Pupils ‘feel under pressure to be like Mary Poppins’, says girls’ schools’ chief

Schools must work hard to teach girls that it is OK to fail, and build their confidence to help them take risks, Helen Fraser will say

Girls feel under pressure to be as “practically perfect” as the fictional nanny Mary Poppins, a leading figure in girls’ education was due to say today.

Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, says schools must help girls to become “adventurous risk takers” who don’t allow their inner critic to hold them back. She believes it is vital for schools to encourage real, in-depth learning rather than simply “the jumping through hoops the exam system requires”, in order to build the confidence girls need to succeed in the workplace.

As she prepared to step down from her role this summer, she was due to tell the private school chain’s annual conference today: “[Being chief executive] has made me think harder about the 21st century pressures on girls to be perfect – perfectly beautiful, with a perfect row of A*s, perfectly good at sport and music and friendship…

“One psychologist has said that women tend to feel confident only when they feel perfect – or ‘practically perfect in every way’ like Mary Poppins.”

She was expected to say that to ensure high-achieving girls reach the same levels of career success as their male counterparts, schools must “coax girls away from ‘perfect good girl behaviours’”.

She was to praise initiatives run by several schools, such as Wimbledon High School, which had a “fail better week”. Oxford High School also ran a “death of Little Miss Perfect” scheme to help pupils understand that it was “fine not to get everything right”.

She was expected to say: “I’m sure you will start to see that there is a theme here: we want our schools to take girls away from being quiet, neat, ‘good girls’ to becoming adventurous risk takers who don’t allow their inner critic to silence their voices.

‘Challenge that inner critic’

“We need to persuade girls to challenge that inner critic that judges you, tells you you’re not good enough, that your ideas aren’t worth hearing.”

She was due to add: “I want every girl to leave our schools not just with a clutch of As and A*s, if that is what they need, but more importantly to leave knowing that they have had a fantastic education, and that they have within themselves the courage, confidence, composure and commitment to be their own inner – and outer – cheerleaders.”

Her comments come a year after high-flying lawyer Miriam González Durántez said there was “an issue of self-confidence for women”.

Promoting her campaign Inspiring Women, which matches 15,000 professional women with local schools to improve female students’ understanding of the world of work, the wife of the former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said: “There is an issue of self-confidence for women. It even comes with our volunteers – very often you will have fantastic women and they say: `Do you think the girls will want to hear from me?'”

Ms Fraser’s speech also comes two years after education secretary Nicky Morgan announced a £3.5 million push to make England a global leader in the teaching of resilience and grit.

The GDST conference today will also hear from a number of influential education thinkers including Professor Guy Claxton, from the University of Winchester, and Professor Alison Cook-Sather, professor of education at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges in the US.

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