What I’ve learned from my alma mater, Nonsuch High School for Girls
Ellie Lathbridge, Marketing Executive, JCS Online Resources
When I joined JCS a year ago now, I was pleased to see that my alma mater, Nonsuch High School for Girls had been subscribing to the JSTOR Secondary Schools Collection for 7 years.
And what’s more, they were extremely high users of the archive. Since Nonsuch is a state-funded school and which, like all state schools, has been experiencing severe budget cuts, I was curious to know how and why they’ve been able to continue investing in JSTOR. I decided the best way to do that was to return to my old school and interview the librarian, Soraya Berry.
Nonsuch High School for Girls is a top-performing state grammar school in the London Borough of Sutton, made up of just over 1500 girls. In 2022, it ranked as the 29th highest-achieving grammar school across the whole of the UK. Among its many accolades, and what truly sets it apart, is its role in championing social mobility for the bright women of colour and second-generation immigrants who form over 75% of the student body. Nearly one third of students also have English as an additional language (EAL).
Students at the school continue to stand out at a national level, with stellar achievements at GCSE, A-Level and progression levels to Russell Group universities. What’s exciting is that they’re also breaking norms with a significant number of students pursuing studies in STEM fields.
So, what I wanted to find out is how JSTOR is being used at Nonsuch to support this all-around excellence. And what did their librarian, Soraya Berry, have to say about it?
The JSTOR Secondary Schools Collection
For those of you not familiar with JSTOR, it’s a curated package of over 12 million journal articles, book chapters, images and primary sources. It’s multidisciplinary, covering 75 subjects across the arts, humanities and sciences.
To date, over 1600 secondary schools worldwide (excluding the US) subscribe to the resource – 500 of them in the UK.
When JCS was established 13 years ago and became JSTOR’s subscription agent for schools, the vast majority of the UK schools which subscribed were from the independent sector. But impressively, of those 500 UK schools, 50% are now state-funded schools!
And what’s particularly interesting: I’ve found that the highest state school users of JSTOR mostly rank as top-performing schools. Is there a corollary here? I think there could be well given what I hear from Soraya.
The Nonsuch JSTOR story…
When I meet Soraya she immediately sums up JSTOR’s impact in one word – revelatory.
Soraya starts by explaining how it’s a steep climb to go from sitting GCSEs to A-Levels, then onto undergraduate study in under three years. There are gaps that need to be filled – and quickly – for students to become confident in their abilities. JSTOR, she has found, bridges this gap by making it ‘deceptively simple’ to research robust, academic content equipping students well for higher education. JSTOR’s platform and range of research tools really make it a very accessible source for their research.
She goes on to say that she believes with the majority of their KS5 leavers going on to study at top universities, it’s important they’re familiar with the same tools and academic content that they will use in their studies. Physical books remain essential, but using online research tools are non-negotiable for university success in this day and age. Thankfully, she says, the user-friendliness of JSTOR makes this a lot less daunting for young students.
“We really try to impress upon all our students the value of JSTOR. Not just the sixth form; we also try to show it to Years 10 and 11 so they don’t come into Year 12 going I didn’t know that digital resources existed or that’s not Wikipedia!”
“I don’t get students saying, ‘I can’t find anything on this topic!’ And the handful of times I have, the girls just haven’t looked hard enough.”
So, with JSTOR usage at Nonsuch being so high – what exactly are the students using it for?
“The answer is simple: the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). And it’s not just one resource out of many that support the EPQ at Nonsuch – it is the primary resource.”
“I don’t think that there’s any student that does an EPQ at Nonsuch who doesn’t use JSTOR regularly. In fact, I’d be distressed if they didn’t. And this comes down to more than just JSTOR’s content: it also rests in research skills.”
When Soraya first took up her post two years ago, one of the first requests from the EPQ coordinator was to provide sixth form students with a presentation on research skills. In these presentations, she points students to JSTOR, shows them how to navigate the archive, find articles, and how to use reference and bibliography ‘trails’ to help pinpoint the content they need.
For example, she says, if students read a journal article and it doesn’t quite hit what they want, her advice is always “look at the referencing, look at the bibliography” as that’s where she knows they’ll find further pointers. She believes it’s like following a trail and is a powerful and important research skill.
“You cannot expect to get a good degree by being passive.”
This emphasis on research skills is even more crucial when thinking about the broader educational landscape. University drop-out rates for undergraduates have risen by 32% since 2020 across England and by 48% across Wales. And though the cost of living crisis has undoubtedly played a large role, many students grapple with mental health challenges rooted in academic transitions. The leap from school to university, with heightened pressure on effective study and academic performance, can be daunting.
From our conversation, it’s clear that by arming their students with robust research skills early on, Soraya’s library lessons and their online resources like the JSTOR Secondary Schools Collection have become invaluable. She believes they’ve played a pivotal role in ensuring a smoother academic transition. They not only increase the chance of academic success, but also better mental health at university.
Building a passion for STEM in their EPQs
What I’m also excited to discover is that, in terms of university progression and success, one of Nonsuch’s distinctive marks is its large contribution to advancing women in STEM.
Out of the 194 Year 13 university destinations for 2022, a total of 123 girls went on to study STEM subjects. To put this into perspective, while 63% of Nonsuch’s Year 13 students heading to university opted for STEM, the UK national average for women doing so stands at just 25%.
