Assembly: what does a feminist look like?

At Churchill, our vision is “to set no limits on what we can achieve.” Sometimes those limits can come from with ourselves – the nagging self-doubt that says “I’m not clever enough,” or “I’m not brave enough,” or “I can’t.” We work hard with our students to build their confidence so that they can talk back to those limiting voices.

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However, some of those limits can also come from outside, and some of them are invisible. I am a feminist because I can see that gender stereotypes and traditional roles act as limits that can prevent young people – boys and girls – from achieving their true potential.

For me, feminism means believing that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It means believing that nobody – male or female – should be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged by their gender. I have always been a feminist, but I have been particularly energised by the He For She initiative launched by Emma Watson at the United Nations in 2014. This initiative invites men to commit to gender equality, and provides tools to enable them to do so.

No more advertising stereotypes?

My assembly this week was sparked by the new rule which came into force this month from the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA will no longer permit any advertising in the the UK which includes “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.” That means that offensive stereotypes like these from the 1950s and 1970s will be outlawed altogether:

Although adverts like these are now things of the past, it would be wrong to assume that stereotypes are not passed on to children – often very young children – through the clothes they wear or the toys they play with.

Clothing with messaging like this includes a “drip, drip” effect which says that boys should be tough, heroic, physical, messy, and clever, whilst girls should be sensitive, secondary, pretty, and stupid.

Gendered toys and books are similar. Boys can be “brilliant,” but girls can only be “beautiful.” Girls can do chemistry and build towers of blocks – but only if it’s pink and includes gossip.

These stereotypes trap both boys and girls in limiting gender roles. It can lead to assumptions about which paths are, and are not, open to you in the future, as this video shows:

Girls can’t be heroes?

There is a well-known trope in cinema called “the Smurfette Principle.” This principle is based on the small blue cartoon characters, all of whom were male, except for a single blonde Smurfette. The Smurfette Principle says that, in movies where a group of characters goes on a quest to fix a problem, you are only allowed one female as part of the group – despite the population being 50/50! There are lots of films which follow this sexist principle:

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There has been much progress on this front in more recent times. In my assembly, I talked about the Avengers franchise as an example. In the first Avengers film, Black Widow was the only female hero, a lonely Smurfette. However, in the recent Avengers: Endgame (*spoilers ahead!*), Black Widow was joined by Captain Marvel, Nebula, Okoye, Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Mantis, Shuri, Pepper Potts and Valkyrie  to form an all-female team in the battle against Thanos. Star Wars too has seen progress, with Daisy Ridley’s Rey providing a strong, brave female hero in the franchise. Such representation provides important role models to girls: you can be heroes too.

Boys don’t try?

It’s important to recognise that feminism is about equality for both genders. It’s not just about girls being held back by sexist stereotypes – boys are trapped too. Across England in 2018, 23.7% of girls achieved top grades (7-9) at GCSE, whereas only 17.2% of boys achieved those grades. This 6.5% gap was even larger at GCSE grades 9-4 (the old A*-C): 71.4% of girls achieved this threshold, whereas only 62.3% of boys did the same, a gap of 9.1%. One theory – a persuasive one – suggests that this is the result of traditional, stereotyped gender roles in the classroom. Girls are expected to work hard, complete homework, put their hands up, and behave well. It’s what girls do. For boys to show this behaviour – which we know leads to higher academic achievement – they need to break out of stereotypical “boy” behaviour. This can be hard to do, but if we are going to prevent gender roles from limiting potential, we need to enable both boys and girls to transcend those traditional roles. Boys have to try too.

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We do not want our girls trapped in a passive, timid cage where they do not have equality and cannot step up to their potential. We do not want our boys trapped in a narrow definition of masculinity where talking about feelings, showing sensitivity or vulnerability are seen as weaknesses. This is a mentally unhealthy situation to be in. Suicide is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 20-49; it kills more men than road accidents, more than cancer, more than heart disease. If we don’t start unpicking this, we will be facing a significant problem. Men are imprisoned by their gender stereotypes too.

