This is the Cotswolds People Podcast brought to you by Alastair James Insurance Brokers.
My name’s Alastair and throughout this podcast, I’m going to be speaking with a variety of very special guests from the worlds of business, sport, music, literature, politics, and many more, all of whom have a connection to the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty.
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This week, I’m joined by Eve Jardine-Young, who is the principal of the internationally acclaimed Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
In this wide-ranging chat, which we recorded over Zoom, we discuss how the school deals with the important issues of mental health and wellbeing and how the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and traditionally male-dominated industries are promoted within the school and how the school plays such an important role in the local Cheltenham and Cotswolds community. But we go straight in with how the school has been adapting to remote learning and trying to deliver virtual learning and planning for its international pupils in various different time zones around the world during the coronavirus pandemic.
It has been an extraordinary time. It really has; it really has, and still in it, as you say. Much to learn, lots to reflect on. I suppose that we’re trying to live and work in three different timeframes. One is the immediate here and now, like what does next week look like? And then in every school you’re so driven by the rigidities of the academic yearly cycle: This is the term dates. This is Christmas. This is Easter. This is the public exam period. There’s this sort of huge national synchronicity around those. It’s almost like a tide going in and out. Are we in the school holidays? Are we out of the school holidays? The whole country is slightly going into the gravitational pull of these periods of time, which are entirely man-made constructs and relatively arbitrary. They’re just there for historical reasons. But it means that your institutional inertia and your ability to be agile and flex; we’ve got to make the decisions now that will affect not just a week, three months, but they’ll affect almost 15 months. And when you haven’t got accurate sight line much further than the end of next week, it’s really hard.
So how are you managing that in terms of the pupils that are coming through that were going to start for the first time in September, perhaps thinking about how they’re going to start? Is that something you’ve had to really look at completely differently?
Yes. I mean, well, all of our experiences probably since March, it’s just sort of vertical learning curve. Because we have 47 different countries of residence represented by the pupil body, as soon as the very first cases appeared anywhere in the world, we had somebody somewhere who was affected by it that was part of our community.
So that was really January. And we began probably by mid-February to have almost nightly meetings. I’m going to say COBRA. It’s a ridiculous over-exaggeration but COBRA-style meetings in school with the key personnel, just to try and make sure that we were completely on top of what Public Health England was saying and what the sight line might be, and then talk through all of the implications as to what we might need to adjust by way of policies to allow for girls to get home if other countries were starting to close borders and then canceling flights, shifting flights.
So really even before the famous 23rd of March lockdown, we sort of felt as if we were in the grip of it to some degree. And that gave us quite a good sight line in of what we were going to be contending with, if I’m honest, whereas in talking to a few of my local peer heads who are just brilliant, brilliant people, they were certainly aware of it. There’s no question of that. But the letters to the parents began really that week rather than almost two months before.
So yeah, it’s a fascinating process, and it has been very, very instructive because you have to translate everything that you do as very best you can online in basically in two weeks. And if we were in a perfect world, you would probably have two years to plan that intentionally and say, “Right, we’re going to go digital. We’re going to test this.” You’d have working groups. You’d work with people who’ve done this before, or had expertise probably to advise you. You’d then have a focus group. You’d then beta-test everything. Then you’d roll out a training program and that would be Year One. And then everyone would know what was happening in Year Two is implementation. But we had no option. You take everyone home in two weeks, and you stay teaching, and the kids stay learning as best they can. And you realise that actually you’ve done it. It’s not perfect. It’s all a bit wrinkly, and there are some misshapen dimensions here and there, but it’s actually quite encouraging because you realise what people are capable of doing. And it tends to bring the superhero out in people when there’s a shared crisis. So phenomenal effort of people just rallying and trying to dig deep and get over their fears and their worries over what they felt was their lack of technical competency, so boot camp on how to use Teams and how to film yourself and how to upload stuff. And often staff want to translate the very best practice that they have perfected over years. They want to get to that level of delivery in two weeks, which you can’t necessarily do. I think we’ve learnt a great deal about how to optimise the online experience, as opposed to just how to deliver it. You can certainly do stuff, but how can you make that really, really good and really effective? And it needs to be thought about in a different way to the actual classroom when everybody’s there in person.
And actually, like you say, some people don’t feel comfortable speaking on camera, do they? So it might be something that they feel very uncomfortable where they just have to get used to it, very much one of these things that you learn as you go along. And I imagine if you look back at everyone, like say, in March, to where they’re at now, that everyone’s probably impressed themselves how they’ve come on.
