Girls' Day School Trust: Where science is a popular choice

The Girls' Day School Trust is readying its pupils for the global economy, says Virginia Matthews
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The Independent Online

Blue-chip companies argue long and hard about the nature of leadership. For instance, is the ability to inspire people innate? They agree that a true leader has intellectual skills and interpersonal flair, and will use contacts to get to the top.

Leadership is very much on the agenda of the 134-year-old Girls' Day School Trust. It is the UK's largest group of independent schools and the Alma Mater of many high-achieving women, such as the former MI5 director-general Dame Stella Rimington, the businesswoman Nicola Horlick, Baroness Bottomley, and Konnie Huq, the first Muslim presenter of Blue Peter.

The trust serves 19,500 pupils between the ages of three and 18 (mostly girls) in 27 schools across England and Wales.

Northampton High School joins the fold in January, and the trust welcomes its first academy next September with the creation of the non-fee-paying Belvedere Academy in Toxteth, Liverpool.

The trust's chief executive, Barbara Harrison, believes that its schools offer advantages in four areas in which a potential leader will shine: a good grasp of science, proficiency at languages, and networking and soft people skills.

The figures for languages and science look good. In 2005, more than 95 per cent of pupils took at least one modern foreign language at GCSE (compared with 58 per cent nationally), and at least two of the schools have introduced Mandarin at primary level, partly to coincide with a new partnership project in China.

More than 17 per cent of pupils studied at least one language at A-level. Harrison believes that girls do better in sciences in a single-sex setting, and the trust's pupils buck the national trend in this area.

As many as 43 per cent of A-level students at the trust's schools take a science subject (biology and chemistry are the most popular subjects, but physics holds its own), and 24 per cent of those who left trust schools in 2005 opted for science, medicine, engineering or a related subject for their degree.

Harrison has strong feelings about what she calls the "national scandal" of under-performance in sciences and languages.

"Girls get a raw deal on the science front. They are still not empowered to see these critical subjects as appropriate career choices."

"Schools put a lot of emphasis on behavioural and social issues, which naturally concern us, too, but the issue of raising intellectual capital in our schools still isn't a major focus."

"By failing to prepare them for leadership, partly by neglecting to instil a lasting passion for languages and sciences, we are, as a nation, selling young people short."

While the trust's schools are predominantly fee-paying, the founding principle that no bright girl should be denied an excellent education still holds true.

What was then the Girls' Public Day School Trust was the largest provider of independent senior school places under the government's old Assisted Places Scheme, which closed in 1997. The trust's bursary and scholarship arrangements continue to make its schools accessible to all able students, Harrison says.

More than 18 per cent of pupils at the trust's senior schools receive a bursary or a scholarship, amounting to some £10m last year.

"We have three very successful prep schools, but we offer a diverse range of opportunities for a wide age range, and our families come from very different backgrounds," she says.

The trust has a 50,000-strong network of alumni here and abroad, and it is keen to exploit its contacts to prepare pupils for life in the global economy.

The trust aims to help all its students develop the presentation, communication and networking skills that will be vital for tomorrow's leaders. But the trust is also keen to build more awareness of its ethos.

"Many of our pupils are at trust schools without necessarily realising it," she says. "Aside from sharing our expertise and our philosophy with other schools - both in the independent and state-school sectors - we want our students to become more aware of the family they have joined and what it is achieving."

Development for its own sake is not an option. "It's great that we are growing and adding vitality and new ideas. But we want to continue to know the whole of our family."

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