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Stand-up comedy lessons to give girls confidence? You're having a laugh

By Jane Graham

Published 12/06/2015

Rowdy behaviour: the girls at St Trinian’s
Rowdy behaviour: the girls at St Trinian’s

Girls should be more disruptive in class, said the headlines this week. I was immediately intrigued. This is an instinct I felt strongly when I was at school. My secondary school was a tough place to be stand-out disruptive in - the boys who ripped up books, threw bricks through classroom windows and ended their academic life abruptly due to guilty verdicts in their armed robbery trials made it hard for the rest of us to shine in the audacity department.

Still, I had a go. Inspired by Malory Towers, the Enid Blyton series about life at an all-girls boarding school, I placed fake ink blots over the teacher's desk (it didn't occur that Biros don't produce large globlets of shiny ink) and once led a student coup, threatening our chemistry teacher if he didn't show us how to make a stink bomb, we would down tools for a week.

I was quite proud of that one, which saw me sent off to the headmaster with a letter stating what a bad influence I was. Yes, the lustre of my rebellion was a tad diminished by the fact that I duly delivered the letter. But the thought was there.

This week's headlines about disruptive girls going on to be corporate high-fliers turned out to cover a complex and sometimes dubious debate. Helen Fraser, CEO of the Girls Day School's Trust (GDST), wasn't suggesting girls set fire to dictionaries during grammar lessons, but that they were motivated to "intellectually question, take risks and develop innovative ways of doing things". She highlighted some things the fee-paying private all-girl schools in the GDST had encouraged; rock-climbing, public speaking, stand-up comedy.

It's easy for those of us whose kids attend the local comp to laugh at just how far into the clouds Helen's ivory tower stretches. Stand-up comedy and rock-climbing are not on offer at most of our schools. Many of her examples of disruption and risk-taking are actually about indulging in power-enhancing pursuits.

The credibility of her attention-grabbing soundbite about emboldening girls to be "less compliant" suffered a blow when a BBC presenter, whose child attends one of her GDST schools, said he'd recently had a call from a teacher complaining that his daughter's skirt was half-an-inch shorter than the establishment guidelines.

And where do I start on the problems around teaching girls to be courageous and push themselves in the cosseted GDST environment - devoid of the gender who are snaffling up the big-boss jobs in the real world.

On the other hand, there is something valuable in Fraser's argument. As she noted, boys generally take up 60%-70% of classroom airtime in a mixed gender class and are more likely to challenge the teacher's status of infallibility than their female peers. And whether they perform less well academically or not, men do go on to fill the vast proportion of top jobs in almost every walk of life.

Women too often start requests with a "Sorry" and tip-toe warily up to instructions with weasel words and phrases like "I wondered if you could possibly" and "It won't take more than a wee minute". This leaves the impression that they are not management material, that power overwhelms them.

We should encourage girls to ask firmly, to state grievances clearly and without apology and to articulately tell a room why they think a popular policy is actually rubbish.

Rock-climbing might not be the answer, but if our schools were less focused on uniformity and staff willing to respect "intellectual questioning" from female teachers' pets, we might turn out a few more women world-beaters.

Mums-to-be need all the information

I'm delighted the NHS are considering a more accurate pregnancy blood test for Down's syndrome, less likely to end in miscarriage than the current amniocentesis.

I was very angry when I discovered my doctor in Belfast hadn't informed me about all my test choices during pregnancy because "you can't have an abortion here, anyway".

It's crucial that women are offered as much information about likely conditions their babies may have. Not so they can abort them (though I believe that choice should be available in any case), but so that they can be calm, prepared and confident when that child is born. No doctor has the right to decide otherwise.

Benedict didn't deserve his gong

I love Benedict Cumberbatch for all sorts of reasons, only some of them respectable. I've reached the point where I'll irrationally defend him regardless of what he does. So I won't criticise him for accepting his CBE in the new set of Queen's Honours, but I confess I'm disappointed that such an outspoken critic of numerous Establishment injustices has rolled over to have his tummy stroked in this way.

For me, honours should be reserved for people who have behaved with selfless kindness, or courage. Not for those lucky enough to be extremely talented or, in "Sir" Lenny bloomin' Henry's case, for being famous for many years.

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