Absolutely, absolutely, Alastair. I think probably whilst the shared experience, not just across the school, but probably in almost every household, most families were going through this as well. So mum or dad or both were also having to work from home. It wasn’t just the kids that were being sent home; it’s that we’re all at home. So probably with hindsight, there’ll be some very amusing sitcoms written about this, about who’s printing out from the printer, making a racket, while someone’s trying to have a very important meeting.
And you said about the learning for the pupils. Do you think that will change in terms of how pupils learn? Obviously, they’ve probably had to be a bit more independent themselves in perhaps how they learn. Is that something, do you think, will change, perhaps?
Yes. I mean, the good thing in a way is I think the internal culture of our school is, as far as possible, a fairly sort of healthy, self-critical review as the normal culture. So everything that we do, usually we try and ask ourselves… There’s no smugness. It’s sort of, “Could that have been better?” Even if it was pretty good, how could it have been better? So I think we had the right cultural preconditions for that as an organisation. And definitely, I know from speaking to other heads as well that a lot of people are really thinking there are some fantastically transformational things that have happened with this, that we would never have got everybody over the line in this speed with this level of buy-in had we not had this urgency and the imperative of, “There’s basically no option.” We mustn’t lose the momentum of that. So from the perspective of the pupils, I think some of them have surprised themselves. I think some of them have had a bit of a bumpy ride of panic and anxiety and, “How will I cope?” And then actually they realise bit by bit, step by step, that they are coping and that it’s going to be right. It’s just different. It’s not what you’re conditioned to, but it’s something else, but actually you can do all of these things.
So it’s encouraged, I think, a lot more one-to-one interpersonal understanding. I mean, we took the decision to not furlough our pastoral team of house mistresses, even though the resident boarding care, obviously, the girls are not here. We thought it was fairly unlikely the government would allow for boarding to fully reopen again this term, as indeed is proving to be the case. But we thought we wouldn’t furlough house mistresses because actually that pastoral care of that one-to-one is about a relationship. It’s actually being a mentor, understanding what’s going on in their life, having that trust and being able to challenge them and sometimes have the difficult conversations with them to pick themselves up and keep going, or maybe there’s really help that they need.
So I think it’s revealed, Alastair, if I’m honest, that we have… It’s what makes working here a very, very rich experience, is we have a huge diversity of families. And a number of those families are working in very, very challenging conditions, ranging from very rural, hardly any broadband. We had one girl who said, “I just can’t get to all these online lessons because it’s lambing season, I’ve got to be out there lambing.” It’s literally all hands to the pumps, so goodness, of all the things you expect of why we can’t come to our math lesson. But for that family, that is a reality.
And elsewhere, it might be that you’re eight hours away in a time zone. So you’re struggling to still be awake at 2:00 in the morning or indeed wake up at 4:00 AM in order to be part of a lesson if you’re living in Mexico. But largely, we’ve done our online teaching through Teams, and we have offered a blend of live interaction, pre-recorded material, recording lessons so that if girls have to tune in when they wake up when that lesson has happened, because they’ve been asleep, they can replay the lesson, and try and keep everybody on track even though they’re literally spread out all over the world. It’s not perfect, and there are some girls who really have struggled for a variety of circumstances. I’m sure that’s true in every school. But each week, it’s like a ratchet effect up. The baseline of capability gets a bit higher. Everybody’s confidence gets a bit better. We’ve all finally got over ourselves with the horror of looking at ourselves on the screen all day in a small tile, gradually, eventually, and people are coming off camera and starting to talk. Certainly, I think in modern teaching environments you will very often see the teacher saying, “Okay, it’s not the sage on the stage talking at the class. This is about you being a facilitator of their learning and them having ownership of that process much more in terms of the pedagogy and collaboration.” So we’ve been able to create now channels within Teams, which is the equivalent of saying, “Right, break into groups of four and talk about this for three or four minutes.” Then you actually, virtually, you can pull everybody back in for a plenary.
So once we’ve understood actually what the capabilities of the tech are, the people in those smaller groups, they are less worried also about speaking over each other. In a classroom, you might have hands up. There might be two people talking at once. But that’s very unlikely to happen on screen. For some reason, in two dimensions, people are a little bit more courteous. There’s some netiquette going on. So trying to get the energy and keep the pace can also be quite challenging at times.
Yeah. And you always get the delay online, don’t you? It’s a lot stop-start, isn’t it, and then, “After you.” “Oh, no, you go on.”
And there’s a lot of where everyone’s now… Mostly, they’re putting up the hand icon, which a lot of this translates quite well into the classroom reflexes, to be honest.
Yeah. And you mentioned a lot people were worried. I guess for your sixth formers, the ones that were sitting A levels and then going on to university, that must’ve been a very difficult time for them to plan and prepare what they’re doing.
