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As another term begins in the midst of a global pandemic, there is so much going on that could form the basis for a blog such as this – a celebration that all of our pupils are back on site again, the fuller return of school sport; the intricacies and foibles of the summer grading process for those in Year 11 and the Upper Sixth, and much more besides.
I have chosen, however, to focus this blog on the serious issues raised by the death of Sarah Everard last month, and by the testimonies submitted to the Everyone’s Invited* Instagram page and, more lately, to their dedicated website. These have significantly raised awareness – long overdue for many – of the levels of harassment, fear and violence faced by girls and women in our society every day. Just as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter forced us all to look closely at ourselves – and to the institutions, communities and society to which we belong – so these events require us to listen openly and without defensiveness, to reflect deeply, and to act meaningfully to bring about concrete change.
The anonymous posts online suggest strongly that young women and girls (and on occasions boys and young men too) feel voiceless and unable to raise their concerns either to those behaving in inappropriate, unwanted or intimidating and aggressive ways, or to the institutions that exist to protect them. This poses a challenge to us all, to reflect on how we educate our pupils to understand and recognise the power dynamics at play and the wider inequalities to which they may relate. We must also consider how to empower those affected to have a voice and to feel that they can come forward and be heard.
As I stated in my end of term assembly, albeit on a slightly different matter (the election of Rachel Levine as the first openly transgender official to win Senate confirmation), I believe that the schoolchildren of today – at BGS, around the country, and around the world – can be the generation who bring about deep and sustainable change. The appetite is clearly there, as evidenced by many conversations we’ve had with individuals and groups of pupils, who clearly embrace the ideals of kindness, integrity and rigour, our three BGS values. It is wonderful to witness them doing so, in word and in deed – to ‘catch them being good’ as I recently heard it described. But as with all in society, and particularly those in their formative and young adult years, having a clear understanding of when banter and behaviour might be crossing a line, and having the courage to act and speak up in such circumstances, are not so simple. As adults, we know that these are things that come with the increasing experience and confidence of age (and even then, not all of us are as strong in this area as we might like to be).
So, what can we all do, to play our part in bringing about the changes in attitude required so that our girls and women feel safe and respected, now and into the future? Schools, doubtless, have a huge part to play, particularly schools such as BGS who pride themselves on a rounded education and the development of active citizens of good character. We need to be places where diversity and difference thrive, and where no one is pressured into being something they are not, or doing something they are not comfortable with. Pupils need to have the opportunity to discuss difficult but important issues such as these in a safe space – to be able to ask questions, present opinions and – most importantly – listen closely to others.
We have been working on an approach through our pupil councils and other pupil voice mechanisms, through our Equality Society, and through our Wellbeing programme, such that the issues brought up by Everyone’s Invited can be discussed in an age-appropriate way, with and by pupils, rather than simply being delivered to pupils. (BGS parents and guardians will hear more about our work in this area once term has begun). Perhaps the biggest difference schools can make is to ensure that everyone in our communities understands that change is needed, and wants to bring it about.
It is worth spending a little longer thinking about this point. I am certain that very few men and women would think of themselves as perpetrators of the worst and most harrowing incidents that we have been reading about on Everyone’s Invited, for example. Or even as contributors to a culture in which physical, emotional and sexual aggressions against girls and women have become so commonplace. Against this background, it is easy to think of these issues as being overblown, or not applying to most of us. This is, indeed, the thinking which has led to possibly well-intentioned but wide-of-the-mark hashtags such as #NotAllMen and #AllLivesMatter (the latter in response to #BlackLivesMatter, last year). The simple fact is that we do live in a society in which these things happen, and all too often. And every one of us – male and female – has a part to play if we really want to see and be the change that is long overdue. I imagine that most of us can recall times when we have been on the wrong side of the line – said or done the wrong thing, in the name of banter, humour, or fitting in, or for other reasons. None of us gets it right all the time – it’s particularly hard for those of school age – and none of us is beyond reproach. The trick, for all of us, is to look out for, and recognise, wrong behaviours, so that we can not only stop them in ourselves, but also have the courage to call them out in others.
Turning to matters more concrete, which interest me not only as a Head, but as a father of two boys heading into that age and stage where all of this is becoming very real, many of you know how lucky we are to have Dr Dominique Thompson as a governor of the school. I found the blog she wrote in March on this particular matter incredibly helpful. This is, to my mind, a very good place to start (for parents and guardians, at least). As a school, BGS will continue working with our associations and other external organisations, and closely with our pupils, to understand how best to play our part. And then there is the Everyone’s Invited website itself. Reading the sheer volume of testimonies* that are there (almost 16,000 at the time of writing) makes the scale of the issue very clear. Beyond the testimonies are some other links and pages that some may find helpful, and the Everyone’s Invited Instagram page has had some very useful infographics such as “What boys and men can do next” and “What girls and women can do next” (you may need to be an Instagram member to see them).
I will end with reference to a virtual assembly delivered in the last week of the Spring Term. Though it was written by Ms Davies (our Deputy Head with oversight for Diversity & Inclusion) and Miss Ripley (our Deputy Head with oversight for pupil pastoral care), it was delivered by the whole-school Senior Leadership Team. It built on our continuing work to be a community in which diversity and difference thrive, though the main impetus came from the same events that have occasioned this blog – namely, the death of Sarah Everard and the testimonies that were flooding in to Everyone’s Invited. It ended with five calls to action for our pupils and staff:
1. Educate yourself
Find out why women are scared to walk alone at night. Learn why certain words are unacceptable in this community.
2. Learn to say: “That’s not OK.”
It is rarely an easy thing to do, but it is all you need to say to make the point. “That’s not OK.”
3. Listen to others
Learn to hear it when people challenge you. We all make mistakes and none of us are above reproach. We need to listen, to learn, to be able to say sorry, and to forgive others who make mistakes.
4. Get involved
Get involved in the societies we have. Support them. At school, out of school, on social media. Be an active ally.
5. Be aware
Be aware of the impact you have. Your language and behaviour can be used to humiliate and belittle. It can also be used to be principled, supportive, kind and inspiring. Be aware of the power and influence you have.
These five powerful steps underpin the valuable and important conversations we are having in our community even beyond the issues raised in this piece – conversations around race, sexuality and gender, for example. For dealing with any of the societal problems we are discussing, these five steps are applicable, and we will continue to return to them with regularity.
If, as a reader, you have been affected by anything written in this blog or in the links it contains, and you would like to talk to anyone at Bristol Grammar School about it, please be in touch in the first instance with Helen Tylee, our Pastoral Assistant, on firstname.lastname@example.org.
* We have referred to Everyone’s Invited on a number of occasions in this post. We have refrained from giving a direct link here, as we feel that we should give an important word of warning to anyone who may be heading there for the first time: many of the testimonies contained therein are shocking and harrowing. We would strongly urge any younger readers only to read these in the presence of a parent, guardian, or other trusted adult. Even for older readers and adults, please be aware that the testimonies may be very difficult to read.