What was your experience of school and what led you to teaching?
I went to a state school and then a sixth form college and although I enjoyed both, class sizes were big and the co-curricular offerings were limited. I was quite musical when I was younger and when I was 15 I was given the opportunity to teach younger children the piano to earn some pocket money, which I absolutely loved. When I went to university, I taught English as a foreign language during the summer holidays and I spent a year in Prague teaching before I embarked on my PGCE. I come from a long line of teachers in my family so you could say that teaching is very much in my blood.
Before your appointment as Head of Sydenham High School, had you taught at an all-girls school?
Yes. I am a firm advocate of all-girls schools where girls can be themselves and have the confidence to succeed in all that they do. Learning to be resilient and free from the fear of failure are important aspects of education and having self-belief, alongside a ‘can do’ approach to every aspect of school life, enables girls to thrive, succeed and be happy.
In your view do single-sex schools benefit the pupils and deliver better exam results?
In my experience, yes, and that is also borne out by current evidence. Knowing how girls learn and understanding girls is vital and this knowledge applied in a school setting means that teachers can get the very best out of their pupils. Boys and girls learn differently, and sometimes in a co-educational environment it will be the boys who will be prepared to take the risks in learning, rather than the girls. There is plenty of evidence to show that in a single sex environment some of those barriers to learning are removed in a girls-only setting. Allowing girls to be themselves and have confidence in all that they do is imperative and in a girls-only setting stereotypes and pre-conceived expectations fly out of the window. In such a setting girls will be more likely to put themselves forward, outstrip expectations and have that inner strength to excel in all that they do.
Do you have a vision for the school and pupils under your guidance?
Absolutely. To make it the very best educational experience for every single pupil and to take everything we do at Sydenham High School to that next level. We offer our pupils a first-class education with the highest standards in the classroom and exciting opportunities beyond the classroom in an environment that inspires our pupils to be the very best they can be, in all that they do.
What do you see as the challenges of the future for young women?
I believe it is really important that the girls we teach and educate are inspired and encouraged to aim high, regardless of the profession they choose to enter. There are still far too many sectors where women are under-represented but it is our job to help them break into these areas and ensure that they have the strength and confidence to do so. There are many wonderful and inspirational female role models out there, and we need to ensure that we continue to inspire the girls in our care. Social media also potentially poses a challenge and although significant headway has been made in this area, there needs to be a much stronger female voice online, and one which does not have a detrimental impact on young women. Being part of a network of schools through the Girls’ Day School Trust strengthens opportunities and possibilities for our pupils.
Meridian talks to Katharine Woodcock the new Headmistress of
Sydenham High School GDST
With your experience of working in all-girl schools have you gained a personal philosophy for teaching girls?
Yes. Girls need to be understood. You need to take the time to know and understand a girl in order to tap into her potential and help her gain that inner-strength to be whomever she would like to be. Knowing how a girl’s mind works, and in particular understanding the female teenage brain, is crucial. My philosophy for teaching girls is simple: get to know her; nurture, encourage, praise and challenge her, and make her believe that everything and anything is possible. Encouraging girls to accept who they are is also paramount so that they can prosper and believe in themselves.
Recently a team of Sydenham High sixth formers became central London finalist in the National Young Enterprise Competition with their innovative design, is it important for girls to be competitive?
Yes, I do believe a competitive spirit is important. I also believe in the importance of our school motto ‘Fear Nothing’ as this lies at the heart of all we do at Sydenham High. By fearing nothing, you are far more likely to have a go, or take a risk and this is a crucial component of learning as well as innovation. Win or lose, it is the experience that matters. Whilst we want our girls to succeed we also want them to be comfortable about making mistakes, getting things wrong and about losing. They need to realise that they may do well in some things and not in others and that they will not always be judged upon the end result but rather on how they got there. Having the grit, determination and resilience to keep going in all that you do will strengthen your resolve to reach your goals; being competitive can be healthy and productive and of course conducive to greater success.
Our Young Enterprise team worked with a group of boys from Dulwich College and their collective endeavours were instrumental to their success. The achievements of our students are extraordinary and demonstrate the independence of mind, drive and self-belief and innovative spark we are so eager to encourage here at Sydenham High School, and reflect the many strengths of our Sixth Form. Their competitive spirit took them far and they are to be congratulated on their success.