Yesterday marked World Mental Health Day, drawing to our attention, if we did not already know, the serious issues surrounding mental health in this country.

Having worked in secondary schools for 22 years, I am particularly interested in the mental health of teenagers and I have witnessed an increasing degree of pressure on young lives, from all areas of society during my career in education. Pressures have come and are coming from many areas including the increased expectation on young people to achieve in their academic studies, with the onset of the new, more rigorous GCSEs and A’ Levels; the proliferation of social media and its constant availability and an ever increasing expectation on them of how to look, what to wear and where to be seen.
In turn, this pressure has inevitably begun to have an effect on the mental health of the young of our nation, and this up until now rarely spoken of area is beginning to spiral out of control to almost epidemic proportions. According to the Office of National Statistics, teenage suicides are at a 17 year high, with 186 teenagers taking their own lives in 2015 which is a 48% increase in the last 3 years.
So how do we tackle this and how do we take back control, as the adults, for our children, in this new and exciting world that we have created for them?
Schools work extremely hard to this end. Students are increasingly taught about ‘mindfulness’ and have a greater understanding of the physiology and functioning of their brains. They are taught about healthy bodies and healthy minds and how to achieve this. The students have access to counsellors, peer mentors, Chaplains, tutors, Heads of Year, Pastoral Heads – yet still the number of young people suffering rises.
My own experience has shown me the difficulties surrounding obtaining the medical support required by these troubled youngsters if they are not in imminent danger, and are considered to be medium to low risk. I have known young people wait months for a CAMHS – Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services – referral as the teenage mental health service in the area was already stretched and at breaking point. Whilst in other areas of the South, children as young as eight are being referred to CAMHS at the drop of a hat, for problems which should not even be classed as mental health. This smacks of inconsistency at best and chaos at worst.
It appears that the support network set up for parents and schools of students who require this help is is disarray and whilst I applaud the raising of awareness of mental health, I want to see affirmative action being taken to help all those with such difficulties.
What can we do as parents to support our vulnerable young adults in their quest to navigate the already turbulent seas of teenage years. Are mobile devices really the evil at the epicentre of this maelstrom of mental health or does the media have a more positive role to play here too?
Today, Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham and former Head of Wellington College, has called for schools to be measured as successful, not only by their examination results but also by their mental health results, a so called ‘wellbeing league table for schools’ … a great idea and this would be a brave step forward, and one which I would love to see implemented.


IT SEEMS like the tide might be finally turning with a new generation of female celebrities who say no to being manipulated by the music industry.

I was delighted to hear in today’s news that the Grammy Award winning singer Meghan Trainor had ordered video companies to pull her latest video ‘Me Too’ down for an urgent re-edit after realising it had been photo-shopped.

American pop star Meghan – who is still only 22 – famously celebrated accepting your body size in her debut hit ‘All About That Bass’ a couple of years ago.

In the lyrics of the song, she talked about loving your body shape and spoke out against photo-shopping, where images are digitally manipulated either in a photograph or video to make someone look different or enhance their looks for effect. The techniques are routinely used to make women look thinner or to iron out what might be seen as imperfections such as wrinkles, spots, freckles and moles.

The seemingly ‘perfect’ images that result have often been linked with young women’s drive to search for what they perceive to be the perfect look and size. I believe that such images have played a role in some young women’s descent into eating disorders.

Meghan became an instant star with her debut single and successful first album and was happy to be associated with young women accepting who they were and their body shape.

She was allegedly furious when she saw her new video had been doctored ahead of its release by making her waist look slimmer to give her a more slender silhouette.

Despite her relatively tender age, she took to social media to rant about what had happened and behind the scenes successfully ordered that the video be taken down.

In a series of Snapchat posts she said: ‘My waist is not that teeny, I had a ‘bomb’ waist that night. I don’t know why they didn’t like my waist.

‘I didn’t approve that video and it went out to the world so I’m embarrassed. I’m so sick of it, I’m over it. So I took it down until they fix it.’

Meghan’s refreshing attitude certainly heartens me as an educator and a parent in a time when young women and young girls have been bombarded with images of so-called perfection 24 hours a day in today’s media age.

