GIRLS at school live with an “existential imperative”, says a former head teacher who seeks to help them. Unless they can find at least one other person in their year group to call a friend, “it feels like they are drowning.” This urgent need can drive girls to behave wonderfully, to make the very best friends that life has to offer, but it can also make them behave badly if they feel threatened and insecure.
In response, Andrew Hampton has created a schools project, Girls on Board, to help girls to navigate friendship problems. He has just retired after 14 years as head teacher of Thorpe Hall, a co-educational independent day school in Southend-on-Sea. He has two daughters of his own, as well as a son.
He explains the genesis of his thinking: “I was finding it very painful when girls at Thorpe Hall fell out. Sometimes a girl was so unhappy that she’d decide to leave the school.” He started to do some research, and came across Rosalind Wiseman’s bestselling book Queen Bees and Wannabes, the inspiration for the film Mean Girls. “It kind of caught fire in my head.” He started to apply what he had learnt the next term. “It had a very powerful effect.”
A core principle of Girls on Board is that it is more fruitful for girls to sort out their friendship problems themselves than to involve adults — which, generally, only makes things worse. To this end, Girls on Board provides an aid to identifying a dozen or more different types of behaviour, so that girls can understand the dynamics of what is going on when “friendship turbulence” arises.
The two most problematic are “Queen Bee” behaviour, which is manipulative and controlling, and “Messenger” behaviour, whereby someone ingratiates herself with one group by telling them a secret from another group.
Schools who sign up to Girls on Board begin by introducing these concepts to the whole school in a presentation that Mr Hampton has carefully scripted. Thereafter, he says, as and when a group of girls fall out, they are called to a 45-minute “reactive” session, which reiterates the essentials: “Every girl needs a friend. What’s it like to be a friend? What’s it like when you feel left out?”, and then uses discussion and role-play to generate empathy, and to assist the girls to resolve their differences themselves.
Girls on Board was launched formally in 2017. Thorpe Hall won the Independent Schools Association’s award for excellence and innovation in mental health and well-being two years later, and was shortlisted by the TES for its Wellbeing Initiative of the Year Award in 2019 and 2020. Today, more than 300 schools have adopted Girls on Board.
The training for a teacher takes five hours, either online or face to face, and costs £200 per head. If a school makes a one-off payment of £250 for a licence in perpetuity, the training is reduced to £100 a head.
The programme is deliberately “very non-judgemental”, Mr Hampton says, and ultimately appeals not to altruism, but to self-interest: e.g. “If we can solve the problem for Sophie, who is being left out right now, it means I can feel more secure because others will solve the problem for me, if it happens to me.”
None the less, he says, it does connect to Christian truth. “When I ask the girls: ‘Why is it everybody’s problem when one girl doesn’t have a friend?’ Rather delightfully, the answer nearly always comes back: ‘Because it’s horrible to think that somebody’s unhappy.’”
THE head teacher of Furneux Pelham Church of England Primary School, in Hertfordshire, Louise Foley, discovered Girls on Board when she was looking for ideas online. “At the time, we had quite a lot of friendship conflict in Year 4 or 5. I watched the video and it felt absolutely right for our girls. At our school, the parents are quite quick to want to deal with things themselves, but we wanted to give the children more independence.”
She believes that Girls on Board has helped her pupils to live out the school’s values — in particular, the idea of treating others as you wish to be treated yourself. “I think it has made them more thoughtful, more compassionate, and more peaceful in their behaviour,” she says.
Mr Hampton does not claim to have invented anything new. “Quite a few teachers who go through the training say at the end: ‘I kind of knew all this before I started.’ None of it is rocket science. In fact, when I’m working with seven- and eight-year-olds, it always strikes me how much they already know about this stuff. They are so insightful about each other.”
What is new, he proposes, is “the idea that, over the years, teachers and parents have de-skilled children by saying to them, basically: ‘If you’ve got any kind of problem in your life, come and talk to me and I’ll fix it.’”
Mrs Foley suggests that children today may be less resilient than in the past. “The focus on mental health means that we’re much more aware of behaviour that is acceptable or not acceptable. Because of that, it’s harder for them to deal with conflict, because it doesn’t happen as much.
“When I think back to when I was at school, the way children treated each other was actually a lot nastier, but I didn’t go home and tell my parents: I just dealt with it myself. My husband had his head flushed down the toilet, but his parents had no idea that had happened.”
When parents get involved, she says, “it just confuses the whole situation. Either the story gets blown out of proportion, or else they say, ‘Oh, just ignore it!’” Girls on Board points out that girls often lie to their parents, presenting themselves as the innocent party so that they won’t be seen in a negative light. “When we talk with the girls about that,” Mrs Foley says, “a lot of them really relate to that.”
Girls on Board works for girls aged from seven to 18. Although they change enormously as they develop from children into young women, and the way in which they conduct their friendships is dramatically different year on year, “the basic psychology remains the same,” Mrs Foley says.
“We are still quite early on on our journey with it, but . . . we see a lot less conflict, because the girls are talking about the issues rather than arguing. It has been good for the staff as well; it’s even helped us to develop a more structured approach to the way we deal with conflict between boys.”
Her only reservation is that society is “moving away from that distinction between girls and boys”. In her experience, they do tend to behave differently, but “in the future, perhaps it will feel less appropriate to have a programme that is specifically for girls.”
Mr Hampton and his daughters have written a short book for parents, When Girls Fall Out, which will be published this autumn by Girls on Board Ltd. He is currently developing a parallel approach, “Working with Boys”.