Amid these necessarily “anti-social” times, we have undergone a brutal social awakening. The shocking deaths of two unconnected people have brought to the surface a torrent of emotion and shone a spotlight on issues which affect society, and with it, all schools – issues such as mutual respect, inclusion and social responsibility.
In the crucial years when young people are finding out who they are and what they believe in - questions of identity, alienation, injustice and a heartfelt desire for change have risen to the top of a very public consciousness.
At Putney High School this term, the launch of the It Starts with Me programme has been extremely timely - a holistic and proactive approach to helping our young people gain a more confident understanding of both themselves, their peers and the diverse society in which they’re growing up. The social issues that have arisen over the last year are not something for “someone else” to solve, and crucially, It Starts with Me is about replacing complacency and any tendency towards simply virtue signaling, with a sense of shared responsibility.
The teenage years can be an anxious and uncertain time as boys and girls grapple with identity, puberty and their growing awareness of their place in the world. 24-hour news, tv and advertising, coupled with the all-pervasive social media do not help to reduce the pressure and we are increasingly seeing the dangers these channels bring to teenagers’ perceptions not only of themselves but of others, including the way they treat the opposite sex. Add to that the pressures of a pandemic and there has been plenty of time for these stresses to multiply, and for agitation to mount.
When I speak to the girls at my school, who are I am pleased to say, a generally down-to-earth, self-aware and considerate bunch, they have strong views about the kind of society they want to live in. We do everything we can to support them as they grow into kind, considerate and thoughtful adults who undoubtedly want to bring change. We tell them that it’s one thing to protest, but talking about something and doing something about it are fundamentally different things. So we encourage our students to be active in combatting social stereotypes and to foster inclusive relationships in their daily lives, but to respond to challenging issues in a collaborative and considered way.
As part of their Sixth Form pastoral programme discussions include everything from advice on personal boundaries and party culture, to being aware and dealing with difficult situations; even how to address bias in the workplace. Students are learning the worth that is to be gained from their actions, their character and their achievements; how risk-taking and reward can promote confidence and that affirmation doesn’t lie in TikTok or Instagram “likes” but in the “real life likes” and positive relationships they build in real life (IRL) whether in the classroom or their lives outside school.
Covid has taught us the difference we can make in our community and again the need for positive action as opposed to complacency. This summer our Activities Week will focus on outreach projects with local schools (both maintained and independent). Across the year groups, students will have even more opportunity to work in collaboration with others, on everything from entrepreneurial start-up ideas to community outreach projects and robot building competitions. Furthermore, these collaborations, including with local boys’ schools, promote genuine friendships based on mutual interests, understanding and genuine respect.
This generation of young women are becoming accustomed to learning without limits, pursuing careers in STEM which decades ago may have been less open or attractive to them and learning that when life goes wrong (which it certainly has recently and invariably does) it is how we respond to it that matters. Girls in Year 12 are leading their own Social Responsibility Club, open to students throughout the school. Naina in Year 11 is currently working with a small group of students from across the UK to create a “Diversity App” with the aim of creating something “accessible to the younger generation which will both raise awareness and educate”. She talks passionately about banishing societal stereotypes, opening young minds and tackling pre-conceived ideas head on, “so that when they grow-up they don’t have these sort of sub-conscious ‘-isms’”.
So that is why at Putney we say, “It Starts with Me”; examining our own actions is a healthy place to start and it isn’t long before we see how those actions impact others. After all, as John Donne said so well, “no man [or woman] is an island”. There is every sign that our young people are rejecting complacency, taking increased ownership and by the way they treat others, becoming part of something greater and better. A fresh perspective on the things we can all do to make a difference may truly make this world a better place to be.
A blog by Suzie Longstaff, Headmistress at Putney High School