It is all in stark contrast to the behaviour of so many young female stars over the past couple of decades who have – whether willingly or otherwise – allowed the music industry to exploit their sexuality to sell records.

A couple of years ago, I spoke out about what I believed was the awful example of stars like Miley Cyrus who particularly confused young girls with her dramatic change of image from the wholesome Hannah Montana Disney character she was so associated with to her new highly sexualised persona.

Our own home-grown Charlotte Church also bravely spoke out about the pressures on young female stars by the music industry just a few years ago, accusing it of having a ‘culture of demeaning women’ that forces stars to sell themselves as sex objects.  Church said she was ‘pressurised’ into wearing revealing outfits in videos by male executives when she was 19 or 20.  The star said young female artists were routinely ‘coerced into sexually demonstrative behaviour in order to hold on to their careers’.

This makes it all the more admirable that a young star like Meghan Trainor is prepared to fly in the face of that pressure to stand up for herself – and by doing so to stand up for all the legions of young women who look up to her – by standing up and being counted.

I hope it heralds in a new era of change when the young women we have been educating and bringing up feel they can say ‘no’ to the pressures which have been besetting them and do beset them. Let us hope the dinosaur music industry bosses who have bullied women into using their sexuality slink back into extinction – we can but hope.

One wonders whether they would be so keen to exploit women – and photo-shopping is the thin end of the wedge – if they had ever had any experience of eating disorders or teenage anxiety in their own families?

Why that School Trip Can Enrich your Child’s Life Forever

EXAM season is approaching us fast and for many parents and children, the Easter Holidays will be an anxious time of revision. I will say what I always say – time spent filling the brain as early as possible with those useful facts will pay dividends later when the facts pass from your short-term memory to your long-term memory where they are committed to memory ready for exam day!

But it is also a time when the days are getting longer and, hopefully, warmer and we start to think of the Summer Term ahead and long sunny days which will bring out the day dreamer in all of us.

Many children will be embarking on school trips – international, national, regional or just local – in the Summer Term and long holidays ahead. These can be a stretch financially for parents but they are so vital for their child’s development.

Remember what it was like if you have children – or even when you were a young child – when they or you went on a school trip for the first time: the anticipation and the excitement and the memories.

If you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s like I did, that first school trip may have been a day out at the zoo. Close your eyes and remember just how exhilarating it was to see wild animals in the flesh – to watch them, hear them and even to smell them.

These days, primary school children might be off to a farm or a city farm to see animals leap from the storybook and their imaginations into reality.

I think it is hard to underestimate just how important that experience is for them. I am sure we can all remember a similar experience and such experiences stand out in the landscape of our childhoods.

As our children grow older, it is important not to let them lose that sense of wonder that is so precious when they experience things in the world around them for the first time.

Some of you will have children for whom a trip to a historic site induces that awe and amazement as it brings their work to life – perhaps a visit to a castle or even to a monument like Stonehenge will be imprinted on their memories for life; all the more so because they have learnt about it first from a book or in a school lesson.

A visit to an art gallery can switch on a lifetime’s love of art and culture which can enrich a child’s life forever.

This experiential learning is absolutely vital to a child’s development – even if that trip was or is a relatively simple one. Who hasn’t seen the wonder of a young child playing in a park or even digging in a garden and seen how much they get out of such experiences?

Experiences out of the classroom can help older children to have an overview of an event they might have read about a thousand times at school but never really had a chance to think about what it might have been like to experience themselves.

Children of all ages from my own school will be visiting the World War I battlefields this summer. For those of you who have been there, you will know how seeing the existing trenches and the rows of graves in the World War I cemeteries tell the story of the bloodshed, horror and loss more than words on a page can do.

School trips support and invigorate children’s learning throughout their education so whether you are wishing farewell to your young child on the way to a city farm or a safari park, or your teenager on a visit to France, remember that the experiences they gain in the field will enlighten their learning and build memories which will shape their lives for ever.


LAST week, I spoke to the Sunday Times Education Editor about a story she was planning on ‘gender neutral parenting’. The phrase itself – which I think we can all agree sounds rather PC – is enough to strike fear into anyone’s hearts and has become something of a buzzword for those seeking to explain – at the most basic level – why girls should not automatically be put in pink and boys in blue from babyhood!