For sure. I mean, Alastair, I think nowadays… I grew up in the 1980s, and I left school in 1990, 30 years ago. There was that sort of recession in the UK, ‘90 to ‘92. And often we know and unemployment tends to be the lagging indicator behind growth. I think for this experience, we’re going to have all sorts of bizarre trends now, but the anxiety about being employable and is it worth the cost of going nowadays with the fees, obviously, to higher education, student debt and all the rest of it. And then the worries about internships and the price of the housing market, and “Will I be employed? Will I get a job afterwards?”
So there are already some really big structural challenges I think for young people. One of the symptoms of which is you’ve got a lot of people in their 20s who are still at home with their parents either permanently, or at least in the majority, they haven’t really left home yet just because of those cost burdens and those challenges. I think the the graduating class of 2020, who are in all our schools leaving school for this year, if it’s possible to experience intense relief and intense anticlimax all at the same time, I think that’s probably what they’re feeling, which would seem… the contradictory feelings. There will be a small handful who think, “Oh, thank God, thank God, thank God, thank God. The act of God has spared me having to go in that wretched exam room. I hate exams. I don’t suit exams. I don’t want to do it yet. This is my worst nightmare.” Well, they’ve been spared the experience of sitting them, but even if you’re not comfortable about that prospect, there is also that sense that you’ve been preparing for something. And I’m imagining the Olympic athletes must feel like this too, with the postponement of the Olympics, that you prepare for so long for something that in your life, at least, is a very big deal, and then it sort of disappears into the sand underneath you. And then you think, “What am I going to do with myself? I’ve got all these reflexes and keyed up and what…” The spinning top goes a little bit off the rails at that point.
So we always do stay in touch with our alumni and do our very best to be here for them even one year, two year, three, four years after they’ve left. If they need any guidance or advice or plugging into our alumni network, we have a professional guidance center team who hold all of that communications really as a hub. And we really hope that our graduates of this year will draw as heavily as they need to on that backup.
But I’m sensing that there is also some deep reflection going on at the moment, and probably among parents and families, not just kids. It’s all of us, isn’t it, as a society, thinking, “What is out of balance in our lives with the paths that we were all on? Are they actually really the paths that bring us purpose and meaning and fulfillment and contentment, and actually, is this what we want?” So what we all kind of return to might not be exactly where we were headed in the first place. I don’t know.
Yeah. I mean, I think, Alastair, what’s going to be very interesting in terms of the universities, is that the UK, if I call it UK PLC, UK education PLC, is something that has been attractive to people in other countries. And people have been willing to come over here for either a school education as a boarder and/or a higher education after that post-18. At the moment, at least, there looks to be a number of impediments in the way of that being a smooth process. So can people get visas? If they’re enrolling in a two- or three- or four-year program, are they confident they will get a visa every year adequately to be sure they can finish it, that they cannot just come through the door on day one, but will they be allowed to finish the whole course? Otherwise, it’s very abortive and disruptive for them.
And what’s the availability of international flights? Because when you look at the proportion of the world’s airlines, aircraft are just on the ground at the moment, and very unclear as to the financial viability of the airline industry to go anywhere near back to what we would all have recognised in February anytime soon. And then what will the cost of the flights be? Because when those flights start to be reinstated, if there’s significant spacing required within the cabin and your actual number of passenger headcount is much lower than it would normally be, then I’m imagining that the price of the fares will be reflected accordingly.
So all of those are factors that are almost like the complementary goods you buy. When you buy the British education, you buy the transport, the travel, the transits, the hotels, whatever you need to do to get there and then get back again, and overlay on top of that, possibilities of the quarantine, either coming into the UK, or even if it’s not that, at some stage, when you go home, wherever you go home to might impose a quarantine on you coming back from the UK. So you could find yourself with an extra 28 days of time as the bookend at either end of your just flying home for the Christmas holidays or something, which starts to feel very clunky and almost unworkable.
The binary option is you just stay here for months and months and months and months and months, and you don’t see your family, or you don’t go home. And you pay the cost here of that additional accommodation. So I think we’re at a really, really crucial point of inflection in the 10-year piece around how much support we can give to those families and students who really want to be here and want to contribute to the UK economy, obviously, but equally, they bring a great deal to our international-mindedness and our understanding of the world. They add a great deal of value by their presence.
