On the wall of Olivera Raraty’s office at Malvern St James Girls’ School hangs an attractive series of paintings depicting scenes from Italian towns.
Fairly unremarkable, until you learn they are the work of one of the school’s founding headmistresses, Miss Poulton, who set up the school in 1919.
“She obviously went on her Italian travels and painted and they were squirrelled away to provide for future generations,” says Raraty, who had the artworks dusted off from the archives and displayed.
Olivera Raraty – a keen painter and amateur potter herself – clearly values artistic pursuits, and says she longs to properly capture the play of light on the Pembrokeshire coastline.
But her thoughts on the arts go far beyond painting. Raraty believes that the fusion of art subjects with science, technology, engineering and maths (known as STEAM) is now the key to modern education. She has even taken the rare move of appointing an official “Head of STEAM” to ensure that it is prioritised at Malvern St James.
She says: “While the government is very focused on STEM, I think in some ways, that’s a bit behind the times, and really what we need is young people who can combine technology and innovation.
“The arts do help with experimentation, creating an innovative mindset, when you fuse that with science, technology and mathematics that’s when exciting things can happen.”
“While the government is very focused on STEM, I think in some ways, that’s a bit behind the times.”
She says Malvern St James is looking to create a more integrated multi-disciplinary approach and develop links with universities and industry and really blend the arts and sciences.
Raraty, who says she enjoys working in the independent sector because it allows her to be more creative, is critical of government policies that appear to devalue the role of the arts and arts subjects.
“It’s a real shame, I don’t think it’s a well thought-through policy when one considers the way in which people will actually need to have a variety of different careers and roles throughout life. In order to be creative in the workplace you have to be able to provide solutions to problems and think outside the box.
“I think that’s where the arts subjects can really come into their own. The arts enhance and complement what the sciences bring. I’ve got a student who want to read medicine…she is also a musician and composer. Who’s to say that one day she might not combine both of those interests?”
“The arts enhance and complement what the sciences bring.”
“Our knowledge is constantly evolving and developing and in order to be fully rounded and functioning humans we rely on the aesthetic, the spiritual, the emotional, alongside the logical and it’s a blend of those elements that is really important.”
The success of the arts industry in the UK is incredibly important too, she adds.
She says: “We want to be able to grow our own talent rather than import it from abroad. It’s a travesty really, we need it for ourselves as human beings but it’s also the crucible of innovation.”
Olivera, who started out as a history and politics teacher at Francis Holland School in London and later became head of the subjects at Wycombe Abbey, is also critical of the current assessment system.
“It does seem to me that we have an almost Victorian approach to assessment.”
Like many, she believes the experiences under Covid have shown that there are alternatives to the current system.
She says: “I personally feel that we over-examine, we over-assess, we put them through an examination treadmill… we put our young people through the mill far more than is necessary and I’m sure that doesn’t help in terms of mental health and wellbeing.
“Putting a lot of pressure on young people to have high stakes terminal examinations in successive years doesn’t seem the right way forward, particularly as universities are increasingly adopting a much more varied approach to assessment.
“It does seem to me that we have an almost Victorian approach to assessment and I’d like us to carry on reviewing that.
“I’m not sure it’s very healthy, our obsession with final exams,” she adds.
The issues around exams also link into the current hot topic during Covid — pupil wellbeing. Malvern has led on in a local partnership project with 24 other state and independent schools, the “Wellbeing Collective”, where they share best practice on how to support students in this regard.
Raraty says: “All schools have been really impacted by Covid and we are really trying to support one another and find a path through that.”
And how has working in a girls’ school been in the midst of so many recent headlines about violence against women, sexual harassment and movements such as #metoo and Everyone’s Invited?
“This is a generation that feels empowered, they want to be their own agents of positive change.”
How do girls feel about going out into the world in this atmosphere?
Raraty, who describes girls-only education as “a brilliant environment for girls to flourish both academically and pastorally” says: “I don’t sense that negativity, this is a generation that feels empowered, they want to be their own agents of positive change, it’s something we really encourage in schools that girls follow any initiative they have.
“Newspapers will always write about the negative but in some ways the fact that these stories come to the surface is because women have felt empowered and said I’m not going to stand for a treatment that’s less than equal.”