No more Sir, no more Miss (June 2023)

I’ve been told that I need to be less circumlocutory in today’s assembly, that there’s a message I need to give clearly and unambiguously, and I certainly plan to do that, but it would be unidiomatic to leap straight in and so I’m taking a moment to tell you that the message is sponsored by a certain notorious keyring and will be illuminated by an offstage sage – partly because that’s a phrase I just like to say, and partly to encourage you to listen carefully – any quotes you identify can be exchanged for bonus credit – there are also a couple of film recommendations for you to follow up. We’d better crack on!

The key message that you need to listen to is this – we are changing the way that students refer to staff at Harris Westminster. No longer will it be acceptable to call us “Sir” or “Miss”. We would prefer you to call us by our names – Mr Handscombe, Ms Scott, Dr Bladon – and we recognize that you might not know all of those yet and so give you amnesty to say “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name” – or, more likely, “I’m afraid I’ve forgotten what title you use”. We are also prepared for you to call any of the staff in the school “Teacher” if you need a short version for any reason.

No more “Sir”, though, and no more “Miss”, and the reason lies in that keyring and in our continued commitment to a better and more equal world. I don’t know if you’ve ever reflected on the inequality of the way we refer to teachers, but it’s deeply unequal – I get called “Sir”, which, if I’m honest, I don’t find personally objectionable, I imagine Sir Lancelot (without the philandering) or Sir Galahad (without the painfully earnest purity) and exclude Sir Robin (who might be obscure but whose significance will become clear if you investigate the British comedy films of 1975) – meanwhile Ms Scott gets called “Miss” which is how you refer to a small girl, or an Edwardian shop assistant – and I imagine that enough of you have railed against the fate of Eva Smith for this to be an unfortunate parallel.

It's something I’ve thought about a lot – in fact, we’ve tried this approach before – in 2014 when the school started. Unfortunately, we had too many other things to think about, couldn’t make it stick, and sank into cultural misogyny. Which is what this is – I don’t think that any of you are being actively woman-hating when you call “miss” over to get help with your chemistry, but we’re all feeding into a view of the world that diminishes women. Men get to be fearless leaders and alpha types, get credited for hustling whilst behind the backs of women it’s asked whether they deserve it, whether their career comes from good ideas or good looks, power moves or diversity lists.

So, how are we going to make it stick this time when we couldn’t do it back then with a new school and a handful of students? I think it comes down to you – and I’m 100% your ally here, but my world dates back to 1975 and a group of young men overthrowing expectations by dressing up as their mothers to get a laugh. Those young men are now old men and we can’t expect old men to fix this – they aren’t going to help us, too busy helping themselves – they aren’t going to change this, we’ve got to do it ourselves. I don’t think it’s going to be easy – it’s an ingrained habit – I don’t think we’ll get it right all the time – but I think we can get there if we help each other remember. So, I’m going to try to ignore it when you “sir” me – and that’s going to be hard because I’ve been “sirred” since the last millennium – and Ms Scott and Dr Bladon are going to try to remember to correct you when you call them “Miss” – and all the other teachers and support staff are going to try to overcome their ingrained reflexes. It’s not going to be easy – it’s going to require us all working together, persevering when things don’t go according to plan, finding ways of dealing with difficulties, committing to that outcome, but we’re Harris Westminster, perseverance is what we do.

This is part of a wider reset we’re looking for now that the Year 13s have gone and we have a liminal space before the new Year 12s arrive in which it’s your school – shaped by your ambitions and abilities. And so I’d like to remind you of those ambitions – you’ve come here to get a great education, to get grades you’ll be writing on your CV for years to come, to get into and be ready for the next step of your choice, to make friends that will last a life time and to develop habits of mind and study skills that will carry you through your university career and into the world of work beyond. That’s the challenge I set out at Open Evening – some of you might remember the words. How are you doing? Are you doing sixteen hours of independent study or homework a week? Are you using a third of your vacation time to read widely and voraciously to develop a depth of hinterland that will make you interesting, make you stand out from the crowd? Are you acquiring bonus credit despite its lack of currency? Are you involved in clubs and societies – do you have an interest, do you have a passion, are you acquiring leadership skills? And are you taking advice from teachers – or are you fighting them over the dress code or punctuality? If it’s the latter – please stop – I just, I mean, this is exhausting, you know – energy that’s spent arguing with you, arranging sanctions for you, is not spent helping you, arranging opportunities. The staff have a finite capacity – don’t waste it. My observation from my lofty position on the sixth floor is that too many of you rush out of school at 4.30 to go home rather than staying around to do something useful. This is an error – the opportunity to study at Steel House is a massive privilege that you should be making more use of. If you go home then you’ll slump in a corner when you get there, mess around on Snapgram, have some food and then think about doing homework at 9pm, by which time it will be too late to be efficient and so you’ll plough through until midnight, still distracted by Instachat, still learning the lesson that stressing and obsessing about somebody else is no fun and then end up sleeping through your alarm the next morning and missing lesson time. Better to get 2 hours done here (the most productive people go for a 15 minute walk between last lesson and knuckling down in the library), then the commute home is a bit of a break from study, you can have your tea, chat to your mum, and if you do need to do more work you can still get an hour in before 10pm. But it’s not just study time that you’re missing – it’s community time. This is an incredible group of people – young, passionate, active – well on their way to knowing everything at 18 – do something with them! Whether that’s setting the world to rights with the Intersectional Feminism Society (and I think we’re agreed that it’s could do with some setting) or organizing a British Comedy club (we had one of those once – you could resurrect it and start by watching that 1975 film), don’t say you’re too tired, the Year 12 finishing line is just over a month away, you’re young, so run!

Back to the main point, I’ve digressed, sorry. No more “Sir” or “Miss” – names or “Teacher”, and I’ve been asked regarding this whether “Teach” is an acceptable shortening. I think that it’s only fair to ask the individual at the front of the class. For my part, I find it recalls Edward Teach – a pirate born in 1680 in Bristol and better known as Blackbeard. He was a fearsome fellow with a tremendous beard and slow fuses that he placed under his hat and set alight in order to intimidate the opposition. He is known for eschewing violence (which I also do) preferring to rely on reputation and appearance (this tie is a civilized alternative to setting my hair on fire) – it is, as another British comedy film, this time from 1987, tells us, the name that inspires the necessary fear. If I can’t be Galahad then I’ll happily imagine myself Blackbeard, but others might prefer not to be compared to ancient and smelly criminals, so ask them first.

And back again – from now on, please refer to staff in this school by their names – Mr Handscombe and Ms Scott, not “Miss” or “Sir” – feel free to ask them what they like to be called if you’ve forgotten and use “Teacher” in a pinch. It’s going to be difficult for us all, but this is your opportunity to change how we do things here, to achieve something those pioneers couldn’t manage, to leave a legacy that will be remembered for the thousand years of school history that we’re planning. The message of the keyring is that it’s not right to address men as aristocratic knights and women as children, and that’s true even if you have no idea what keyring I’m talking about (although I think some of you will know all too well).

I’d like to close with the reassurance that no men were harmed in the making of this assembly.