“What a term to start!”... “I don’t envy you”... “I bet you wish you were still running a girls’ school” are some of the comments that friends have levelled at me since I took up the headship at co-educational Alleyn’s in January. It has been an unusual term to say the least; taking over at the start of a lockdown, completely re-writing public exam assessments, setting up a clinical testing facility and transferring our entire school online, all at a few days’ notice.
But this has paled into insignificance next to the challenge of the last few weeks since the testimonies on ‘Everyone’s Invited’ and the subsequent cries of anguish and rage came to light. No-one, particularly no-one who has worked in education for a long time, can read the more than 10,00 posts on that site without feeling profound dismay and sadness. It is harrowing, chastening, devastating. And I am not using those words lightly.
Casual sexism, misogyny and a complete failure to grasp the notion of consent, mutuality or how to run respectful sexual relationships, underscores so much of what is written there, and the damage associated with this cannot and should not be under-estimated. It is clear that girls and young women in this country have been growing up for many years, in a climate in which a casual, power-based, porn-fuelled attitude to sex is coupled with verbal or visual harassment of one kind or other.
And of course, so much of this has been playing out outline, on social media platforms and chat forums. The children and young people we see engaging in real-life at school and at home, are also living large parts of their lives online and invisible to the adults in their lives. The “adults in the room” are no longer “in the room”, and that’s why, when so many parents and educators say they are shocked, they really mean it.
The outcomes for girls are pervasive and long-lasting; overwhelming sense of shame, guilt, loss of confidence and body-image concerns, with recent research suggesting one in three girls between 12 and 16 experience clinically significant mental health issues. One in three! These depressing statistics speak powerfully to the fact that there is something seriously wrong.
So, there is a huge national problem, and we have a lot of work to do to resolve it. Most schools, my own included, have been teaching sex education, consent and mutual respect through PSCHE for years, and we are now reviewing that programme and ensuring we support parents as well as pupils in the future. However, it is clear to see that an immense and nationwide effort is needed to ensure the right messages land properly and effectively.
Critically, boys and young men need to be part of the conversation and part of the solution. A gender war helps no-one, and pitting girls against boys or “othering” the opposite gender, is no solution. Our young people must learn how to tackle these things head on; how to listen to each other generously and with respect, and how to express their concerns and their hopes openly together.
I have been with Alleyn’s pupils for the last three weeks, since lockdown eased, and that is where my greatest hope lies. I stood at the school gates to wish my pupils a happy holiday on the end of term and I saw decent, cordial, kind and funny young people heading out of the gates. As I’ve walked round my school and chatted to pupils on the playground, in the corridors, as I’ve watched them play football or netball, or perform monologues or respond in the classroom, I’ve seen young people who are happy together, who want to learn and who support and respect and care about each other.
We have spent a lot of time in the Senior School, over the last fortnight, discussing what gender equality and mutual respect should look like in our school and beyond it. Those discussions, involving every pupil in the school, were run by pairs of male and female senior students. And the Alleyn’s Equality Charter they are drawing up, will be the result of their mutual work – with input from all stakeholders: parents, staff and alumni too.
This work is no less important in younger years. Our Junior School is committed to playing a central role with parents to help our children uphold these values of gender equality and mutual respect, providing the direction and reference points upon which to build healthy and positive teenage years. From the early years onwards, they can model and experience at first hand, within every lesson and most moments of the day, what it means to be a trusted or respected girl or boy.
What I have found most heartening about all of this, why I truly believe that great good will emerge from these very difficult times, is that this is about girls and young women finding and using their voices as a powerful, unignorable force and about young men and boys, working with them, side by side and shoulder to shoulder, to find a solution and to make the future a whole lot better for them and for the generations that follow them.
I have profound hope and belief that we can get there together. That is why it is a privilege to have taken over this co-educational school right now and why I am proud to be doing it. We have critical work to do, and we will be doing it together.