Middlesbrough, the town in which I work, was named the worst place to grow up as a girl in a study completed by the charity Plan International.
In the first study of its kind, Plan International looked at the educational outcomes, teenage pregnancy rates and life expectancy of girls in England and Wales and found that Middlesbrough was poor in all areas, making it the worst place to grow up as a girl.
The school is majority white working class, with 73% of pupils eligible for the pupil premium grant. It is the most deprived school outside of London, in a post-industrial town. This was not new information, but we knew we had to act.
We were lucky enough to be put in touch with Fearless Futures, an organisation looking to expand from London into the North East. Their programme empowers young women and gives them the skills to critically evaluate the world around them. We wanted to create bold female ambassadors who would inspire and empower others.
During the programme, two facilitators (named ‘trail blazers’) came into school and worked with a group of 24 young people over 13 weeks. They covered issues pertinent to our young people; social media, the culture of beauty, and their aspirations. The girls then delivered these sessions to others, meaning the programme reached 72 pupils by the end.
This series of workshops culminated in a final performance in which the young people (who had now graduated to ‘game changer’ status), spoke to a room full of people about what they had learned. They performed spoken word poetry, discussed the changes in themselves and brought a room of adults to tears. They were rewarded with a standing ovation. The change we saw in the girls was incredible, but the change they saw in themselves was where the real transformation happened.
Following on from this, the girls have delivered training sessions to our Year 7 girls and have begun to develop sessions for primary students. They planned assemblies and spoken at events across our town. They were the only school-aged children brave enough to speak at an event commemorating the centenary of the People’s Reform Act.
They were the only secondary aged pupils willing to speak at a regional literacy event and they were the pupils who planned and hosted an afternoon tea for vulnerable young people in our community. They have arranged to speak at parliament in November, focusing on the educational disadvantage of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and they are setting up and LGBTQ+ support group. These are huge accomplishments for young women who at the start of the programme did not have the confidence to stand up in front of a group of 12.
The quantitative data is also of note. The young people who became ‘game changers’ have made more progress than their contemporaries. They have performed better on their wellbeing surveys and have had fewer negative behaviour instances. They have also inspired those around them, with the pupils who have been mentored by the girls also showing an improvement.
While this is inspiring, it is often the anecdotal, small things which really show me how far we have come. M, a quiet pupil in Year 9 recently told me that she now challenges her dad every time he makes a comment about female television presenters. With great pride, she told me he has stopped. She tells me she thinks she can change society with small acts and feels stronger. C, informed me that she was going to go on the engineering taster day, despite being the only girl. She went, and then told all the other girls about it too. Three Year 9 girls quietly told a boy that he could cry, because boys cry too.
It would be easy to paint this as a perfect programme, but the outcomes really do show that it was. But like any other new initiative, we faced teething issues. The girls were missing the same lessons on a regular basis which meant they were having to complete lots of catch up work. We solved this by changing the timetable. The girls were featured in a couple of positive news stories, but some of the comments written below were these stories were not so nice. They told us that we should be prioritising the boys, or that we should focus on teaching maths and English and that we were a bad school. I am sure they were not meant to be hurtful, but they were nonetheless.
As a school, we were able to look at both the qualitative and quantitative data and know that we had done the right thing. Our pupils were confident, empathetic and making more progress. They were also having a knock-on effect on the boys.
"We wanted to create bold female ambassadors who would inspire and empower others."
In recent years the attainment gap has been growing between male and female pupils, with girls outperforming boys both academically and emotionally. It is the boys, we are told, who are struggling with academia, the rigid structure of school and poor mental health. It is the boys who need the most support. Yet this zero-sum approach to support can be destructive in many ways. Just because someone is doing better than someone else, it doesn’t mean that they are doing ok.
Over the course of the next academic year, our ‘game changers’ will be continuing to run sessions and deliver workshops. They will go to parliament to talk about educational disadvantage and they will go into primary schools to spread their message of empowerment. As a school, we will support these young people to carry on the work that they have done. We are also looking at setting up a similar project, this time for our boys who, having seen the impact of the programme on the girls, are keen to be involved too.
I will leave you with this poem, written by one of the Year 9 students who took part in the programme. It is beautiful, powerful and encapsulates what the programme has done for our young people far better than I ever could or will.
Not like a bear or tiger,
But being brave enough to live in the world we do.
Told when young, That we aren’t indestructible,
We’re delicate like a daisy
Or withering petal.
But dear those who follow the norm,
Those who shun out the different,
Those who after protest and war still put others down to raise themselves up.
They aren’t fearless.
But we are. And we can be.
We can change their minds.
The minds that praise hate and war
Self-centred thoughts that seek gender inequality and a white-washed world.
We can be the ones that turn the few to the many
Making all sexualities, races, religions and genders visible.
So that even those who are blind can see them,
Because we should all be told that:
‘Loving yourself in a world that profits from your self-doubt is a radical act.’
Leona Usher, year 9
Charlotte is a graduate from our Teaching Leaders Secondary programme. Teaching Leaders is a leadership development programme for high-potential middle leaders looking to improve pupil outcomes and increase their impact as a leader.
This article first appeared in SecEd and then on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.