An Amazing Opportunity and a Huge Challenge

Head Jane Lunnon led a whole school assembly on Monday morning, talking about the recent national conversation around women feeling unsafe on our streets, and the testimonies being published in mainstream social media about the wider treatment of women and girls. 

In her assembly, which also introduced the Alleyn's Equality Charter that is currently being developed, Mrs Lunnon highlighted the values of gender equality and mutual respect, and also acknowledged that it is not always easy to speak about the difficult topics that are in play.

The text of the assembly, which was joined by pupils from Year 7 through to Year 13, is shown below:

"That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent."

These words from the early C20th philosopher, Wittgenstein, highlight the limits of language and they suggest that there are times when language is insufficient or too clumsy or too limited to properly express what needs to be said. As an English teacher, of course, I would generally always want to refute that, but I have to say, in the last few weeks, as we have all wrestled with the reality and repercussions of Sarah Everard’s death and the explosion of anguish and rage that we are seeing everyday in the press and on social media, these are the words that keep riffing in my head."

I know you don’t know me very well yet. We’ve shared the same space for all of three weeks and as your new Head, I’m acutely aware that I have a lot to learn about you – and vice versa of course, but when you do get to know me, you will know how unusual it is for me to feel at a loss for words. Or, more accurately perhaps, to be struggling to find exactly the right words to say to you. (Especially when talking about gender equality, about which, I have always been incredibly clear!)  Still, I know I’m not the only one, that many of my colleagues here and at other schools, feel just the same. And no matter how tricky, this is not a time, I think, for me or any of us, to stay silent. And it remains a privilege to talk to you all, Alleyn’s pupils, as your Head about all of this. 

And what are we talking about? In the wake of Sarah Everard and Everyone’s Invited – what are the key things for us, as a school, as a community, to be discussing? What do we need to acknowledge and explore together and then find a way through, together? 

Firstly, we need, all of us I think, to agree some simple facts about gender equality and mutual respect. The safety of women; the right of girls and women not to be harassed, or to feel fear or pressure on a daily basis walking on the streets, or chatting online, or at parties, simply because they are female, is absolute. And it must be recognised completely and accepted completely, in our community, because otherwise, what are we doing here? What is education, if not predicated on equality of opportunity and attitude and respect? And I’m sure everyone here, acknowledges that. 

But, I have to say, it is painfully apparent, reading the testimonies which so many young people have posted online, that many, many girls and women (and it is mostly, though not exclusively girls and young women), do not feel respected. Do not feel powerful. Do not feel safe. Far from it. They feel oppressed by the expectations, the attitudes and the behaviour of (mostly) boys and men and some of them have been abused as a result of it. You don’t need me to say that on no planet, in no world, under no circumstances, is that ok. It just is not. And I’m pretty sure that we’d be hard pressed to find anyone, at this school, who would disagree with that. How is it, that we are living here, in the UK, in the C21st, more than 100 years after women were granted the vote, and we are still having to say this? 

A few years ago, I attended the women’s march in London which was staged to oppose the presidency of Donald Trump –  and his flagrant misogyny and disrespect for women. It was an extraordinary occasion – 500,000 people – mostly women and girls, with banners and placards, walking through London to show their dismay towards this man, as a figurehead for the democratic world.  There I am with some colleagues. It was quite fun checking out all the banners…but I particularly remember one of the banners, here’s a picture of it: “I can’t believe this is still an issue”… Quite. It was an issue in 2017. It is still an issue now. And we must stand up and do something about it.

One of the most incredible things about being on that walk, was that, amidst hundreds of thousands of people, we happened to bump into some girls from what was then my school. Fantastic to see them at it of course and we enjoyed walking with them a bit of the way. But whilst I was proud, very proud, to see some of my female pupils there, from my vocal, empowered, girls’ school, I remember also thinking – wow, imagine if boys from a co-ed or boys’ school had come. Imagine, if they’d said, yup – we too, want to stand up for the right of women not to be demeaned or belittled or sexualised on a daily basis. We want this to end and we stand shoulder to shoulder with those women. Now that would have been something. 

