Too much pressure

Mayfield School headmistress Antonia Beary warns against schools becoming little more than academic hothouses

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 attributes is that it is not an academic hothouse, yet our examination results ensure that we are recognised nationally as a centre of academic excellence, year after year. I believe that it is the direct result of our holistic philosophy of education, supporting and guiding each individual to fulfil her unique promise in everything that she does.

Teenagers, particularly girls, put themselves under immense pressure to be ‘perfect’, and a fear of failing to live up expectations placed upon them can prove detrimental to their mental and emotional wellbeing. As an adult, it is easy to dismiss adolescent worries, but as the alarming increase in the uptake of mental health services amongst teenagers proves, we need to take their concerns seriously.

The support we offer 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. Perhaps less celebrated, but no less important, are the myriad of other opportunities: the sports teams, the creative clubs and support networks on offer.

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. 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 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 academic success comes as a direct consequence of our holistic and supportive ethos.

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.

Antonia Beary is headmistress of Mayfield School, East Sussex

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