Even more impressively, 72 of these STEM students are headed to Russell Group universities, including Oxbridge. This means that nearly 4 in 10 of all Nonsuch leavers who transitioned to university went on to study STEM at a top university.
And guess what? Although the science departments do have their own separate digital resource offerings at Nonsuch, JSTOR helps provide their students with the final competitive edge. This comes back again to its use for the EPQ as there’s a clear tilt towards STEM EPQs, predominantly medicine.
“We have many students aiming for medical school, so I therefore expect them to use JSTOR for their EPQs.” says Soraya.
A well-researched and executed EPQ, supported by a trusted resource like JSTOR, can be particularly useful to gain entry into hypercompetitive courses like Medicine and Dentistry. Soraya believes it’s not just about showcasing knowledge, but rather, displaying a genuine interest and capability for medical research.
But, Soraya says, the number of students taking humanities at A-Level at Nonsuch are also well catered for with JSTOR. In fact, these areas are where it can often shine most.
Helping with humanities and arts A-Levels
As we’re talking, Soraya is expecting a group of History A-Level students to start a session in the library to help prepare for their non-exam assessments (NEAs). These assessments loom large, accounting for 20% of the students’ A-Level grades across subjects like English, Geography and History.
“For individual projects such as their NEA or EPQ, students naturally gravitate to the history they are most familiar with and which inspired them to take History in the first place, which tends to be their own family stories. We have many students from diverse backgrounds and they want to pursue topics that reflect that JSTOR is an important tool in helping these students access these periods of history.”
And this is the crux of the matter. A bank of physical books in a library takes years to build up, especially with ongoing budgetary limitations. Plus, it can never remain as current as digital resources, many of which are updated daily. The demographic and research interests of the students have changed, and the school library is keeping pace with these changes through resources such as JSTOR.
A changing demographic
Soraya, also a Nonsuch alumna, recalls that when she studied at the school 30 years ago, she was one of the only students from a global majority ethnic background. Fast forward to today, just as when I studied there a decade ago, most students are now women of colour.
“Tudor history is a constant on the curriculum, so our physical offering on this period is comprehensive. Furthermore, Cheam and Nonsuch Park and Mansion are synonymous with the Tudor Period and we are proud of our close association with this important part of history.
However, our focus on international history has widened. So, whether students are looking for research for their EPQs, NEAs or to support their subject knowledge, our offering needs to meet those needs. To that end, the academic research and journals on JSTOR are unparalleled.”
Students studying English also use the library for their NEAs and A-Level English studies. “They will come here to consult and borrow our well-stocked literary criticism, but I always tell them to search the academic content on JSTOR as well.”
Cultural heritage and social awareness
Soraya believes JSTOR is playing an essential role at Nonsuch in helping students understand and explore the world’s ‘intricate geopolitical fabric’.
With Nonsuch’s student body being mostly women of colour, many of them often choose to explore their cultural heritages through their EPQs. And several often broach difficult topics when looking into their pasts.
“Many girls undertake passion projects and JSTOR is invaluable in giving the academic slant. We obviously have to counsel our students on not getting too involved emotionally in what they’re researching, but it’s very difficult to avoid. However, at the touch of a search term, they’re going to bring up academic journals which place challenging content in context.”
For students so deeply connected to these histories, there’s a profound power in intellectualising it. JSTOR can offer a way to approach difficult subject matter with facts and a holistic way of framing the narrative.
The big question: funding
At Nonsuch, the academic value of JSTOR isn’t in question. Drawing from her experience in both comprehensive schools and Nonsuch, Soraya addresses a common misconception. “Contrary to what some might believe, grammar schools don’t enjoy the same financial resources as private institutions. Our budget cannot stretch to that of an independent, so we have to be very strategic with the money we are fortunate to get.”
So, how does Nonsuch manage to afford JSTOR?
“We’re very fortunate that in previous years, the PTA has funded our subscription. It is now included in the library budget. JSTOR’s analytics are really useful to support the business case for it.
The data for JSTOR is clear. There is no question that students are putting it to very good use.”
Empowering their students
By the end of our conversation, it’s clear that Nonsuch is getting immense academic value from the JSTOR Secondary Schools Collection.
With just one subscription, hundreds of their learners not only receive access to millions of pieces of content, but are also offered an initiation into the world of rigorous academic research. It equips them with the tools and skills they need to navigate their academic journeys, setting them up for bright futures and helping them to continue to break through numerous glass ceilings.
Equally, it reflects well on the school library. “A school library can be seen as very stagnant, and some students may say, ‘Why would I read a book? I have a kindle. I’ve got my phone.’ While the volume of book borrowing is very high at Nonsuch, we are more ‘relevant’ to our students by also having a digital offering.”
“Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the state school experience. It’s hugely beneficial that we have JSTOR, and I would definitely be pushing for it if we didn’t. It enhances our students’ studies, but also – crucially – their research skills.”
“It taps into our culture of being magpie-like. Of being tenacious. It’s a lesson in ‘I want to find this out; I am going to find it; it is here; then, a eureka moment!’”
And Soraya’s final confirming words: “JSTOR doesn’t just help our students – they’re empowered by it.”