So what we’re trying to do is talk, first of all, talk to all of our international families. We have a school roll of about 840 girls, and 200 of them have to get on a plane to get here, typically, even if that’s just from the Channel Islands. Some of those flights are very, very short, but it’s still quite a large number. If necessary, we will be helping them to perhaps join with other groups of boarders coming back into other schools elsewhere in the UK, and think at what point do you collectively do they charter an aircraft and just get over here? So it’s pushing the envelope and thinking, What if there are barriers here?” As you said, if Plan A is not working, do we sit in the road like a water buffalo and chew the cud and say, “Oh, poor me,” victimhood? Or do you actually say, “Okay, let’s think in a more pioneering spirit way, what are the alternatives? How possible is it to do those? We can’t do those alone, but can we do those collectively if we join up and we start talking to people that we normally probably wouldn’t be talking to about these things?” But needs must.
So I think that’s quite a creative space then for us, for everybody to be in. You think, “What is the art of the possible?” And there are some quite imaginative thoughts being explored at the moment.
Yeah, definitely. I think it was Bob Marley that said you can either dance in the rain or get wet.
Absolutely. Oh, that is wonderful. Yes. Now I’m going to channel the Bob Marley spirit of the dancing. We’ve got to give it a go. We’ve got to. We can’t just wave the white flag, can we?
Exactly. And I guess for your pupils as well… I was going to talk to you about social media. I guess at a time like now it’s really useful for all the girls to stay in touch with their friends. In times like this, it must be a real blessing to them all.
Yep, I think you’re right, Alastair. I think the feelings of potential isolation of people who maybe are an only child, actually, and may not have peer-aged people at home and/or are just relatively reclusive or indeed do not like their siblings, that the immediacy of that, and being plugged into your network of buddies and pals and friends and the wider acquaintance is definitely been a psychological kind of cushion and safety net against those feelings of being isolated, provided, of course, you have broadband or signal or enough credit on your phone and your ability to communicate doesn’t somehow expire on you, which would be the end of the world.
But I think what’s interesting is if you’ve spent five or six hours a day on-screen learning or doing essays or writing or doing your work, then to do yet more hours holding your phone in one hand with your super-fast thumb is maybe less of a novelty and just more screen time. So I certainly think it’s there and it’s being used, but I’m just noticing the difference in the balance of your time. Whereas when you’re just in classes all day, it really feels that that’s different time and how you communicate with your friends. But you’ve actually been using technology all day to be in lessons with all your buddies as well. So it may lose some of its appeal over time, and people are reinventing and I think probably re-appreciating the conversations they have with their own families. Because so many of the adults around have been having to commute and travel and get up and out, and maybe you don’t really get to talk much over breakfast. You certainly might not talk at lunch at all because you just none of you are at home. And then in the evenings, there’s all sorts of different arrival times of everybody back, and you may not have a shared meal.
So I think that’s extraordinary because there will be memories that people take through with them from this time into years in the future, which will, I sense, feature more of those conversations that particularly in the teenage years are not always easy or welcome, because we don’t always agree with each other, do we, but probably really formative and important. And when you push through the discomfort barriers, all the barriers of, “We haven’t had many deep conversations for the last X months,” you find your way into a different plateau of opportunity to relate to each other, and you haven’t got the pressure of “Somebody’s on their way out to do something,” which often truncates the quality of the conversation, or in fact, people avoid the difficult stuff. So that I think probably only time will tell where all of that has taken us as a society that time.
Brilliant. And you mentioned as well about people coming to the school. In terms of the Cheltenham and the Cotswolds, for people or the international students, a lot of them would’ve heard… The Ladies’ College does have an international standing. The area itself, though, are people aware of Cheltenham and the Cotswolds, and do you push that and sell the area for prospective families?
I mean, Alastair, to be honest, I think Cheltenham and its location in the Cotswolds are tremendous, tremendous assets. I mean, it is really a wonderful town. It’s not as overwhelming as London as a city, perhaps, in terms of size and scale. We’ve got incredible cultural richness with the festivals and lots of mini-festivals as well, not just the big pull that everybody would recognise in the form of literature, jazz music, science, but also comedy and film and food, and all sorts of… poetry, so two-day festivals here and there that are fabulous and create that sort of sense of a very engaged… not just people who live here, but also drawing in others who might come from further afield.
I think the future of Cheltenham’s quite interesting because I taught economics A level for many years, and if you look at the demographic of Cheltenham in terms of where the – well, post-COVID, everything might change – but let’s say life before COVID. There is a bit of an aging population, and the question rightly has been asked, “What is Cheltenham 2050 going to look like when the retirement age might be higher?” Because we can’t all afford to keep drawing pensions at the rate we are and so on and so forth.
