Headmaster’s Routh Assembly Address
Monday 11th October 2021
Reading: Excerpt from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
"Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex."
Given that she died in a different country, over 100 years before we were born, I am pretty sure that the great English novelist Charlotte Bronte, who wrote those words, never met my first girlfriend. But she certainly seemed to speak for her. That same sentiment you just heard in the reading, in which Jane Eyre expresses frustration about women lacking the position and privilege of men, was still in existence a century later, when I was growing up. Sadly, most would acknowledge it is still the case today. Of course, the concept of unequal privilege doesn’t stop with gender either. As the current focus of Black History Month tells us, being born into uneven advantage arises just as often because of your race and ethnicity as well. Not to mention perhaps the most pervasive source of privilege of all, the distinctions created by differences in class or wealth.
Back to my first girlfriend, who was Samoan. Not that I knew it. Aged ten, not only did I not know she was Samoan, I was not actually aware that she was my girlfriend. I only discovered the relationship bit when she threatened to flatten the class bully, who routinely relieved me of my lunch in the locker bay every morning. With a menacing tone, she told him to “leave her boyfriend alone”. At which point he decided my Marmite sandwiches probably weren’t worth the humiliation of being pulverised by a girl, and he sulked off to find a victim who didn’t have their own hired muscle.
My saviour then took my hand and announced that we were a couple. At which moment, I was mainly interested in the fact that I was no longer going to go hungry that day, plus the tantalising prospect of having a personal bodyguard. At age ten, the fact she was a girl didn’t really compute, and the penny didn’t drop about her ethnicity until years later.
I suppose if I thought hard about it at the time, I would have realised that we had different coloured skin. But then, so did just about everybody I grew up with. Her family was not well off, but neither were any of those in my neighbourhood, including my own. Aspirations were not high for her or most of my peers, regardless of our various ethnicities. I was one of only two people in my Sixth Form year to go to university, the first in my family to do so. Sadly, my girlfriend did not, although she was every bit as intelligent and capable.
The truth is, it wasn’t until I did go to University that I gave any real thought to our racial differences. We had long since parted ways (we actually officially “broke up” two days after the hand-holding incident), but the realisation of how our paths may have diverged thanks to factors beyond our control started to sink in. She could not influence being brown, poor, and female. But if those traits didn’t condemn her, they certainly didn’t ease her journey through life.
Likewise, I had no control over being born white and male. I would like to think that my climb out of a poor neighbourhood on the wrong side of town was thanks to hard graft on my part, but I cannot say whether my inherent race and gender may also have played a role. Ironically, New Zealand is widely praised for being an egalitarian society with respectful race relations, but like most of the Western world when I was growing up, being a white male still conferred advantage, even if you didn’t actively seek it.
But then, so to did coming from a stable family and having parents who had unbounded praise and aspiration for their children. That was another privilege that I didn’t even recognise at the time. It is only as I have pursued a lifelong career in education that I have come to fully understand how big an initial advantage a young person gets from simply being born in a family that encourages, rather than limits, their belief in themselves.
In recent years, a number of global movements have challenged people in all nations to confront the notion of privilege and inherent unfairness in society. The Gender Pay and MeToo campaigns, that have drawn attention to women being marginalised or mistreated in the workplace. The Black Lives Matter protests, focussing on racial discrimination and inequity. Outcry against institutions that may have profited historically from slavery or other unfair and immoral practices in the past. One might even say that the climate change and sustainability campaigns of the current day are in part driven by unhappiness at the way that people today may be abusing the privilege of limited resources to the detriment of those who inhabit the Earth in the future.
Privilege is a tricky concept and has certainly become an emotionally charged word throughout those various campaigns. In its simplest terms, it means to have a special right or advantage that others do not have.
That sounds inherently bad, yet I often introduce myself by saying it is my privilege to be the Headmaster of Bromsgrove School. That position is a special right, afforded only to me. I do consider it a privilege, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. If I started to abuse the position, used it to make your lives worse, not better, that would be a different matter altogether.
However, I was granted that privilege through my own efforts and actions taken throughout my life. Perhaps it would be a different story if I had been born into the role. The difficulty many people have with privilege tends not to be about the advantages we earn throughout our lives by virtue of how hard we work or what kind of values we demonstrate. Most people accept that it is only fair to be judged and rewarded for the way you live your life.
What is more contentious is the idea that we might be born with an innate advantage over other people. We can have no influence over our race, gender, size, or shape when we come out of the womb. Those are the cards we are dealt. Likewise, we have no control over the family into which we are born; their relative level of wealth, their social station. In different countries and in different times, that set of traits we inherit can either prove to be an advantage or a disadvantage in life.
