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It’s been a year now since we welcomed over 150 people to Highgate to join us and our partners, The Well HQ, in their pioneering mission to improve education, awareness and progress around female health.

As we discovered at the ‘Sport in her Shoes’ conference, the woeful gaps in research and knowledge about female bodies needs urgent address. Similarly, education around the female body is lacking for not just women, but those who support them (parents, teachers, coaches, physios, GPs). With the taboos that hang over these conversations, people feel nervous about discussing what could be considered private and personal, and so the problem persists.

We were determined that this shouldn’t be a parachute project, and to embed our learning across the school, particularly within our co-educational environment. Whilst we’re already ahead on sports equality at Highgate (all sports are open to all genders, all the way through the school), we were energised by the potential to improve things further. It’s been a massive collaboration across our whole school community as we consider the broader education outlook on female health.

Within SpEx, sports kit has been reviewed to think about what’s fit for purpose. Girls are now given a choice not to wear whites. But we also give boys the choice not to do that either, so they’re not standing out. Every SpEx First Aid kit now has period products that pupils are aware of and can openly access. It means that boys are seeing it too, so we’re not hiding products away. The same has been applied to the kit list for other trips and tours around the school (acknowledging and addressing the reality of changing period products while on a long hike).

So far, we’ve taken a careful look at female health facilities – sanitary bins, caught short kits, toilets, changing rooms and sports pitches. Each time Estates have a new project, we do the same. We’ve run poster campaigns in the toilets, opening the conversation on menstrual health and sustainability during period cycles.

Our growing list of female partnerships enables us to recommend specialist kit such as sports bras, reusable period pants, disposable menstrual underwear, period swimwear and sustainable sanitary bags for pupils. We’re looking at ways to track female cycles (as we know this can have an impact on performance and injury rates in sport) and supporting girls to understand the physiological impacts that their cycle and puberty can have on them.

From a curriculum point of view, we’ve been thinking about how to minimise injury risk for girls. Research shows that girls typically don’t have the same opportunities to build up physical resilience when they are younger, leading to higher injury rates when they reach puberty. A review of the Junior School uniform policy will see pupils in sports kits as much as possible from next year, so that break times become really active (this already happens in the Pre-Prep).

In DTE, they’ve changed their sixth form offering to look at some female-focused technology and Senior School Biology is reviewing their current provision to include more in-depth topics.

Pupil voice has remained at the heart of our work, as we listen to young people’s ideas and lived experience, and tailor our strategy to their needs. Pupils from every year group, Y5-13, have received an age-appropriate female health seminar focused on sport exercise wellbeing, as well as the wider societal issues that we want to tackle around it. All seminars, apart from Y5&6, have been co-ed to help normalise these conversations.

We’ve worked with pupil action committees, FemSoc and WISC (Wellbeing Inclusion Safeguarding Committee) to listen to their thoughts and ideas. With our Y13s we talked about the legacy they can leave at school, but also how do they become changemakers in society. If you’re going to train to be a doctor or go into science, for example, what are the deficits in the research already, what considerations would you need to make?

Pupils have expressed a strong desire to be empowered with more knowledge, so we’ve connected with about 30 parents who have medical or health expertise in this area. We plan to run online clinics for pupils and staff, which will be added to an e-library of resources. We’ve drawn on the lived experiences of colleagues to break the stigma of these conversations, and are looking at how to improve the working environment for women (e.g. managing people with menopause).

Most recently, we created a two-year post that has been specifically designed to embed the project from a whole-school point of view. Anna Scott (Highgate Alumna) has been appointed as our first ever Education Lead in this area, bringing both her high performance sporting pedigree as well as her pupil-centred approach. In addition to our long wish-list of projects, Anna will chair our staff and pupil committees, coordinate our parent clinics and support the project’s impact at Highgate. Her first task is to work with the pupils on naming the campaign!

One of the special things about Highgate (it’s pupils, staff, and parents) is the way we harness our relationships to drive positive change; trusting those around us to share knowledge and responsibility for action. As such, the inter-generational collaboration and shared passion has been the energy behind the momentum we have achieved. The diversity in thinking and skill sets has allowed us to reach further than sport and I know that the impact will be significant for years to come.

About the author
Stephanie Pride, Director of Sport and Exercise
Stephanie joined Highgate in 2008, taking on various leadership posts before becoming Director of SpEx. Over the last eighteen months, she has been working on Female Health in Schools. When not at work she will often be found walking the dog, playing Netball, or escaping to the countryside whenever possible!