Twelve questions
Sarah Stuart poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions: Madeline Gunn

Madeline Gunn is the principal of the largest girls' school in the country, Epsom Girls Grammar, which has produced Prime Ministers, judges and the odd celebrity. She has recently returned from a study of the United States school system.

Madeline Gunn believes it's important to ensure that children have time to relax away from parental pressures. Photo / Natalie Slade
Madeline Gunn believes it's important to ensure that children have time to relax away from parental pressures. Photo / Natalie Slade

1. Girls' schools for girls: co-ed schools for boys?

There's obviously a problem logistically in this! I do think that girls' schools are very good for building the confidence of girls. At a co-ed school they only get half the leadership opportunities where as at this school they have to do everything. I think there are advantages in boys' schools in helping boys build confidence about themselves too, as long as they don't build up macho attitudes. Boys' schools have to change, and I think they are changing. Boys have to fit in to a world that's not as male dominated as it was. It's interesting to see the number of them which have become co-ed, particularly at senior levels. Do they need girls to socialise the boys or to raise the achievement?

2. What's gone wrong in US schools?

Part of their problem is their funding system. We give more money to schools in poorer areas through our decile system but they fund education from property taxes so the more wealthy areas have much more money for education than the poorer ones.

They are also having to cope with much more diversity than ever before and old methods are not working. Rather than working with the profession to find new solutions, they rely on an accountability model which is destroying trust. If a school is judged to be failing, the principal and staff can lose their jobs and a new team is brought in. In successful systems such as in Finland and here in New Zealand there is much more of an emphasis on building capacity in the profession overall.

3. Were you shocked by what you saw?

Well the schools we were taken to had been pretty well chosen but we went to one quite low socio-economic area and saw a new school that had been funded by Apple to give them iPads and other technology in the classroom. But the principal was in a really difficult situation. He was trying to use the technology to the best advantage but also knew that once those iPads had had their time there was no renewal for them. When you rely on philanthropy like that there's no security in things. And there was huge pressure on those children and teachers to succeed. If they didn't, the whole school was in trouble.

4. You're teaching at a Decile 9 school though: isn't there the same inequality in New Zealand or don't we know how lucky we have it?

I think we're very conscious that we have groups in our society who are not succeeding in the education system. We're proud of what has been achieved but for particularly Maori and Pacifika students who haven't been achieving, we need to look at what we're doing to turn that around. It's not just schools who can do that. The issue is how ready are students for education and a lot of that comes back to poverty and lack of support.

5. You were at Diocesan School for many years before Epsom: do wealthy schools provide children with more opportunity?

In my early career I worked at very different schools from these last two. There the focus was still on helping students to achieve the best they could in the classroom and outside of it. At a wealthy school there might be more opportunities for such things as trips and elite coaching because the parents can afford to support these.

6. What might many parents not know about their teenagers?

Sometimes their children feel quite pressured by their parents' expectations and they feel quite pressured by the expectations that schools put on them to achieve as well. We live in a very competitive world for families and children and sometimes there's a sense of 'if my daughter doesn't have this great list of extra-curricular activities she's not going to be seen as successful'. It has to be a balance.

7. Are children mollycoddled these days, do you think?

They certainly have less freedom than I or my children did because parents are so concerned about their safety and committed to providing them with as many extra-curricular activities as they can. It's important to ensure that children have time to relax and to create their own entertainment rather than having it all organised by adults.

8. As a parent, what are the three most important things you can teach your children?

I think it is respect for yourself and for others, confidence in yourself and the communication skills to talk about your own needs and those of others.

9. Can you teach girls sexual self-respect?

Yes, you can but it has to come from self-respect for yourself overall. Girls need to be able to identify what is healthy behaviour for them in all areas of their lives and recognise when their own standards are being abused. They need to have the courage to make their own choices and not be pressured or manipulated by others.

10. The Roast Busters stories have highlighted studies showing some young girls don't believe they can say no to sex. Did that lack of awareness around consent surprise you?

Yes, because we work to make girls feel good about themselves and know that they have control over what they do and don't have to be pressured. We talk in health classes about the right to say no. But a lot of our girls would look at [the Roast Busters group] and say they are losers. There are lots of girls who would say 'that's not my world'.

11. Has pornography changed the way teenagers see sex, do you think?

Yes, I think it has because it is now so much more accessible but you don't have to view pornography to see manipulative and abusive images of sex. Many music videos and even advertising present very negative images of abuse of power in sexual relationships. Young people need to see much more positive images in their family and their community where warmth and caring provide love and support. They need to be able to think critically about how they and their friends are being manipulated and desensitised by the images they are exposed to.

12. I think a lot of parents have felt confused by the Roast Busters revelations. Is the world really so different for teenagers these days?

There's a lot of pressure out there that didn't exist in their parents' time with technology and media but essentially it comes down to people wanting to belong. And one of the biggest pressures that kids today have is wanting to be part of a group. And it's not all negative. There are some wonderful young people around who have a real sense of service and concern about what's happening in the world. Climate change or other issues and they want to help people in the community. It's so far from the Roast Busters and we have to keep that in mind. There are incredibly positive young people who are so committed to making the world a better place.

- NZ Herald

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