A Society in Transformation

As schools return after the Easter break, a London headmaster sees opportunities to address intergenerational tensions.

When our society comes to look back over the past three years, I would claim that it is not the coronavirus which will be remembered as bringing change to our way of life. It will be intergenerational inequality and intergenerational discord.

The past three years have borne witness to three successive waves of disquiet. Schools are microcosms of the communities around them and this disquiet has echoed around our hallways. First came the climate strikes in 2019; second came the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020; and most recently the consequences of disclosures from Everyone’s Invited. In all three cases, there has been a widespread feeling that times are a’changing, but in all three cases it has been the younger generation which has championed the need for change. Let us now layer on top of these three the coronavirus – a disease where the young are quarantined to protect the old and we see intergenerational cracks appearing.

Arguably, it has been over fifty years since we last saw such dissonance between the old and the young. In May 1968, a student strike in Paris led to a general strike and then to rioting which didn’t quite topple the government, but which did reveal a chasm of misunderstanding and mistrust between the ruling class, comprised mainly of elderly white men and the priorities of the young and the marginalised.

Now, in the third decade of a new century, reactions to the issues of the last three years can be categorised by age. Older TV viewers have been upset, shocked, outraged and alarmed at protests and revelations. Politicians have spoken out in all three cases and change has been promised. The police too have been active on each occasion and they, of course, have drawn ire for their efforts.

By contrast, young people have been the ones out on the streets in three successive years and each time it has fallen to schools to bridge the growing gap between the generations. But here comes the good news, because far from being a chore, this is something which we do in schools with gladness. Schools are uniquely placed to build a better world and to create the future society which we want.

The climate strikes have prompted pupils from to consider food waste, recycling and energy usage. Good schools listen to their pupils, of course. At the school where I serve, for example, we now have the environment at one of our four major development strands for three years running. Would we have chosen to do this without the prompting of Greta Thunberg and her young followers? It is wonderful to see the drive coming from children. Let us encourage and embrace their energy.

The tragic death of George Floyd came as a timely wake-up call to many parts of the community, whilst simultaneously being no surprise at all to others. In every school that I know, including my own, this tragedy has offered a welcome opportunity to look afresh at the curriculum, at diversity, at representation and at issues of equality. That so many school pupils were out on the streets protesting last summer whilst so many older people were not is clear evidence of two different world views. Education is the key to building a better tomorrow for the whole of society.

Finally, I know that the recent disclosures around a teenage rape culture have come as a hard blow to some schools. In wider society, some commentators have been tempted to seek easy solutions, some have blamed victims and some want to wallpaper over the issue, but no-one in Great Britain should be subject to sexual harassment or sexual violence. Here too, schools are taking the lead. We are not shying away from difficult conversations nor from difficult truths.

Every senior school in the land has spoken out about this issue and we are working with families to educate both girls and boys about consent, we are helping boys to develop a new, positive masculinity which celebrates inter alia teamwork, kindness and leadership and we are championing feminism and challenging obstacles to the empowerment of women.

There is little doubt that our wider society has intergenerational fractures, but schools are places of transformation, teachers are inspirational and the summer term of 2021 offers another fresh start for us to build the country that we wish for.

Charlie Fillingham


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