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A farewell to perfectionism and embracing the "F" word

Judith Carlisle, Head of Oxford High School, on unhelpful perfectionism hampering growth, both intellectually and creatively

"OHS students begin to appreciate that the further one goes in academia, the less likely it is that an answer will be correct or perfect"

Is perfectionism ever helpful? Should we ever celebrate failure? These were questions considered by delegates when I spoke at the 2016 Global Forum on Girls' Education in New York in February. With my fellow GDST Head, Jane Lunnon from Wimbledon High School, we shared our expertise in changing mind-sets in the school community to encourage girls to learn from failure and wave goodbye to perfectionism.

This Global Forum brought together leading educators, researchers, advocates, authors and practitioners from across the globe to exchange best practices and innovative approaches for the healthy development of girls, and it was thrilling to realise that what I had started working on two years ago at Oxford High, now has a truly international platform.


This journey from my initial interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to talk about the concept of challenging unhelpful perfectionism (the Death of Little Miss Perfect) to speaking at the a global conference of leaders in education has been an opportunity to champion a fundamental shift in helping girls develop into happy, healthy and high-achieving young women who can also be influential contributors in the global economy of the future.

Our work at Oxford High School has always been rooted in research, notably that of Roz Shafran, Professor of Translational Psychology at the UCL Institute of Child Health and Professor Erica McWilliam, Adjunct Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation in Queensland, Australia . The concept of unhelpful perfectionism hampers growth, both intellectually and creatively, and young adults fear taking risks or lean towards not doing something unless it’s going to be right. This erodes self-esteem or, worse, means that self-respect is disproportionately dependent on striving and achievement. It is no surprise then that this can often lead to patterns of behaviour such as anxiety, procrastination, self-harm and eating disorders.

Here at Oxford High, this philosophy is now embedded within our strategic planning. Our firm belief in this approach manifests itself in the way that we teach and the way our school puts girls first as its core value. We have programmes to support student and staff well-being which are designed to complement high performance, we have a Happiness strand to our Strategic Plan and we have introduced a Cognitive Behavioural Coaching pilot scheme for both staff and students.

I believe that we must help young women develop a sense of their own internal validation. We lead this in school via specific activities to tackle unhelpful perfectionism. Pupils reflect on how to be kind to themselves and grow their self-respect and confidence and to nurture their sense of adventure and fun through challenging the norm. We believe in developing their elasticity of mind. OHS students begin to appreciate that the further one goes in academia, the less likely it is that an answer will be correct or perfect. As teachers, we design learning activities which require students to experience the complex, the unfamiliar and the not yet resolved answers. We want our girls to understand that failure is a normal thing to happen in life and it is how we deal with it that counts - whether that’s a teacher sharing her (seven!) attempts to pass her driving test, a scientific experiment that may go completely wrong, trying out for a football or cricket team if they have only played netball before or having a go at a completely new EPQ topic because, simply, it’s something they’ve always wanted to explore.

Interestingly, we are seeing the results of this approach to building resilience come to fruition in our exam performance. Last year’s GCSE results saw 94.5% of the girls rated which was a considerable increase of 4% from 2014. More important to me is that a recent parental survey showed a huge percentage of our parents felt that we exceeded their expectations - with our care of their daughters rated very highly indeed.

I ended my talk in NY with a slide of a floating armadillo basking in a warm river. Why you may ask? Well, the current buzz word for ‘resilience’ is now ‘buoyancy’ and I was seeking to visualise how an armoured, combative creature will always have a soft, vulnerable underbelly to protect, and knowing how to balance both features of your personality really is the best route to buoyancy!


- Judith Carlisle, Head of Oxford High School


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