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Speaker Series: Education at a Crossroads

As we look towards our 150th anniversary in 2026, we welcomed some of the UK’s most influential educationalists to discuss the future of education at our latest Speaker Series event.

Political analyst and broadcaster Adela Gooch OBE opened the evening, sharing memories of her own time at South Hampstead. Adela referenced the school’s emblematic torch and enlightened motto (‘Mehr Licht’/more light), against a backdrop of the current dark political times, before kick-starting an illuminating debate.

The panellists were invited to share their views on the purpose of schools in the 21st century. Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of The University of Buckingham and visionary former Head of Brighton College and Wellington College, commented on the need for great schools (and great parents) to allow children to become the unique human beings that they are. As co-founder of Action for Happiness, promoting the development of the all-round child, he suggested that schools have an important role to play in providing the requisite structure and encouragement to enable individuals to lead a life with moral purpose and dignity, “to be the very best they can be.”

Azeem Azhar, senior adviser on Artificial Intelligence to the CTO of Accenture and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Futures Council on Digital Economy & Society, highlighted some of the macro-trends – from the pace of technological change, depleted carbon budgets, mass migration and ageing societies – that are shaping an unfamiliar future. Azeem also sits on the board of the Ada Lovelace Institute, whose mission is to ensure data and AI work for people and society. Subsequently, he spoke of the value of equipping this generation with capabilities and skills: “We need the bright and brilliant minds of the future to be analytical, emotionally resilient and empathetic.”  

Katherine Birbalsingh, founder and headmistress of the outstanding-rated Michaela Community School in a deprived area of Brent, cautioned against throwing out traditional educational methods. She gave an impassioned plea to both parents and schools to be less embracing of technology, specifically getting children off mobile devices, a hot topic on her lauded blog, To Miss With Love. Her school, often dubbed ‘the strictest in Britain’ has garnered a formidable reputation, thanks to its emphasis on discipline and teaching academic knowledge explicitly from the front.

Acknowledging the frenetic pace of change, but also the value of traditional pedagogy, Vicky Bingham posited the importance of acquiring skills, but only when built on a solid foundation of knowledge. Her aim at South Hampstead is to enable all girls to become problem-solvers of the future, as well as discovering the joy of learning for learning’s sake. She also cited the value of parents and teachers working in partnership to provide a strong pastoral framework in an increasingly anxious society.

Former Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Cameron, Sam Gyimah MP, who resigned as universities minister over Brexit last year, spoke of his time at the Department for Education, where he championed an education system that enables different people with different talents to thrive. He explained that although the economy rewards specialism, schools and universities should provide a platform to explore more varied and more “scenic routes”– to enable the next generation to think critically, to have empathy and to follow their passions, with a “spirit of adventure and discovery.”

A healthy debate ensued, prompted by incisive questions from the audience, encompassing technology in the classroom, the quality of university teaching, the International Baccalaureate vs A Levels, degree apprenticeships and the importance of, above all, being human. The panellists were unanimous in their endorsement of inculcating resilience: Azeem cited Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani’s recent book, Brave Not Perfect, as an important manifesto; Vicky Bingham suggested that, as parents and as educators, we need to learn to step back before stepping in; while Katherine Birbalsingh quoted Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We are grateful to the continued support of our school community – both parents and alumnae – for engaging with such salient issues at our Speaker Series events, and hugely appreciative of our wonderful chair and distinguished panellists for sharing their views and opening up the debate.

Each term, the Speaker Series invites the whole school community to hear from and quiz an array of eminent guests with a myriad of different experiences and opinions – recent guests have included Dame Stella Rimington MBE, Mishal Husain and Helena Bonham Carter. Once a year, we host a Speaker Series panel discussion, inviting diverse, expert speakers to tackle some of the biggest questions of the day. To learn more about South Hampstead’s plans for the future, please download our masterplan: Towards and Beyond our 150th Anniversary. 

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