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Quality of Conversations

When people ask me what is uniquely special about South Hampstead, I tell them that it is the ‘quality of the conversations’. There is a palpable spirit of enquiry and discussion which struck me from my very first visit to the school.

Putting this culture at the forefront of the school’s strategy has been the work of the last four and a half years and remains a central theme of our Towards 150 vision. As I survey the educational and societal landscape, I am conscious that protecting this culture will not be without its challenges and so it is time to be brave.

On Tuesday 5th October, we celebrated a commitment to discussion with the inauguration of The Burgess Room in our Oakwood Sixth Form centre. On the ground floor is a room which used to go by the unimaginative name of 049. Last summer term we were lucky enough to receive a gift to transform the room, and simple but elegant changes have restored the room to its former glory. This has given us an opportunity to rearticulate its use – now a beautiful space for Sixth Form students to work in, a meeting space to inspire ideas, and a venue for receptions, dinners, debates and smaller-scale speaker events. We are building a collection of books on ideas that shaped the world – past, present and future – and displaying some of the artwork by our Sixth Form students. We have renamed the room in honour of Averil Burgess, Headmistress of South Hampstead from 1975 to 1993, who put the school on the map and who instigated our first ever bursary campaign.

The Burgess Room will be the symbolic centre of discussion and debate at South Hampstead; we want our pupils to challenge assumptions, to engage in open dialogue, to question and to reflect. Some recent news stories from university campuses suggest these skills are more critical than ever.

I am concerned by the case of Kathleen Stock OBE, the Professor of Philosophy and feminist lecturer at The University of Sussex, who has been advised by police not to go onto campus because of fears for her safety. Kathleen Stock holds gender critical views about biological sex. I have not read her works but my understanding is that she is far from a transphobe. If she were, I would never have used her example in this blog. But because she believes that there is a difference between biological sex and gender, she has been labelled as such.

One of the most effective ways of shutting down debate is to launch an ‘ad hominem’ attack – a personal attack on the speaker as opposed to their arguments. Kathleen Stock’s attackers said something which in my view is chilling: that they did not wish to discuss, they did not wish to debate. They shut her down by calling her a ‘transphobe’ and branded her ‘evil’, with calls for her to be sacked from her job.

I am worried by the new culture of ‘safety-ism’ that appears to be growing in some educational circles. A culture which demands that everyone has a safe space to discuss, yet turns on those who express any form of dissent from a new orthodoxy. What this results in is not debate, but self-censorship.

Perhaps one day Kathleen Stock will be viewed as having been on the wrong side of social history. But when attitudes are still evolving, you need discussion and debate to work out how to resolve potential conflicts between competing principles and how to redefine key terms.

You need discussion and debate to work out how to resolve potential conflicts.

It is not just the threat to academic freedom which worries me. It is also the increasing acceptance that people have the right never to be offended and that their interpretation of offence trumps any objective analysis of it. ‘My truth’ will win out over ‘the truth’.

This is difficult – because if you have not lived in someone else’s shoes, you cannot know what life is like for them. The novelist Sebastian Faulks was reported in this week’s papers as feeling uncomfortable describing female characters as he is male. Bernardine Evaristo, the first Black female winner of the Booker Prize, disagreed and decried the creeping trend which says that writers should stick to themes of which they have personal experience.

This begs the question: can we ever make judgements about the experience of another human being, or must their report of it always take precedence? Perhaps what we need to distinguish between is what is true and what is valid. All experiences should be valid, everyone deserves to be listened to, but if we move too far away from the search for some sort of truth – whether set by scientific or historical fact or ethical frameworks – then I think we are in perilous waters.

In our quest for greater diversity and inclusion, we must ask the right questions and have an open discussion. Too much of the debate so far has rested on assumptions that nobody wants to challenge. Academic theories about inclusion are no longer theories to be examined – they are self-evident truths.

An example concerns curriculum reform and the idea that a curriculum must be truly representative of the society in which it operates. We have made changes to our curriculum over the years to increase the cultural diversity of what we teach and we celebrate this. And we will continue to make changes in a carefully planned and reflective manner.

A curriculum needs to do many things and there is quite a body of educational philosophy on its role. Ultimately, a curriculum must be determined not by petition but by discussion about core principles. In designing a curriculum you have to make important choices. Where does inclusion come in the hierarchy of principles governing curriculum design? At what point is your curriculum sufficiently inclusive? How do you settle the question of whether to teach what has been most influential or what is most inclusive?

These are questions which demand the full application of our critical faculties. We must be neither tokenistic nor dogmatic in our approach to curriculum design. It worries me that there are no dissenting voices on the subject of the current wave of curriculum audits – this is not normal in the educational world. We tear ourselves apart with discussions about how strict we should be about uniform policies, but on arguably a far more important matter – curriculum design – we are not debating.

I have always thought of myself as a human being first and a woman second. I have always thought that the great thing about being in a GDST school was that you are never limited nor defined by your sex. You are free to focus on the full development of your human potential. Increasingly, society is asking us to remember our immutable characteristics. I have never faced discrimination (aside from, perhaps, a fair bit of mansplaining), so perhaps my point of view is not worth consideration. But I hope that in our justified mission to protect identities who have suffered terrible discrimination, we do not fall prey to what sometimes feels like an increasingly reductionist analysis of the human experience.

We should look for similarities rather than differences.

One of our teachers often uses a memorable phrase in her assemblies and it is a great one to end on – we should look for similarities rather than differences. In other words we should celebrate our common humanity and in so doing seek mutual understanding between those with different experiences of the world. Discussion and the quest for knowledge should lie at the heart of this.

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


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