Teenage mice are a handful. We know this, because they’ve been closely studied for clues as to psychological behaviour during adolescence. Amazingly, mice exhibit behaviours at this age that are strongly associated with teenage humans: specifically, more openness to both risk and peer pressure.

A striking example: teenage mice are more likely to try alcohol, if offered, than mice of other ages. Most tellingly, they are likely to drink it to excess if surrounded by other teenage mice. They have an unwise party, which they doubtless quickly regret.

There seem to be two linked brain developments driving this behaviour in mice and in humans. The first is that the brain’s reward centres start to respond much more powerfully to risk and transgression: they cause a sensation of euphoria. The second is an enhanced response to peers and strangers, rather than familiar figures.

This second aspect was tested by playing two groups of children audio recordings interweaving their mother’s voice with a stranger’s voice. For all children, hearing their mother’s voice triggered visual processing centres, as they imagined her face, and emotion-processing centres. For children aged 7-12 the sound of her voice also triggered the reward centres; but for children aged 13-16, they responded more strongly to the stranger – both in terms of immediate reward and social value. They felt better, and felt better about themselves, when hearing a complete stranger talk.

Many mothers, many parents, might greet this experiment with rueful acknowledgement. And in truth both phenomena make sense. Adolescence is where we learn independence. Being prepared to take risks, and being prepared to ignore parental and familiar authority, both drive increased autonomy and self-determination.

In a school context, just as in a parenting context, this presents a delightful challenge. We want to warn our children about risk, but not only are they programmed to embrace risk, they are also programmed to ignore us. It is not a hugely helpful combination.

To some adolescents, a list of school rules reads more like a shopping list. This can drive small acts of rebellion and large acts of wrongdoing. For example, many people who fall into anonymous online abuse and trolling as teenagers are very likely aware of the transgression, and for all the harm they do, receive a reward centre treat when they do it. They then feel unhappy about what they’ve done and so do it again to stimulate more reward and then more self-loathing.

As a girls’ school we do all we can to promote positive intellectual and character risk. We’re aware of the decades and centuries of social programming that constrain risk in girls and impose expectations of amenability, agreeableness, perfection. So we have ‘risk-taker’ at the heart of our learner profile, and we encourage people to try things out, get them wrong, make themselves look silly, laugh about it, try again. We encourage people to take on challenges that make them nervous and stand up for principles when it would be easier to turn a blind eye.

And when it comes to negative risk, the kinds of risk we all want children to avoid, in the end our task is to provide the information and encourage the ability to make good decisions. Not to do things we regret due to peer pressure or the wilder impulses of risk-hungry brains. To take the kinds of risk, and exercise the kinds of independence, that help us find the voice and the people we truly are.

The most important thing we ever say about The Abbey’s outstanding outcomes is that they open doors, but that what matters more is how you walk through. Trudging anxiously or exhaustedly through a ‘better’ door is far worse than striding with purpose through the door that is right for you. And if you have learned how to be an adult on your own terms, how to be inspired by risk, and how to treat the world in due proportion, then you will travel far.

We wish all our students the very best this summer: good luck and courage to those facing exams, and sunlit learning and openness and joy in company and life to all. Happy summer term!

Will le Fleming, Head