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How the North's Leading Schools are Tackling 21st Century Challenges

girls playing during playtime Dame Allan’s Schools
September 2023
Reading time 3 Minutes

Staff at the North's leading independent schools share the key challenges facing the younger generation

Here's what they're doing to address them.

Surrounded by technology with near-instant information, communication and gratification, the younger generation is learning in an exciting time. ‘But equally, with a recent pandemic and turbulent world, with this can mean increased levels of stress and anxiety,’ acknowledges Gemma Strong, head at Newcastle Preparatory School (NPS). ‘We feel children’s emotional literacy and awareness of wellbeing is key to their ability to thrive in this modern world.’ The wellbeing of children is at the heart of what NPS do, firmly believing that where children are happy, they will thrive. ‘Pupil wellbeing is embedded as a culture throughout the school; wellbeing check-ins, social stories, yoga, feeling charts, worry monsters and a buddy committee are visible across classrooms,’ Gemma adds. ‘We also benefit from the expertise of a school nurse, counsellor and dedicated teacher for personal, social and emotional development, alongside staff trained in therapeutic programmes.

‘We also feel that children being equipped with skills, adaptability and resilience, alongside more academic knowledge, will enable our young people’s minds to manage change successfully and think dynamically. In an ever-changing future, this sets them in the very best stead for future employability and success. Our key role as a preparatory school is to provide our future generations with the best preparation for life beyond our school, whether that is in senior school, university or their lives beyond.’ 

Will Scott, principal at Dame Allan’s Schools, acknowledges that the younger generation are facing ever-evolving challenges, and is keen that pupil wellbeing remains a top priority at Dame Allan’s. ‘We want pupils to feel included, valued, listened to and recognised as they achieve their goals,' he says. ‘When we get this right, they know they have people around them who will offer support when needed, as well as guidance, inspiration and opportunity. Academically, the world is moving fast and we’re addressing the use of AI in learning and teaching, as well the need for strong personal attributes and skills to accompany academic qualifications, so that pupils emerge as young adults with the confidence and skills to succeed.’ Ahead of the new school year, he advises that pupils can prepare by looking back over things they found trickier, with more senior year groups taking some time to refresh knowledge and to read beyond the course. ‘Starting back in September with the sense that you are ready for the restart, having made the best of the summer, is a good way to feel!’

Read More: The Benefits of Sport in Academic Performance

Dame Allan’s Schools
Newcastle Preparatory School
Newcastle Preparatory School

The Royal Grammar School Newcastle (RGS) believes that in the 21st century character development in schools is of equal importance to curriculum in helping students contend with these challenges. ‘This is a bold conviction from the region’s top academic performing school but our belief is that the school’s outstanding exam results are the consequence, not the purpose, of a well-rounded school experience,’ says head Geoffrey Stanford. ‘While the RGS remains dedicated to a broad and challenging academic curriculum, which enables students to achieve stellar public exam results and access the most competitive courses at top universities, the school equally focuses on the co-curricular and pastoral experience. Balance is key to students’ long-term success, health and happiness, as academic results may open up opportunities but in the 21st century it is students’ softer skills that will enable each to fulfil their potential.’

Freedom of expression and the confidence to express oneself is cultivated throughout the academic courses at RGS. ‘However, just as important is creativity, the ability to work with other people and the resilience to cope when things do not go according to plan,’ Geoffrey adds. ‘These can be developed through the impressive co-curricular programme. The RGS encourages children to try new activities, both individually and collaboratively. This in turn can help them gain confidence in themselves and develop interests that they can enjoy for the rest of their lives. Independent schools have relative autonomy to design curriculums, shape extra initiatives and provide in-depth support; all to allow students to reach their potential. The house system at the RGS is one of many ways the school fosters a sense of belonging and belief in each other, as well as providing a wide range of healthy competitive activities. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, ensuring communication between form supervisors and class teachers right up to the senior leadership team, is paramount to recognising needs and engaging with parents to ensure a coordinated approach to supporting every student. Most important is that all these elements align and culminate in fun, inspiring and caring surroundings, allowing our students both to learn from failure in a safe environment and to flourish.’

‘It is vital that young people enjoy their learning because being educated in a happy environment is the surest way to motivate them to want to take on these challenges and be excited by them’

Students across the region were robbed of so much by the pandemic, and they continue to face a great deal of uncertainty educationally, economically and environmentally. ‘During the pandemic and since, there has been a great deal of change and uncertainty in GCSE, A Level and other qualifications,’ says David Tickner, head at Newcastle School for Boys. ‘This has been difficult for young people and their teachers. Economic conditions and the cost-of-living crisis make life difficult for many people. This includes young people particularly as they move from school into further or higher education and/or the job market. Many young people are rightly, or should be, concerned about the planet and its environment they will inherit and the impact this will have on their later years. The case is now just too strong to ignore or push down the road as we have for many years. These are complex issues not easily resolved. To prepare young people for the future we need to help them develop the character and resilience to face the challenge of uncertain times, to look after their wellbeing and develop the skills and qualifications that will allow them to take control of their future and our planet’s.’ Newcastle School for Boys is a supportive and nurturing school and will continue to support their pupils’ wellbeing, academic progress and character development. Due to growing demand for places, they have added an additional new class to Year 5 from September and will also be looking to embed their new extensive co-curricular programme at the Senior School.

Read More: Why Creating Opportunities to Empower Girls from an Early Age is so Critical

Barnard Castle School

The Independent Schools Inspectorate recently awarded Barnard Castle School the top rating of ‘excellent’ for both ‘Academic Achievement’ and ‘Personal Development’. This achievement follows the introduction of ‘A Barney Education’, a bespoke approach to developing a dynamic curriculum for its 730 pupils, aged four to 18. ‘Barney’, as the school is affectionately known, provides an inspirational, compassionate and unpretentious environment in which young people develop character, becoming confident, resilient, intellectually curious, tolerant and driven, with an undercurrent of humility, leaving them ideally placed to thrive in a rapidly changing world. ‘This was a rigorous and comprehensive inspection and we are unbelievably proud of the outcome, which is validation of everything we endeavour to do,’ says headmaster Tony Jackson. ‘It is a pleasure to work alongside so many talented professionals and be part of such a special, unique community, and we are excited about what the future holds for our school.’

As Frank Thompson takes on his new role at Windermere School, he too is acknowledging the challenges pupils are facing. ‘We all know how uncertain the future is but it also holds great possibilities,’ he reflects. ‘The rate of change in technology is accelerating and it is essential that we harness it for the good of all, and that we learn to live more in tune with our surroundings. It is vital that young people enjoy their learning because being educated in a happy environment is the surest way to motivate them to want to take on these challenges and be excited by them. Part of our job, working in a school, is to listen to young people too. We need to hear their hopes as well as their concerns, and respond to each.’ At Windermere the pastoral system is an important part of school life and staff ensure there is plenty of open contact with parents at all times. ‘As the school year gets underway it is an exciting time with so much ahead of us, but if there is one thing I have learnt in my career, it is how fast the months can fly by and so we need to plan carefully to make the best use of the time. Each week will therefore be busy with many events and activities and we will be helping the pupils and students learn to plan their own learning so that they can manage their time better. Whilst they will have all the support from us they need, we will also be helping them to become the leaders of their own learning journeys.’

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