And I think, that actually, Alleyn’s is a school where that really, really could happen. I don’t think you’re all angels or saints. I know you will get things wrong on occasion and make poor decisions, because a) we all do and b) that’s what being educated and growing up is all about. Making mistakes and learning from them. But I do think, on the whole, you are young people who know what decent looks like. Who know what is right and who care about each other and are courageous enough to step in, when the wrong things are happening around them. That’s what I think.  

I don’t want to simplify or generalise. I know this is not easy and I suspect many of us feel confused or uncertain, or upset, or genuinely bewildered about what to do now:– boys as well as girls – men as well as women – adults as well as children. We are in a revolution – that’s what this is – and like all revolutions, that’s both an amazing opportunity and a huge challenge. (Lenin pointed out: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” That’s definitely how it feels to me now.) So, how to navigate our way through this revolution, together, with care and courage and compassion? 

Well, the first thing is, we have those things in abundance. And talking to so many of you, as I have done over the last few weeks, makes me super sure of that. Our concern is not about our values – our values: respect and courage and kindness, they are solid and strong and I truly think they matter to all of us. So the issue is not that – the issue is how these values are played out on the ground, in our every day lives, here at school, in our interactions online and at social gatherings beyond school. What should mutual respect and kindness at Alleyn’s actually look like? That’s what we hope we are going to be able to find an answer to – and that we will start that important work on Wednesday, in those discussions which you’ll be having in form groups, in Houses. Just to remind you all, these are entirely voluntary – you don’t have to be there, but we hope that many of you will want to be and will help us to shape the decisions and plans we make going forward. 

So this is what we want from you: 

  • Be honest, be open, share your experiences or what you know others have felt, in those discussions. Don’t want to brush things under the carpet. We want to know what things are really, really like. What’s it actually like to be a teenager in 2021, what is it like to be a pupil at Alleyn’s in 2021? What’s good and what isn’t? And how can we make it better together? 

  • Don’t sit back and let others speak for you. If you have something to say, please say it – we really want to hear from all of you. Time for courage. Own your voice. Own your views. Be heard. We can’t change things together, if we’re not all part of the discussion. 

  • Remember that the usual routes exist for you to share issues if you want to disclose something of a safeguarding nature which is personal and specific and named. Absolutely, 100% do come and talk please, to any member of staff, confidentially, if you have something specific that you want to disclose. That’s really important and it’s important that you know that we want to hear it, if there’s something you want or need to share. Speak to your Housemaster, your tutor, your Head of Section, Mr Skinnard, the chaplain… all those and others, if you feel you need to. 

  • What we hope to do, is to move forward positively from this. I and the prefects and others here hope that from these discussions, we can come up with the Alleyn’s charter or a code– a set of guidelines, that come from you, that say how we do gender equality here at school. What it means to us. What it involves. We really need your input into that and we very much look forward to it.  

I started by saying it’s not easy to speak on such stuff and I think for all of us, navigating this, there are real challenges. It’s really distressing to read about people’s experiences which demonstrate the capacity of human beings to inflict pain on each other.  

But in the end, perhaps it comes down to the simplest thing of all really. You’ll remember, at the start of the term (which already feels frankly, like a lifetime ago), I showed you a picture of the Alleyn’s crest – with its amazing flaming heart held aloft like a great trophy, a great testament, at the centre of our incredible school. Well, that’s it. If ever there was a symbol for kindness, courage and respect – that is it. And I think, however you define your gender, if we measure our behaviour, everything we do – against that simple mantra: be courageous, be kind, we will get there and we will get there together and we will be all right. 

I thought perhaps, the last words should go to Arundhati Roy (great writer of “The God of Small Things”). She is reflecting on the pandemic as a huge force for change – for new thinking – for revolution. And I think it’s where we are now. I think this national focus on gender equality is just the same– with great landscapes and opportunities opening up ahead for us all. This is what she said. 

Arundhati Roy: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” 

Good luck with it.