Breaking down the barriers between ‘subjects’ has always been a priority of mine. The departments at St Mary’s are all encouraged to share good practice across the school, and to think about how the teaching and learning here can be further integrated.
It seems to me that this breaking down of barriers is just inherently right – the interest and curiosity that we all start out with, and that we want to keep going throughout school (and indeed throughout life) does not respect the traditional academic ‘silo’ structure. So sticking to rigid divisions is only likely to suppress the natural interest of girls in many different areas.
Nevertheless, it can still be a brave message in a school which is known for its excellent academic results. With the education and university system here the way it is, parents quite rightly and understandably see exam results as a top priority when choosing a school and too much emphasis on activities that are off the exam curriculum can seem like a risk.
The key, of course, is to strike the right balance. Many of you will have read about schools in places like California and Finland that operate on a curriculum-free basis, using concepts such as project-based learning. Although I’m perfectly willing to learn from what’s good about them, this is not what we at St Mary’s are about.
As a boarding school, we’re actually in a particularly good position to encourage the girls to work in ways that other schools just don’t have the opportunity to. The traditional school day, ending at three or four in the afternoon already has very little meaning for us, and we try to capitalise on the additional flexibility that we have by offering a whole range of activities, many of them outside the traditional formats.
We have also given over some physical space specifically for these less traditional ways of learning. A prime example of this is our Imagination Zone. It’s just below School House (the LIV boarding house) for those who know our buildings – come and take a look. It’s a converted classroom space, which no longer has desks and the other schoolroom trappings, but instead has workbenches and equipment to encourage creativity across a whole range of fields.
I asked the Housemistress of School House how her 11 and 12 year-olds have been using it recently and it was really pleasing to hear how successful an initiative it’s been. The activities the Zone has been used for have ranged from science projects through to animation, ceramics and needlework, or just when the girls need a bit of space to do something like act out a play.
One great example, I thought, was the LIV’s participation in the Royal Horticultural Society and UK Space Agency’s Rocket Seeds Project, which involved the girls planting seeds that were launched into space on a Soyuz rocket and then brought back to Earth, allowing them to compare the germination and development of the seeds with others that had not been to space. I remember well the morning in December 2015 when the girls gathered together in the Chapel to watch the launch of the mission that took Tim Peake to the International Space Station where, amongst a few other things I’m sure, he was looking after ‘our seeds’! The Imagination Zone was ideal for the project and I firmly believe that this was an experience that will stay with the girls. Outside the academic curriculum it may be, but this is precisely how we will inspire them to be the scientists (and maybe astronauts) of the future.