What does a feminist look like?

So what does a feminist look like? Well, it looks like anyone who is committed to breaking down the barriers that trap boys and girls, men and women, into outdated gender roles that unfairly advantage or disadvantage one over the other. It looks like Benedict Cumberbatch, Harry Styles, or President Obama, as well as Emma Watson, Caitlin Moran, or Taylor Swift. As Barack Obama said, in a 2016 speech:

“We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticises our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear.”

At Churchill we are committed to being a school where our boys can be strong and sensitive, and our girls can be sensitive and strong, so that we can truly set no limits on what we can achieve.

The great outdoors

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Panoramic view from the summit of the sponsored walk 2019

Schools are rooted in their communities. This means that every school is unique. One of Churchill’s unique features is our situation on the edge of an area of outstanding natural beauty. Our rural location is so beautiful, it would be a shame not to make the most of it!

This past week has seen us do exactly that. Even though the weather has not been what we might have hoped for in summer (in fact, we are heading for one of the wettest Junes on record), Churchill students have been out on the Mendips in huge numbers.

 

Over the weekend, ninety one students successfully completed their expeditions as part of their Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award. Teams of students spend two days navigating their way through the Somerset countryside, cooking for themselves and camping overnight. They were completely self-sufficient and independent, and were a huge credit to the Academy. I visited the overnight camp – in a farmer’s field – and the owner told me that Churchill students were the best she’s ever had camping there. Duke of Edinburgh is a tough challenge, but when I walked around the camp there was a huge sense of accomplishment mixed in with the exhaustion!

 

On Tuesday we had the annual sponsored walk and trek. Over 500 Year 7 and 8 students completed the sponsored walk – 16 kilometres including a mid-point climb to the trig point near Crook Peak. I had the pleasure of walking the walk this year, accompanying the Year 7 Tudor boys. They were great company, and showed plenty of determination, kindness and curiosity over the day. The views from the top were well worth the effort!

At the same time, Year 9 and 10 students were visiting checkpoints on the sponsored trek. This is a more independent challenge, with a “treasure hunt” across the Mendips to see which small team could navigate their way to the most checkpoints whilst working together collaboratively. This year, the “Legends of Trek” awards went to Year 9 Stuart Boys Team 4, with 60 points, closely followed by Year 9 Tudor Boys Team 4 and Year 10 Windsor Girls Team 1, both with 59 points. The Team Trek special award went to Year 9 Tudor Girls Team 6, but the overall winners were Hanover House with an average score across all their teams of 37.2, narrowly beating Tudor into second place with their average of 36.5.

Both these events were also important fundraising opportunities, supporting both the Friends of Churchill Academy and our nominated charity, Guide Dogs. For us as a school, they also give our students and staff the opportunity to get out into the beautiful Somerset countryside to demonstrate the Academy’s values of kindness (through teamwork, and looking after the environment), curiosity (by discovering new parts of our local area that students might not have visited before), and determination (by pushing themselves to take on a challenge). It is only possible with the fantastic support of the entire staff team, who all work together to ensure we can undertake the events safely – thank you to all of them, and to all the students who have risen to the challenge and enjoyed our great outdoors this week.

Finding your fire

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“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”

Plutarch

I often use that quotation when I am talking about education. When I was at school in north west London in the early 1990s, my mind was lit up by English Literature, and particularly poetry. My teachers were skilful and knowledgeable enough to feed that fire, which led me to studying English Language and Literature at university. The flame continued to burn brightly as I trained to teach English, and has been the torch that has guided me throughout my career. There is no greater pleasure than passing on that spark to somebody else, and seeing them get as excited as you do about your subject.

