Britain's next top (role) model. The schools helping girls find a hero

Last month a university in New York State announced it was launching a course on the sociology of Miley Cyrus. According to its teaching professor, the singer provides the perfect subject for exploring the cultural conflict many of our girls face today. Miley appears to be both in-your-face confident (‘Look at me! I can be whatever I want to be!’) and utterly lost.

Is it getting harder for girls to know who or what they want to be in a landscape of endless opportunities? Who do they look up to when a Google search of the words ‘role model’ returns 223,000,000 results?

On the one hand our daughters see ordinary people being fast-tracked to fame via shows such as the X-Factor and the Apprentice. On the other, they know it takes a great deal of hard work, focus and sacrifice to be the next Jessica Ennis. Their lives are both digitally enhanced (Snapchat, Facebook) and culturally downgraded (Snapchat, Facebook). The internet is their BFF but also makes them feel confused. Growing up in the glare of a computer screen is a challenge.


Policy makers seem to think that closing the gender gap might be the answer to helping girls to work out their place in the world. Last week Education Minister Elizabeth Truss announced a new campaign, Your Life, to try and close the divide between boys and girls in the STEM (science, engineering and maths) sector. Truss’ report states that, at present, the pipeline breaks at the age of sixteen. 50% of pupils taking GCSE physics are girls but that figure plummets to 2% at A-level. It’s a decent campaign and, yes, we should encourage girls not to give up things they are good at. Yes, there may also be more real job opportunities in the world of science labs rather than glossy magazines. But how do politically savvy young women reconcile the “mind the gap” advice with the fact that there are only three women in the current Cabinet and no mothers for the first time since 1992. So far, so confusing.


Schools are working hard to make girls’ journey through the modern world much easier. Helen Fraser, Chief Executive of the Girls' Day School Trust (GDST), says we mustn’t underestimate the role schools play in loco parentis and the positive impact the school environment can have on a girls’ sense of security and place. She is a passionate advocate for schools being a safe environment – refuge even – and, in addition to exposing girls to strong and inspirational role models from wider society, says that GSDT policy is that staff and head teachers model the behaviours and attitudes they want pupils to develop.

“As a mother of two girls and two step-daughters, I know that girls tend to be hard-wired to please,” she says. “Girls can feel the weight of self-expectation, and they can put themselves under immense pressure. Their social skills are advanced when they are small, but that makes them daunted if things go wrong. The right school builds self-esteem by focusing on increasing girls’ resilience and encouraging them to take risks.”

Fraser goes on to talk about schools such as the Royal High School and Wimbledon High School giving equal weight to ‘Blow Your Own Trumpet Week’, when girls are encouraged to talk about achievements and challenge the perception that talking about success is arrogant, and ‘Failure Week’, the highlight of which is inviting visiting speakers to talk about their experience of failure and the way many successful have bounced back from failure. “We need to show our young people that you don’t just parachute in to success, and you may have to overcome disasters along the way.”

She cites Mary Berry and Mary Beard as GSDT alumnae and inspirational role models, while Philippa Bolton, a descendant of one of the leading suffragettes, Emily Wilding Davison, and Dame Claire Bertschinger, the nurse and activist whose work in Ethopia in the 1980s inspired the Live Aid Campaign, both spoke at recent GDST events.

So perhaps Miley, while not a Mary B (either on baking or historical counts), has traits we would be wrong to dismiss outright. For a while after the foam finger/MTV debacle she appeared to own the epic fail hash tag – but she’s bounced back. An Ofsted inspector might identify her a resilient learner.


What can we do as parents to help our daughters find their heroes? How do we steer young women with (shape shifting) stars in their eyes?

“I feel it’s my duty to point out interesting and different people to my daughter,” says Judy, whose 12-year-old started at an all girls’ state school in the South West last September. “We might be watching Countryfile and there is a guest discussing grass seeds. I draw her attention to it; I want to feed her imagination and show her that there is not just one type of cool, or one way to make your mark on the world. There are a million and one ways to finish the sentence, ‘When I grow up I want to be...’ but that can be both wonderful and terrifying! There has to be a balance between opening her mind and helping her focus.”

A recent eHow article suggested parents do four things to help girls focus on respected role models:

1. Look to the past (think women who have made their mark on history)

2. Look to literature (fabulous females are never far away on the pages of a book)

3. Look to the news (teenage campaigners; ordinary people doing extraordinary things)

4. Look to your family (learn about the women in your family tree and the contributions they made to their communities and families. Remember: you don't have to change the whole world to make your mark.)


How do you want your girl to grow up? What are the qualities you want to instil in her? If you could choose one role model for her, who would it be?

We’d love to compile School Guide’s Top Ten Modern Role Models for Girls with your feedback.

Please share your thoughts with us on Have Your Say below.