Friday 24th June: it had all the makings of a perfect day. At Magdalen College School, the day saw our first Founders Day whole-school sponsored walk, and the route took us through the heart of the University Church because we are hosting the “Gaia” globe art installation together as part of the Oxford Festival of the Arts.
I spent the morning under an artwork 2.1 million times smaller than the earth itself, talking with hundreds of our pupils about the Overview Effect: the experience of seeing our planet from space, and the awe and sense of stewardship that inspires in us.
Every so often I remind our pupils that like our planet, they are both stronger and more fragile than they realise. And so, it turns out, are our rights.
Monday morning, and I am speaking to the Year 11 boys as part of their induction programme for entering our Sixth Form. Induction is about much more than preparing them for the arrival of girls, though of course that features. Fundamentally, it is about good decision-making in every aspect of their lives, and about respecting themselves and others. We explore identities and how their construction is changing, and the legal framework that underpins their rights.
“I tell our Year 11s that in fighting for their rights, I am reminded that my own are historically constructed and anything but a given.”
At the front of my mind is the repeal of landmark legislation which has been in place since 1973, for as long as I have been alive. As I wandered up to my office, one of my history pupils came out of the Sixth Form Centre and said “Roe V Wade has been repealed.” It was not a surprise, but I still registered the shock. “Sorry if I’ve ruined your day,” she said, as we reflected on the news.
Ever since I was a teenager, I have been aware that in the USA, a woman’s right to choose her reproductive future has not been a matter for individual states to change at will, but something the Supreme Court took a view on. I therefore tell our Year 11s that in fighting for their rights, I am reminded that my own are historically constructed and anything but a given.
What Friday brought home to us is that we might be failing to legislate to protect mighty, endangered Gaia on a global scale, but the Supreme Court is capable of asserting the freedom of individual states to limit the freedom of its women.
Ah, but the US is not the UK, the optimistic say to me. (Or possibly the short-sighted – time will tell.) Abortion has been legal here since 1967, and this is quite a different culture. Just as we are not arming and training primary school teachers to combat gun culture, so we need not worry that women’s rights are in danger of being pulled back here in this profound way.
“Schools teach pupils how to think, and above all how to ascribe value and values.”
You can’t blame me for wondering about this. Earlier this year, I was asked by the Telegraph to define what a woman is. While I had no difficulty in answering, I also had an out of body experience as I imagined my teenage self being told that this would be a question which needed clarifying in 2022.
Schools teach pupils how to think, and above all how to ascribe value and values. If celebrating the 542nd year of our foundation brought anything home to me, it is that we cannot be complacent about the rights and values we currently enjoy.
They are historically constructed and they exist only in certain contexts; they are by no means a given for most people in the world. As we do the annual refresh of our PSHE schemes of work, I hope that a sustainable Gaia and the rights we have fought to enjoy are at the heart of all we do.