Over the last two days, it has been heartening to see students from Years 10 and 12 returning to school to see their teachers for one-to-one meetings. There were green arrows on the floors, and the building remained eerily quiet, but the hint of normality brought by familiar faces was a morale boost for us all – there were smiles all round, and a feeling of optimism in the air.
For me, Thursday brought more cause for optimism as I embarked on a series of discussions with Years 7, 8 and 9. Building on the email I sent to all students last week, the sessions were designed to allow the girls to share their views on racial equality and diversity and, in particular, to reflect on their own experiences as part of the community of Brighton Girls. I called these sessions ‘Voices and Values’ – as well as hearing about their experiences to date, we also grasped the opportunity to ask ourselves some questions: What sort of school do we want to be? What can we celebrate now? What do we need to change?’
Using Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ as a starting point, we explored how easy it is to develop a narrow view of the world, and how our views are shaped not only by what we experience, but by what we read. We talked about reading in various forms, from our early experiences of fairy tales, to recent personal reading, to books read as part of the school curriculum. We discussed English lessons, History lessons and, in a world where social media has such influence, we discussed TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook, acknowledging the dangers of allowing ourselves to enter the echo-chamber.
What struck me during these sessions was how passionate, articulate, and well-informed some of our students are. This gives me great hope. Their reading lists were impressive: one had just finished Virginia Woof’s ‘A Room of her Own’ and gave a brilliant account of the plight of Shakespeare’s imagined sister; another had been reading ‘Lies We Tell Ourselves’ by Robert Talley, and spoke thoughtfully about the issues raised by this account of racism in 1959 Virginia; another pointed out the lack of LBGTQ+ characters in the stories she has read; another rose to my challenge that Hermione Granger is a character who compounds negative gender stereotypes.
When the discussion moved on to thoughts about Brighton Girls, there was a lot to learn. I was delighted to from the Year 7s that they feel the school has a culture of “kindness” and “friendship” at its core. A Year 8 felt that the school has “no hierarchies”, another expressed that there is “no expectation” to be a certain way. There was a general feeling that the school allows individuals to express their views, as active, passionate, politically aware young people. Others felt very differently, of course: one expressed sadness that she had never been taught by a black teacher, and anger that we are only discussing these issues now; others, who are now seeing such figures as Winston Churchill in a different light, felt cheated by some versions of history. I was pleased to be challenged on the definition diversity. Whilst it is important for us to acknowledge that the school celebrates a multiplicity of voices, in terms of racial diversity, we have a long way to go.
Some chose not to contribute to this discussion verbally, but wrote thoughtful comments in the comment stream, and everyone had the opportunity to express their views in a values questionnaire at the end. I look forward to reading the responses from Years 7, 8 and 9, and to similar discussions we will have with Year 10 and 12 next week.
Using all available means, I am determined to avoid the single story.