Not surprising then that the accompanying headline ‘Let boys wear dresses, Head tells parents’ received some attention. I hope that anyone who read the headline actually read the story to understand the full gist of what I was saying! As Head of a girls’ school, I clearly would not have been telling my own school’s parents to let their sons – if they have them – wear dresses or in fact telling anyone to actually do anything rather I was suggesting to all parents that they should let their children – boy or girl – express themselves freely!

The story had arisen because British pop superstar Adele had started a debate by taking her three year old son to Disneyland dressed as his favourite Frozen character Anna: a little boy dressed as a girl shock horror!

In the same week, a survey revealed that more and more mums, particularly in the under 30 age group – so-called ‘millennial mums’ were bringing up their children in a ‘gender neutral’ way. The survey of more than 2,000 mothers for the parenting website revealed two out of five under the age of 30 parent in a gender neutral manner compared with just one in four older mothers.

Another survey revealed that three out of five parents back the removal of gender labels from clothes and toys by retailers and a quarter want gender neutral school uniforms.

As for Adele, despite receiving criticism in some quarters, she was widely praised for ‘smashing gender norms’ by allowing her young son to wear what he wanted.

Personally, I believe that all young children should be allowed to play with whatever they want from the dressing-up box and with whatever toys they want – whether that means a little boy pushing a stroller or a little girl dressing up as Superman. So what? They are little kids having fun.

This is not a question of sexuality. It is laughable to suggest that by saying that little boys should be able to wear dresses from the dressing up box, I am paving the way for them to be confused about their own gender!

The issue of transgender and body dysphoric children is a totally different and very serious issue which has to be addressed sensitively. Recently, for example, Brighton College became the first school to scrap its uniform code to accommodate boys who identify as girls outside school and vice versa.

As a child of the 70s and 80s, what really bemuses me is that by saying what I said – effectively that children should be allowed to play as they wish – I am saying anything at all revolutionary.

When I was growing up, the norms were that girls and boys played together – usually in their messy dungarees, one indistinguishable from the other, with whatever came to hand. The ‘pinkification’ of toys had barely started, thank goodness. We all played with proper Lego – none of your Lego Friends patronising nonsense – and it wasn’t considered odd for a girl to ask Father Christmas for a Meccano set or a chemistry set and get one. We were free to play.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the boom in marketing meant that greedy marketeers spotted the opportunity to split genders from cradle to the grave and start to market ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ options to parents and then to their children when they were old enough. Men daring to wear a pink shirt or any kind of pastel colour these days might be told they are ‘in touch with their feminine side’!

It has been suggested that I have asked for a ‘revolution in parenting’ by suggesting that children are allowed to play freely and forget whether they are a boy or girl when they are doing that.

Hardly! I am just calling for parents to reclaim their children from the marketeers who have tried to make it normal for girls only to want to play with their Baby Annabels or Chou Chous and for boys to need to show their machismo virtually from birth by playing with a train set or blue truck.

Whether so-called ‘gender-neutral parenting’ gives parents the freedom to think it’s OK to do something simple like paint their nursery pink, yellow or blue or rainbow coloured – whatever the gender of their child – or being careful of not imposing gender stereotypes and roles in their language – ‘be a man’, ‘don’t be a girly’ etc – or, ultimately, the freedom to encourage their daughter to pursue a career as an engineer without being put off by the stereotype that it is a ‘male’ career – then it is to be applauded surely.

Imposing restrictions on children and stereotyped gender behaviours from birth is just the sort of behaviour that does confuse children because they are not free to explore and create.

Gender neutral parenting means giving children this freedom – the freedom, ironically, not to be neutral!

While many will hate the label, any parent who wants to give their child the opportunity to be who they are, fulfil their potential and not be held back by stereotypes will be surprised to hear that they too, in the 21st Century, are a gender neutral parent – like the term or loathe it!


