My voice matters: the importance of teaching girls and young women the art of disagreeing well 

Earlier this month, our family of schools recognised the importance of mental wellbeing during Children’s Mental Health Week, an initiative launched by children and young people’s mental health charity, Place2Be, to empower, equip and give a voice to every child in the UK. This year’s theme, ‘My Voice Matters’, was particularly meaningful because it underpins much of the work going on every day in our class rooms to build confidence and fearlessness in each student at the GDST, from the youngest pupils starting out in reception through to Sixth Formers who are on the cusp of entering the adult world.

Children’s Mental Health Week

Kathryn Ferguson, Trust Consultant Teacher for personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, and a teacher at Notting Hill & Ealing High GDST, led several fantastic workshops at our schools including Kensington Prep and Northwood College for Girls’ Junior School, which focused on what ‘My Voice Matters’ means to pupils, particularly those in Years 3 and 4. The resources were also shared with all GDST PSHE Lead teachers to enable all Year 3 and 4 students across the GDST to benefit from the same Positive Mental Health Workshop.

The workshops really conveyed the instrumental role that our Trust Consultant Teachers – highly trained and experienced subject experts who work across the GDST – play in ensuring that our 25 schools work alongside each other to share best practice and ideas for the benefit of all of our students.

In the same week, I was amongst the captivated audience that gathered at Wimbledon High School GDST for the launch of the first edition of the Charter journal, Voices. The Charter is a joint initiative by Wimbledon High School and King’s College School, bringing together Sixth Formers from over 20 independent and maintained sector schools from the Greater London area at events such as the Charter student leadership conference. Voices stemmed from this collaboration. I was impressed by the mature and thoughtful way in which the students delved into topics like identity, stigma and belonging in each essay and presentation on the night. To learn more, I would strongly encourage you to purchase a copy of Voices, with proceeds going to this year’s chosen charity, Joe’s Buddy Line, which aims to provide emotional and mental health support for those from primary school through to university.

Outside of Children’s Mental Health Week, our pioneering Girls’ Futures Report has taught us that as an organisation, we cannot profess to be true experts in educating girls without involving the girls themselves. In the case of this research, listening to student voices led to us uncovering invaluable insights that, two years on, continue to guide our approach to educational innovation and preparing GDST girls for future success. Cross-Trust events work alongside schools’ individual initiatives to provide students with tailormade opportunities to discuss those issues that matter most to them. Our annual Undivided Student Survey for example, is a hugely popular forum where girls give us valuable feedback on their views of, diversity and inclusion, school culture and importantly, how well we are doing at addressing their needs.

It is important to note that whilst we encourage girls to be confident in voicing their opinions, we also dedicate considerable effort to teaching them how to disagree respectfully with different viewpoints. Civil discourse, or as Kristina Lewis, Blackheath High School’s Academic Deputy Head puts it, ‘the art of disagreeing well’ is an extremely useful skill for young women to gain during their school years, because it becomes critically important in the adult world.

The workplace is an obvious setting where they will encounter people from a diverse range of backgrounds whose views have been shaped by different life experiences. As experts in girls’ education who pride ourselves on preparing girls for their futures, we would be failing in our duty by not equipping them with the right tools to navigate these situations. If we genuinely encourage the girls in our schools to go out into the world with the goal of making it a better place for everyone, how much more valuable will they be if they are able to facilitate respectful, empathetic and thoughtful debate?

And it is for this reason that so many of our schools now run a Civil Discourse module for older students as part of their educational offer.

As I conclude, it strikes me that there is a wider lesson to be learned from the theme ‘My Voice Matters.’ Yes, we continue to unreservedly call out social injustices, and both subtle and implicit forms of gender inequality, in order to create a better future for young women and society as a whole. This is a non-negotiable for everyone at the GDST, students and staff included. But we must remember that our voices should not be the only ones that count. We must also be willing to listen to different perspectives and understand beliefs that might differ from our own. These interactions often help us to uncover useful insights that inform our future work in girls’ education. They also contribute to making the world a more tolerant and, hopefully, a better understood one.

I accept that in reality, listening to other voices does not always result in a change of opinion, but striving for mutual respect is a fair ‘consolation prize’ for engagement in civil discourse with those that we might disagree with.

Pastoral Care at GDST

The GDST has long recognised the importance of taking a proactive approach to psychological health, building emotional intelligence and resilience in pupils and giving them a sense of their own agency. GDST schools benefit from the central network in developing their pastoral provision and The Trust has an extensive pastoral training programme, and a Pastoral Consultant Teacher dedicated to sharing excellent practice between schools.

Find out more about Pastoral Care at the GDST