A moment of calm descended on the school just after lunch today, as we all had the opportunity to step out of routine and lose ourselves in a good book. DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), a national initiative supported by many schools and usually falling on a specific date in April, is designed to encourage us to discover (or rediscover) the magic of reading for pleasure. One of the first things I learnt (and loved) about Brighton Girls when I arrived was that the Senior school holds its own annual celebration of reading; while other schools wait until March for World Book Day, we go to town in October, with costumes being planned up to a year in advance. So it came as no surprise that members of the English Department were putting their own spin on the national ‘Drop Everything and Read Challenge’ and going one better: why have one day of reading when 365 days will do?

Monday saw the official launch of our English Department’s ‘Year of Reading’. And they mean business: there are a range of challenges; there are league tables (for both staff and students); the competition is fierce. So much so, that I am almost regretting my public declaration that I would be taking up the ‘Birthday Challenge’ – to read a book published every year since my birth (incidentally, I am also regretting not claiming Roald Dahl’s ‘The Enormous Crocodile’ as my choice for book one, which was one of the options for the year of my birth, and which would have got me off to a flying start).

This week, we have spent time reflecting on why reading is of such fundamental importance to our lives. With travel restricted, our social lives on hold, and a chance to effect real change in terms of equality and diversity, we have also reflected on the significance of reading at this particular moment in time. Monday’s assembly, in which several members of staff took up the 20-second book review challenge, was packed with enthusiasm and was a real celebration of why reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Not only does it bring us time to pause, to escape, to be mindful, reading helps us develop a quality that is vital to our relationships, essential to our understanding, and arguably the one thing needed to heal our world at this particular moment in time: empathy.

I have written about empathy before, and it is a quality that was mentioned numerous times during assemblies this week, and is especially pertinent to the topic of wellbeing lessons and form times this week as we continue to mark Black History Month. Echoing the thoughts I expressed in my email to pupils following the death of George Floyd last term, Ms Brown reinforced the message that one of the most important things we can do as a community as we push for greater equality, is to educate ourselves by reading as much as we can, by watching as much as we can, and by listening to a range of voices. Staff are leading by example: Ms Brown recommended ‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan, for example, and Mrs Ashdown spoke about reading Bernadine Evaristo’s ‘Girl, Woman, Other’. You can read more about what the English Department is doing in response Black Lives Matter, and your daughters can find a reading lists and challenges here .

These discussions continued throughout the week. During form times, students had the opportunity to express their views on diversity within our school curriculum by asking the question, “Does the curriculum reflect you?”. We are looking afresh at our texts, topics, speakers, and the extent to which we are restricted by exam specifications higher up the school… have we got the balance right? We are questioning everything and capturing the thoughts of members of our community. I will continue to update parents on the progress we are making as part of our commitment to addressing inequality and celebrating diversity throughout the year.

Dropping in on Mrs Hart’s Year 11 assembly this week provided me with a different take on the connection between reading and empathy. Mrs Hart introduced Year 11 to an initiative called the ‘Human Library’. Started in Copenhagen, the Human Library is a project that aims to challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue. The concept is simple: there is a library of people; readers can borrow human beings – metaphorical ‘open books’ – and have conversations that will challenge their assumptions and alter their perspective. It is the ultimate reminder that we must never judge a book by its cover.

There are many definitions of empathy, but the best one I have heard is this: “Empathy is to listen without prejudice, without judgement and, above all, without your own story”.

Reading, whether literal or metaphorical, is powerful, because it allows us to step out of our own narrative and immerse ourselves in someone else’s story. It is one of the most powerful learning tools there is: by giving us perspective, it can hold the key to self-knowledge and self-acceptance and, by helping us to develop empathy, it enables communities to flourish.