I was simply staggered to read this in morning’s papers that the Chief Executive of UCAS Mary Curnock Cook had claimed that state schools prepare their pupils better for ‘jobs in the new economy’ than independent schools do.
Quite apart from anything else, this is the head of the university admissions service who is saying this, displaying the kind of positive discrimination I talked about just a few weeks ago when I raised the subject of problems in the UCAS system for independent school pupils. At that point, I spoke to the Sunday Telegraph about what I saw as a problem in the system at admissions level when universities were discriminating against privately educated pupils. I suggested the whole system should become anonymous and, in doing so, I ruffled a few feathers on both sides of the school divide!

Call me old-fashioned but shouldn’t Ms Curnock Cook’s primary role be to ensure the university admissions service is fit for purpose, not analysing statistics on which subjects students go on to study and where they went to school and then making wild generalisations about a whole swathe of this country’s students?

Ms Curnock Cook claims just 13 per cent of privately educated university entrants studied ‘new economy subjects’ such as biotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, cinematics and creative art and design while 26 per cent of state sector pupils studied them.

Whether or not these figures are correct and over what period of time they cover, I don’t know, but what I do know is that it seems Ms Curnock Cook is of the opinion that these so-called ‘new economy’ subjects are somehow better than other subjects and therefore pupils should be studying them, and not to do so is a sign of failure.

Surely, we are here to encourage our children – wherever they go to school – to choose and study the subjects they have a talent for and to use their time at university as a preparation for life beyond.

Unless you study a specific vocational subject – and many children are simply not ready to make such a narrow decision at 18 – an academic degree, of whatever discipline has always been a sign to a potential employer that a student can apply themselves and develop the skills to analyse information and present it accordingly, hopefully with some defined thinking and creative skills!

 And these days – as we were reminded the other day – our children and our students may well go on to work in a myriad of different careers over their lifetime, whether they study a so-called ‘new economy’ degree or follow a more traditional path.

It is laughable to suggest that private schools have been ‘a little bit slow on the uptake’ in encouraging their pupils to choose ‘new economy’ subjects, as Ms Curnock Cook told the HMC Conference.

Private schools in this country have always trail blazed and the quality of the all-round education they offer is respected around the world.

What is even more sinister perhaps is her accusation that a whole generation of privately educated pupils have copied their parents in university and subject and that studying Law or going into the Media is somehow to be sneered at.

I’m sure nothing could be further than the truth. The UK’s independent school system is renowned for giving children the space and encouragement to develop their own skills and interests.

Taking a quick look at the subjects my current Upper Sixth Form are planning to study at university, I see what Ms Curnock Cook might dismiss as traditional subjects – Medicine, Law, English, Psychology and Philosophy – and they are subjects with longevity with a reason other than simply following what Mummy and Daddy did at university. And I also see a whole list of Science subjects and ‘new economy’ subjects, to coin her phrase: Biomedicine, Maths, Computer Science, Engineering, Paramedic Science and Hospitality Management.

In other years, I might see many Heathfield girls branching off into the Creative Arts, subjects with a fine reputation at Heathfield which have led to many of our girls succeeding in the creative arts in the outside world – a vital industry for our economy.

Ms Curnock Cook worries about ‘a sub-section of society which is sleepwalking through an identikit educational experience into an off-the-peg life which mirrors what generations of the affluent classes have aspired to’.

Personally, I worry about a sub-section of society which is involved in education at the highest level in this country which is left-leaning and sneers at the achievements of the thousands of children in this country who are privately educated and go on to top universities to study academic – and also a whole range of other subjects – who are dismissed in such shocking terms as ‘predictable and without independent thought’. Blatant class comment such as this is shocking in this day and age.

The Mobile Phone Debate

I’ve been following the debate over the use of mobile phones at schools and the impact of screen time on children and adults with interest over the last few weeks.A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a journalist from The Times who was aware that Heathfield had what some schools might see as a draconian approach to mobile phone use at school.

Draconian – in that we are very strict about the use of mobile phones, especially by our younger pupils, in an effort to protect them from some of the obvious pitfalls of smartphone usage at the tender age of 11, 12 and 13.

