'Our girls need to smash glass ceilings and dream big'

And teachers need to be there to guide and support them in those aspirations, writes one headteacher

glass ceiling

Last month, dreaming made it back on to the agenda. It was not only that the arch-dreamer, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, was cited at several points in Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding. Bishop Michael also invited us repeatedly, if we did not believe him, to "imagine".

As we all know, imagining “the future” can often seem daunting for young people today – from buying a house to securing a job, your next step is presented with so many negatives, qualifiers and doubts, that it is difficult to dare to dream. Whatever one’s politics, the volatility of the world is a given.

And so, if ever a society had need of the promise of its youth to be fulfilled, it is ours.

This is, of course, where educators have a great mission. I have not met a single educator who did not realise the significance of their role in providing a counterweight to these other pressures, preparing young people to realise their potential, and nurturing their aspirations.

I think there is an ever stronger purpose to reclaim dreams and desires borne out of our passions and strengths, and to help young people discover, through exposure to exciting possibilities, what their unique strengths are that then form the foundation of their aspirations.

So how can we in schools help to inspire students to “dream big” and embrace their future unafraid and with optimism? It is something we should all be asking ourselves all the time in schools.

'Breaking boxes open'

Three years ago, at my school, Norwich High School GDST, we launched "Inspiring Females: Imagine IF…", to put inspiration, aspiration and dreams, firmly on the school agenda. The programme, which is also open to schools in the local area, has sought to instil confidence and value creativity in its overt themes for discussion, but also in the DNA of our events which require girls to develop networking habits. We invite women from all areas and walks of life and, over the three years of our events, have heard them speak about the two ingredients for success: dreams and plans. Every year we see girls at the IF events see what they can achieve, it helps them dream and we see them fly. We want to spend a little more energy right now focusing on dreams and breaking boxes open.

In education, "breaking boxes" means dismantling the compartments of our educational landscape. With digital revolutions, the future job market has never looked so varied – or exciting – than it does today, and we need to set imaginations free at school to prepare students for today’s world of work: cutting across divides between Stem and arts and humanities, soaring above arbitrary notions of which subjects carry more value than others.

Last month, the IF programme laid on its first Stem event at the John Innes Centre, inviting 18 wonderful women from varied careers within Stem to talk to, to network with and, ultimately, to inspire 300 girls from across Norfolk. One of our themes was the crossover opportunities within STEAM. For some of our younger guests, thinking themselves into this event proved problematic: "I’m not into Stem, I’m into Arts." Throughout the day, many women had indeed started out in the arts sector, and found that their skills were just as relevant in the Stem sector, and enriched it. As one guest put it so succinctly: "If you put yourself in a box, you will be limited by the size of that box." We encourage our girls to be willing to look outside the box, and think "what can I learn from this person?"

These artificial limitations are not just created by perceptions of subject divides. In many young people, there are many self-imposed limitations. How many of us have had ideas and before those ideas can get out of the blocks and we can conceive plans to support them, have screened them out with a "I can never do that". Girls are perhaps more likely than boys to self-limit their career options. In research published by Oxford University in 2015, girls had lower confidence about their careers, and were more interested in careers that offer job security with informal entry processes, via low and unpaid internships, for example.

Our Inspiring Females Summit this July takes the theme "Dream it. Dare it. Do it!" With our fabulous line-up of guests including Yewande Akinola, "engineer, dreamer, innovator’, as she describes herself; Jo Cruse, entrepreneur; and Hannah Springham, Norwich High School alumna and the only ever female producer of Top Gear, girls in Norfolk and beyond, who are converging on Norwich for the day, are certainly going to be dismantling more boxes and daring to act on their dreams. We will have a designated space for facilitated liberated dreaming in our "Dream Zone", and we can’t wait to see what calls to action these young women are going to emerge with.

Kirsty von Malaisé is the headmistress at Norwich High School for Girls GDST

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