The question then, for those who are dealt favourable cards of gender or ethnicity or class at birth, is how to play them? The three choices seem fairly clear.
Firstly, you could decide to protect your privilege, and build a good life based on the advantage you have over others. Maybe even deny that your advantage exists. Perhaps try to make sure that you pass on your privilege to a few chosen others.
Secondly, you could spend your whole time apologising for those characteristics that you inherited and have no control over. Or try to give up the advantage. Or deliberately ignore it and live a life of self-deprecation or denial.
Or thirdly, and more sensibly, you can recognise the privilege you have been handed and, if it feels slightly unfair that you were luckier than others, try to leverage it for their benefit as well as your own. Live a life using your advantage for the benefit of all.
We don’t berate top athletes for their good luck in being born tall or strong or well-proportioned. We encourage them to use what nature’s lottery gave them to bring pleasure to us all, even if it is vicarious. Likewise, if we ourselves are born into some form of privilege. Surely, we should try and use it for the good of all?
There is an enormous amount of privilege right here in this Arena this morning. Most of you were born with some form of initial advantage, relative to other young people your age. Whether that is fair or not is a question for philosophers. My question, your challenge, is what are you going to do with that advantage?
If you are male, what will you do if you see women feeling as Jane Eyre did, “suffering from too rigid a restraint.”? If you are white, what will you do when you see others disadvantaged just because of the colour of their skin? You live and work amongst people from 53 different nations; you know they are equal in this place in terms of skill and ability. How will you ensure their opportunities match their talents beyond our gates?
Most of you have the privilege of coming from relatively well-off backgrounds, although some do not. The School provides a model of how to level that playing field, by providing life-changing bursaries. What will you do, when you leave this place, to share your advantage and offer others a leg up?
And whatever your gender, race, or relative wealth, I still hold that the greatest initial advantage that most of you have in life is the fact that you come from a loving family, with parents who value you enough to have sent you here. How will you leverage that privilege in the future? Not just for your own good, but for the benefit of others.
The thing about initial advantage is that it should be used with empathy by those fortuitous enough to have it, for the betterment of all people. Not to perpetuate inequality, but to eradicate it.
As Benjamin Franklin rightly said, "Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are".
The system can be changed faster from within than without. That’s why I teach; it is the most powerful agency for social change on the planet. And one of the things that stops me feeling smug, or guilty, about whatever privilege I may have experienced in life is the opportunity I have to share my good fortune.
Because I would like to think if my ten-year-old, Samoan, two-day girlfriend were to arrive at the gates of Bromsgrove today, she would not only have a chance to join the School, but would also feel the same sense of belonging, share the same aspirations, and be afforded the same opportunities in life, as we strive to provide for each of you.
The senior team lost against a very strong Bristol Metropolitan team.
The School Golf team defeated Solihull School 5-1 in the first round of the ISGA cup. Wins for Lili-Rose Hunt, James Humphries, Thomas Griffiths, James Bayliss and Euan Choi. We face Rugby or Repton in the next round.
Alongside school success, Lili-Rose Hunt was a key member of the Worcestershire Ladies Golf team who won the Mary Turner Bowl against Staffordshire and Warwickshire.
Two good wins in Cup matches, with the U14’s scoring a convincing 40-0 against Malvern College, whilst in a much closer game, the 1st XV won 35-34 against Kings Worcester.
The squash team lost against King Edwards Birmingham.
And in matches against Littleton Tigers, the boys lost 16-7 and the girls won 10-2.
It was great to have our first swimming fixture for many months against Cheltenham College. All races were very competitive with Bromsgrove coming out with a 64-63 victory. The senior swimming team also won their match on Saturday against Uppingham, 92-71.
In the other fixtures against Uppingham School on Saturday there were good wins for all Badminton teams. Despite their efforts the hockey teams lost, whilst on the rugby pitches there were good wins in all 4 matches played.
Finally last week, we were treated to a superb evening of dramatic and musical performances from our Vth and VIth Form scholars. A superb range of talents on display across a wide variety of genre. It was also really pleasing to see so many of you attending the concert to support your friends and peers.
The first set of AEO grades for the year are published today and you will have the opportunity to sit down and discuss them with your tutors this afternoon.
It is Own Clothes day this Friday in aid of the Primrose Hospice, also on Friday there is a teatime concert celebrating Woodwind & Brass – please come along and support.
Finally, we wish the Expedition Club well as they travel to Snowdonia this weekend.
Please now stand as we say the Grace together.