Our current mobile phone policy only allows our younger pupils to have a very basic phone model and designated times during which they can use it to phone home. At all other times, this phone has to be handed in to their housemistress. We believe that education is the key to sensible use of mobile phones but we also recognise that maturity levels change as girls move through the school so it is essential to protect the younger members of the school at an age where they may be unaware of some of the obvious dangers of internet use.

Older girls are allowed smartphones to use at certain times only – but we need to accept that we must start having a certain level of trust in their sensible use of the internet through a mobile phone as our pupils grow.

We have found this trust – while very occasionally being breached – bears fruit when older pupils start to advise their younger classmates on potential web hazards.

We do not currently allow any mobile phones in the classroom block. However, there have been occasions when we have trialled the use of mobile phones in the classroom as an education aid. Again, this has been debated in the press over the summer with some schools asserting that they believe the way forward in the classroom could be with the teacher guiding a class of pupils to do in-class research using their smartphones.

At the end of the day, a smartphone is a computer in mobile phone form. I would be wary of intensive use of this kind of classroom format – not only could it be gimmicky but it could run the risk of contravening our very carefully considered and implemented mobile phone policy and confusing the children we are seeking to protect.

On a separate but not entirely unrelated note, a respected Cambridge University study hit the headlines last week after it revealed that their three year research programme showed that just an hour of television watching or screen use a day could affect their GCSE grades.

The research was part of a study looking at factors affecting the mental health, well-being and academic achievement of teenagers as they make the journey to adulthood.

According to the TV watchdog Ofcom, the UK’s 11 to 15-year-olds spend three hours a day on average in front of TVs or computer screens. For participants in the study, the typical amount of screen time per day was four hours.

Reading and homework unsurprisingly radically improved performance – with an hour spent on homework each night boosting performance by about four grades.

But even pupils who did sufficient homework still suffered if they also watched television for an hour or more.

Unsurprisingly this contrary advice must leave parents confused: on the one hand heads and teachers are pointing to a brave new world where pupils are interacting and interfacing with their teachers through smartphone screens in the classroom and on the other we are warned that just an hour of television or screen viewing adversely affects children’s grades.

The shining light in the latest study though is that simple reading can radically improve grades. Let us hope that reading is from an old-fashioned book rather than a Kindle screen.

The Benefits of Boarding

Last week, the Independent Schools Council (ISC) unveiled its annual census revealing pupil numbers at the UK’s 1267 independent schools are at their highest level since records began in 1974.

At the same time, the Boarding Schools Association (BSA), was holding its annual conference and coincidentally, I was listening to Eton Head Tony Little’s speech looking at the advantages of boarding in the 21st Century.

Of the 517,113 pupils at independent schools in the UK, 70,642 – some 14% – are boarders. That is a huge number. Many people in this country – as borne out in some of the coverage we see of boarding schools – still have a stereotyped and archaic view of boarding schools.

Mr Little gave a passing nod to this stark impression of boarding schools in his speech and he was keen to point out that the shocking child abuse scandals of the past – some of which have only come to light in the last few years – happened in a very different era. The boarding environment in the 21st Century is heavily scrutinised – and rightly so – to protect children.

Instead of concentrating on the academic benefits of boarding schools, it was a delight to hear Mr Little talk about the massive benefits of boarding schools in helping to develop resilience and social skills.

As a Head, I don’t think enough is said about this, probably because there is so much concentration on exam grades. I believe the social benefits of boarding schools may often be overlooked.

Children gain an inestimable amount from being part of a supportive and nurturing boarding school community during their formative years, where they have the opportunity to learn how to develop relationships – not just with friends – but perhaps with other children with whom they would not naturally socialise.

It is so very important for children to learn how to interact with a variety of people – both children and adults – so that they start to understand human dynamics and how to handle different situations.

Being given this opportunity at a boarding school really helps to prepare them for later life and relationships – both personal and professional – in a way they would not be prepared in a different environment.

Moreover, at boarding school, children have the chance to explore changing relationships in a safe environment and this only serves to develop a crucial resilience of character, a resourcefulness and emotional intelligence which will stand them in greater stead as they grow up.

It was a pleasure to hear Mr Little stand up for our boarding schools and call for them to be applauded and recognised as the ‘national treasure’ they are. Hear hear.