For me it was English. For others it’s Mathematics, or hockey, or cooking, or chemistry, or painting, dance, textiles, the saxophone…

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Our Year 7 students in a cookery workshop with Michelin-star-winning chef Josh Eggleton, and Churchill alumnus Nick Woodhouse, who completed an apprenticeship with Josh after leaving Churchill

Where our students have already found their passion, we do our best as a school to nurture it. But one of the most important things adults can do for young people is introduce them to as many new subjects, skills and experiences as possible. Every time we do, we open up possibilities. This could be the thing that really lights their fire.

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Game Stars competition winner Tabitha with Josh Eggleton (and me!) this week at the opening of the food rooms

Another important thing that we must do is help the next generation see that they don’t always have to do things the way that they have always been done. We have to help them see past stereotyping in subjects, jobs, and careers. We try hard to help our students challenge stereotypes and do things differently. We named the Athene Donald Building after the first woman to be made a professor in any of the physical sciences in Cambridge to show that women and girls have just as much of a future in scientific careers as men and boys.

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Our students Saffron, Mimi and Mia with the Soroptimists and dignitaries at this week’s Skirting Science event

This week we built on that tradition with our Skirting Science event, welcoming girls from nine different schools to Churchill to get experiences of possible futures in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, by hearing from women in those fields. Also this week we invited Michelin-starred chef Josh Eggleton to open the new food rooms to show that a career in the kitchen is not defined by gender but by skill, passion and enthusiasm.

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Students at work with forensic scientists from the University of the West of England (Bristol) at Skirting Science

The vision for our school is “to set no limits on what we can achieve.” If we are serious about this, it means that we need to challenge the limits that other people’s expectations place on us. We aim to kindle the flame that sustains the skills, talents, passions and enthusiasms of our young people, whether they pursue them within school or beyond.

D-Day 75

75 years ago today, on 6th June 1944, Allied forces landed on five beaches in Normandy, Northern France. Overnight, gliders and paratroopers had landed further inland. The landings represented the first phase of Operation Overlord – the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe – with the aim of bringing World War Two to an end.

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Men of the 16th Infantry Regiment, US 1st Infantry Division wade ashore on Omaha Beach on the morning of 6 June 1944

The Allied forces of US, British and Canadian troops also included Australian, Belgian, Czech, Dutch, French, Greek, New Zealand, Norwegian, Rhodesian [present-day Zimbabwe] and Polish naval, air and ground support. Up to 7,000 ships and landing craft were involved, delivering a total of 156,000 men and 10,000 vehicles to the shore. By the end of the day, 4,400 troops died from the combined allied forces. Some 9,000 were wounded or missing. Total German casualties on the day are estimated as being between 4,000 and 9,000 men. Thousands of French civilians also died.

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Map of the Normandy landings

But, by midnight of 6th June, the Allies had secured their beachheads (codenamed Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah) and begun to push further inland. Within eleven months, Nazi Germany was defeated and the war was over. 

D-Day marked the turning point in the Second World War. It was a remarkable military, technical, logistical and physical achievement, made possible by international cooperation, driven by a shared belief in the importance of defeating the oppression and horror of the Nazi regime.

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Lt. Jim Hildrew, Royal Navy, c. 1941

The anniversary of D-Day is always a special one to me. My grandfather, Jim Hildrew, was in the Royal Navy during the Second World  War. He supported the Allied invasion of France from the English Channel, working on Operation PLUTO (Pipe-Line Under The Ocean) which was designed to supply fuel from England to the Allied armies in France by laying flexible pipes all the way across the seabed. I am proud to think that he made his contribution to the freedom that we all enjoy – and perhaps take for granted – today.

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Supply landings at Omaha Beach, mid-June 1944

He was one of the lucky ones who came back alive after the war, returning to teaching as the Headmaster of Grasmere School in the Lake District. Many were not so lucky: by the time Paris was liberated in August 1944, 200,000 of the Allied troops who had landed in France were dead, wounded or missing. On the anniversary of this important day in history, we should all take time to remember those who gave their lives so that we could live ours in liberty.