succeed in life. That means being prepared to cope with failure as well as success. We encourage girls to challenge themselves in areas not so easily quantified in league tables: in the orchestra, the ceramics studio, on the sports field, or in the debating chamber. Each girl has particular strengths, an area in which she can shine; it’s a question of helping her discern her gifts and talents.
Pastoral care is crucial, and this is an area where single-sex schools like Mayfield shine. Individual, focused pastoral care allows girls to develop a positive image of themselves during those turbulent adolescent years, when girls are particularly vulnerable to self-doubt. The right school environment can foster self-belief, developing each girl’s confidence in her capabilities, her identity and her value as a human being – not just as a holder of certificates.
A woman in today’s world is expected to balance many roles, the women of tomorrow even more so. As such, it is our duty to furnish them with the tools they will need to succeed in life after academia: independence, resilience, confidence, leadership, integrity, courage and ambition – qualities which cannot be learnt in books, nor measured in examinations, but which should be nurtured and developed by the right school environment.
Some might say it is paradoxical that a school which so willingly embraces every strength encourages every extra-curricular pursuit and nurtures every spark of enthusiasm and creativity outside the classroom should perform so well in the league tables. Not so: Mayfield’s outstanding academic success comes as a direct consequence of our holistic and supportive ethos.
Mayfield girls are encouraged to be creative in all that they do. Rather than jump through exam board-led hoops, they are encouraged to be themselves, and to be the best that they can be. We encourage Mayfield girls to become mature, independent, confident and well-informed individuals; young women of faith and reason, ready to make their mark on the world, supported by a network of lifelong friends. We want each individual to have an academic experience which challenges and stimulates her, leading to her achieving the best possible qualifications, as well as learning the value of cultural, spiritual and physical enrichment. This learning – both inside and outside the classroom – takes place within a school community that is warm and welcoming, and where staff care about pupils as individuals, not statistics. Yes, our pupils achieve excellent exam results, but they are certainly not defined by them. There is so much more to life – and education for life – than jumping through hoops. We owe it to young women to offer them more. “