And actually, who is living in Cheltenham? Who is Cheltenham for? And actually, have young people found that they’ve been priced out, or that they’ve left, or that they just didn’t have enough pull factors to keep them? But there’s been a lot of work. A lot of work is underway to really face into the headwinds of that and question it, examine it and try and create that sense of community for younger people and families that is really appealing.
So I think it’s a beautiful area. Personall, my husband and I feel very, very privileged to live here. I can’t speak highly enough of it. I think once people come and visit and they see and they recognise what its qualities are, then they are really sold. So we do a lot on open days and things like that to make sure that people don’t just look at a prospectus and make a decision that they… We try and get them to come and actually visit us if we can.
The whole package. Yeah, absolutely. And how do you see the Ladies’ College being a part of that community in terms of contributing and such like?
Yeah, I mean, we’ve got partnerships with 26 local organisations. We’ve had links with five, six, seven primary schools, quite a number of the local care homes, Lilian Faithfull homes, which are named after our third principal, who was a very passionate lady in terms of her purpose and care. But we’ve been thinking very hard about what that service and what that contribution, which has been three/four hundred hours a week might look like when our access to each other’s spaces is restricted. So can we go to care homes in the same way? Can a bunch of senior-school-age peoples go into a primary school and help with reading and help with literacy, numeracy, things that they’ve done for years and enjoyed very much?
We might find that those are restricted. So rather than sit here in June and think, “Well, it might be difficult,” we’re thinking, “Well, let’s reinvent what volunteering might look like, for one, at least, in a format that can survive the restrictions of maybe a second lockdown, maybe some quite rigid restrictions in place with shielding for a while.” And therefore, there must be other ways and other formats.
The girls have been fantastic in terms of coming up with what those ideas might be. But I think we need to be communicating as much as we can with potential future partners as well. And if anybody’s got any ideas or needs that they think that we could be helpful with, we would love to hear from them.
That sounds really good. It’s very much, isn’t it, just day-by-day, week-by-week basis and contributing and taking feedback and just trying to make the best end of it.
I think you and I were in correspondence earlier about STEM, actually, about science. The cyber piece around Cheltenham’s future is something that we’re really interested in. And we are keeping an eye on… watch this space, very much like to play a part in that in due course, if we can. But I trained originally as a structural engineer before I came to teaching. I have always felt very passionately that girls are well suited to engineering and very good problem-solvers, very good team players, often. It hasn’t always been an industry that has attracted or indeed retained the female participation in the workforce.
So after I’d been here for two or three years, we’ve introduced a faculty called Engineering, Enterprise and Technology here at College where every girl in Year Seven upwards is timetabled to do it. It’s sort of core for everybody at that age. We’ve just literally got one-plus workshops, so it’s quite small. But we’ve got a 3D printer and laser cutters and some great kit. We’ve written our own course really, because I think often people get put off by the physics and the maths, and “This is hard, and “It’s not really for me.” But with the future with AI and also with a huge amount of climate science and big data and the world’s problems, I think there is a potentially very powerful intersection between the issues that matter a lot to women and girls… and men, but I will speak for the girls that I know… that matter a great deal to them and the innovations that are going to be required to fix it, or to take us as a society down an alternative pathway that is not so damaging and that is more sustainable.
I include not just the climate piece. I would include the widening inequalities gap between nations in the world, but also internally within a nation as well. Those are very powerful issues. And engineering and the mental training that engineers have to solve problems from first principles and find ways that are pragmatic and affordable to actually address something, those are qualities and skills that I think are hugely valuable and very transferable.
So we’ve introduced that literally four or five years ago. Since then, we’ve had a number of Arkwright Scholars, which has been fantastic. And girls have entered various Kroto Science Prize and engineering competitions externally and really had some success, so they love it. And even the girls who might not have thought of themselves as being an engineer are finding that they get their sleeves rolled up.
So again, that’s a theme, in terms of science and STEM, we’ve always had a huge strength in the traditional three sciences, and lots of girls every year will go into medicine, into maths, computer science, architecture, or engineering, STEM-related courses, let’s say, as well as languages and arts and humanities. But we would love in the next few years to do more outreach with our STEM for everybody, but I think especially for girls.
So again, if that’s a topic that appeals to anybody listening to this, we’d love to be in a conversation…
It was great to get an insight into how the Ladies’ College is adapting to the current global situation. I’ve spoken to a lot of business owners recently, and for those who have either furloughed staff or implemented the remote working of its staff, the return of its employees is a really big issue in how best to do this.
But when in the case of the Ladies’ College, your setting includes the return of people from all around the world, this clearly creates further obstacles to overcome to ensure what’s best for every individual, both in terms of safety and economically. And you can see how the planning process for this needs to be so fluid and is constantly evolving.
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