Headmaster, Whitgift School
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Libby Purves once wrote of Headmasters: “at their best, they relieve their solid humdrum virtues with a rich vein of lunacy rarely achieved by headmistresses”¹. Discussing the fairly ‘so what?’ story of the Harris Westminster Academy and its abolition of ‘sir’ and ‘miss’ as terms with which to address staff² with a (female) HMC colleague yesterday, I found myself agreeing: male Heads can sometimes get it so wrong. Maybe we have something we think we need to apologise for.
Well, Harris Westminster is a superb school, and I know full well that their Head and I share some aspects of our current jobs: we work in highly selective schools where parents are mostly superbly supportive and behaviour is largely excellent. So, we must forgive the vast majority of teachers in this country who probably feel Harris’s new rules have the whiff of virtue signalling.
What, you may well ask, is all the fuss about? ‘Calling male teachers ‘sir’ and female teachers ‘miss’ is old-fashioned, demanding and – worse – underpinning outmoded hierarchies, even (ouch) embedding harmful stereotypes. ‘No more Sir … and no more Miss, because of our commitment to a more equal world’, said the Head.
Really? First of all, most schools – and I include my own – are perfectly comfortable if a pupil calls a teacher ‘Mr X’ or ‘Ms Y’. I would say that should be the teacher’s choice. But ‘excuse me, sorry, I’ve forgotten your name but I know you’re a teacher’ (smirk, smirk) … really? What about the young teacher establishing their authority who would feel undermined by this?
Is ‘Sir’ so redolent of the Middle Ages? I’m fairly sure it is simply the English equivalent of ‘Monsieur’, a term of respect for an older male you don’t know. It’s still what we say in formal letters, and we surely don’t think the Editor of the Times is Galahad or Lancelot. It’s also, by the way, what rugby players call the ref – again, a rather welcome mark of respect. I asked my colleague what she thought male rugby players in her school would call a female ref, and she answered unhesitatingly ‘Miss’.
Now, OK, ‘Miss’ is a bit odd, and I know many female colleagues who prefer to be called ‘Mrs X or Miss Y or Ms Z’, and that is sensible and fine for them. Ma’am? Well, they do that at Eton, which doubtless would be reason enough for Harris Westminster to shudder and write that off. But if female colleagues want that, why not?
There’s a practical reason why we (and I suspect most schools, especially biggish ones) go for ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss”: quite simply, our boys might not know all the staff, but they do know that they ARE staff – and I include support staff here. So, yes, ‘Mr Ramsey’ is absolutely fine, but if in doubt, whether it’s teacher or groundsman, ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’ it should be. Like the soldier saluting, the pupil is showing respect for the function as much as for the personality.
And actually, ‘Miss’ even more than ‘Sir’ hints at someone not to be messed with, not to be scornful of, not to be ignored. Which, in my book, is reason enough to use it.
Harris Westminster can of course do what they like – and their pupils are probably clever enough to get the philosophical arguments, though I’m not sure that means it won’t be without its rocky moments. But I think teachers can do with all the respect we insist on their getting, and learning respect at school seems to me to be a good place to start.
¹ A Little Learning, Libby Purves, TES publications 2007