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Jill Berry: Five things I have learned

29 January 10 10:51 GMT

Head teacher and past president of the Girls' Schools Association Jill Berry describes five of the most important things she has learned, in our new occasional series.


Name: Jill Berry

Position: Head of Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford, 2009 president of the Girls' Schools Association. She has been a teacher for 30 years, 10 of those as a head and has worked in six schools.

Born: South Yorkshire, 1959

Educated: Wath on Dearne Comprehensive, Manchester University.

Family life: Married "for many years", no children.

1. Single-sex education works. It works really well for girls. Girls in a girls' school learn differently and work differently. Focussing on the way girls think and learn things builds girls' confidence and enables them to achieve highly. That's why some co-ed schools are looking at single sex teaching.

2. Women can be particularly hard on themselves and can also be harsh and judgemental about one another. We give ourselves a hard time. I don't know why - whether it's generic or cultural. We too often say we can't do something unless proved otherwise while boys think the opposite.

I came in for a lot of criticism recently - especially from women - when I talked about women having it all. There was a letter in The Guardian from a group of women scientists criticising what I had said. When I sent them my whole speech they seemed better to understand what I was really saying. I never suggested women shouldn't aim high and succeed but I did say we need support and we shouldn't feel guilty about the choices we make. Your words will always get distorted in the media.

Women can be wonderfully supportive of each other, but can be very unforgiving. When girls fall out there is sometimes no way back. They can be very reluctant to forgive each other. With boys, the next moment they will be playing football.

The "having it all' debate is a really interesting one and we should think about how we prepare girls, the girls of today to be the women of tomorrow. And a lot of men are not happy with their work-life balance either.

We ought to try to be more forgiving of ourselves and one another.

3. Relationships are what it's all about. They are the key to happiness. If people do not get relationships in their personal and work lives right, they are not going to be happy. If we're not careful, the "happiness agenda" can focus on putting the self at the centre, but we need to think about others.

Women and girls tend to care more about relationships. It's all about friendships with girls. It's all about jostling for social position.

4. Work is hugely important to our sense of purpose and satisfaction - but we need life beyond work. People think money brings happiness because poverty brings misery. I'm leaving soon, after 30 years in teaching - ten as a head. I do wonder what my life will be like but know that there will be a life because work does not define me. Happiness is about pleasurable sensations but also about satisfaction.

For most people satisfaction often comes from work as well as in their personal life. However, we need to be able to stop working and still have a worthwhile existence.

5. Girls have to be encouraged to aim high. We do need to continue fighting for equality of opportunity for women and men, but need also to promote the message that it's not about perfection, doing everything right all the time on your own. It's about doing your best.

In my school we say we want the girls to be the best they can be in academic work, in sport and music and drama but also to be satisfied if they are not perfect. Don't beat yourself up if you don't feel you've made it or don't feel you are perfect.

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