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Before & After

In March, at the end of Spring Term 2021, I reflected on the year that had been through the prism of the pandemic.

I shared my reflections in our last assembly with you at the time. At the end of this half-term, I would like to reflect on the year that has passed since the senseless murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In my mind, George Floyd’s murder is a before and after event. It has changed my perception of myself and it has reaffirmed some of my deepest held values and my thoughts about the way forward as a school leader. I have welcomed the conversation that the last year has given rise to, and I am excited to see the work of our Undivided Student Council start to unfold.

I spent a considerable part of Sunday wondering how to mark 25th May. Should I write a blog or a tweet? The question preoccupied me – to speak might be performative but to be silent might be to forget. I did not want to forget and so I spoke. But two days later, I reflected that this worry was self-indulgent. George Floyd should not have died and he certainly did not die so that thousands of miles away a middle-class, middle-aged, Oxbridge-educated white Headmistress could worry about a stupid tweet. Martin Luther King did not deliver one of the greatest speeches ever delivered by Man so that white allies could judge each other on the internet for what they had and had not said. His speech was about unity, equality, justice and hope.

Dr King sought to unite rather than to divide. I am sure that Dr King would have raised an eyebrow at what has apparently been happening at the University of Cambridge this week – students are able to report their lecturers on a website for exactly that offence – raising an eyebrow in seminars at them. The University is investigating. Granted, the story appeared in a newspaper which I suspect was jubilant about uncovering this story. The Woke-Finder Major Generals are as much a feature of cultural debate in 2021 as the Cancel Culture Club.

South Hampstead has a long history of celebrating pupils from all sorts of different backgrounds. In the 1930s and 1940s we welcomed the children of refugees from Nazism. Sprinkles ice-cream parlour on Finchley Road was once the Cosmo Café where refugees from Nazi Germany and from Franco’s Spain would meet to share experiences. You can see the plaque if you walk past. Until 1976 when the direct grant scheme was abolished, about a third of students were on entirely free places. Today about 60 different languages are spoken at home, and we want to do more to celebrate and increase the rich cultural diversity of our school. South Hampstead has always prided itself on being a community of individuals and long may this continue.

We also have a rich tradition of conversation and inquiry. It was what struck me about this community on my very first visit to the School during the application process and why I so fervently hoped to be its Headmistress. I have always stressed that this conversation is as much about written communication as verbal communication (Mr Chatterbox is not the best role model), and that it is as much about exploring ideas through experiment and design as it is about discussion and essays.

I do not feel this tradition is under any threat in our school. I had an interesting discussion with a colleague in another school the other day about whether Dumbledore quotes were now off limits in assemblies and motivational magisterial speeches. I wondered what would happen if I quoted Harry Potter in assembly – I think I have used a Dumbledore quote twice in my time here, on both occasions without mishap. I can imagine an intelligent discussion might ensue about just how offensive or not what JK Rowling said was. I can imagine a debate about how the rights of different protected characteristics might intersect. I can imagine a debate about how one approaches individuals who say offensive things – whether living or dead. I can imagine having these conversations with pupils quite comfortably.

After half-term we are putting together an opportunity for students to share reflections on diversity and inclusion with the theme What I wish people knew. Sessions will be grouped by year groups and will run on a voluntary basis. They will be open to all students who are interested – everybody will be welcomed and listened to. The sessions will be chaired by our new Diversity & Inclusion leads amongst the staff. It is through conversation, through mutual respect and understanding, through education that we can, in my humble opinion, best honour the memory of George Floyd. May he rest in peace.

Blog post by Vicky Bingham, Headmistress from 2017 to 2023.  

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