Don’t Call our Young People ‘Woke’, says GSA President

Don’t Call our Young People ‘Woke’, says GSA President

22 November 2021

The President of a leading schools association has criticised adults who mock young people for being ‘woke’.

Samantha Price, this year’s President of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), will tell her organisation’s annual conference today (Monday 22 November): “We should challenge anyone who dismisses this generation as ‘woke’, ‘cancel culture’ or ‘snowflakes’.”

In a no-nonsense message, Mrs Price will tell her fellow Heads: “I am getting a little weary of hearing the older generation say, ‘you can’t say anything anymore’. The fact is that times have changed, and we simply need to keep up with them.”

Mrs Price, the Headmistress of the prestigious Benenden School in Kent, will address more than 100 Heads of the leading independent girls’ schools in the UK at their two-day GSA Conference in Manchester, the theme of which is Girls – The Voice for Positive Change.

She will say: “What has really stuck me is that this so-called ‘woke’ generation are actually simply young people who care about things: about causes, about the planet, about people. It ultimately comes down to something very simple: being kind.”

In her speech, Mrs Price acknowledges that the younger generation don’t always approach their protests in the best way but will say it is schools’ job to help teach them how to conduct themselves when campaigning so that they can effect lasting change.

Mrs Price will say the past 18 months has seen national and international outcry and demand for justice and action on an array of issues, which she will say has been “no doubt exacerbated by the restrictions to our freedoms during two lockdowns via the platform that has been provided by social media for expression of opinion, sharing of ideas and cries for action”.

She will say:
“Black Lives Matter, the revelations of Everyone’s Invited, high-profile violence against women and the sharp focus on ongoing widespread misogyny in society and the workplace – with police forces being the latest example – gender identity and climate change have all featured as the focal points for those we educate to rightly demand that we address.

“It is fair to say that these are themes that our students are genuinely very anxious about, that they feel a responsibility to address and expect us to lead and support them in this. There is a sense more than ever that they will be inheriting this world from our generation, and it is their responsibility to fix it.

“There isn’t one school leader in this country who hasn’t been affected, and had to respond to this, in the past 18 months and nor will this agenda lose momentum: I firmly believe that it is here to stay. What an exciting time therefore to be leading a school, and especially a girls’ school, as we collectively consider the skills that we need to develop to equip this wonderful generation of future female leaders to truly have their voices heard and to make a lasting difference.

“Every generation believes that the older generation does not understand them. In recent years there have been many references to this generation being ‘woke’ – meant in a derogatory sense – and adults commenting that they feel today’s teenagers are speaking a different language to them and that they can’t say anything without being corrected or ‘called out’ by these politically correct – or ‘woke’ – children. To a certain extent, as parents and school leaders, we can probably all relate to this in some way or other, but I am getting a little weary of hearing the older generation say, ‘you can’t say anything anymore’. The fact is that times have changed, and we simply need to keep up with them. It would be unforgivable for the older generation to close its mind to new ideas, to retreat to ‘the good old days’ and dismiss the energetic changes of this generation as something to be referred to in derogatory tones and sighs.

“I would challenge us, the teachers in our Staff Rooms and the parents of the students in our schools to think hard about whether being ‘woke’ is something to be criticised for?”

Mrs Price will cite the definition of ‘woke’ and say:
“It describes someone who has ‘woken up’ to issues of social injustice. I would say that if this word in its true meaning describes our teens, we have much to be proud of and hopeful for in this next generation and it is our duty to listen and nurture this. We should challenge anyone who dismisses this generation as ‘woke’, ‘cancel culture’ or ‘snowflakes’.”

Mrs Price will add: “What has really stuck me is that this so-called ‘woke’ generation are actually simply young people who care about things: about causes, about the planet, about people. It ultimately comes down to something very simple: being kind. Isn’t that what we all want our toddlers to be: we teach them to be kind. And then when they grow up to be impressive, kind young people with an understanding and appreciation for the world around them, how can it be right that we mock them or dismiss them as unrealistic do-gooders?

“It is clear to me who is right on this one – the young people are. Those who criticise what they are calling for (although not perhaps how they always go about it) are wrong. As educators, it is our duty to help them develop their voice, to help them embrace who they are and to support them to fight for what they believe in with an informed, educated voice that actively listens to the same extent as it speaks.”

Mrs Price will outline a series of initiatives that GSA schools have been working to introduce, saying:

“In the past year many of our schools have established or developed pupil-led inclusion groups, appointed inclusion leads in our schools, put time aside to explore what inclusion looks like with staff and re-written PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education) in response to the changes to RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) programmes. We are working hard to diversify our staff bodies, we are reviewing what and how we teach, and we are developing further understanding of both physical and neuro disability.

“If I look on our websites and strategic plans, the theme of ‘people’ increasingly stands out – we are responding, and our schools are better because of it. However, there is still more to do in this regard, and it will be the pupils’ feedback which will ultimately enable us to measure our progress.

“This does not mean that our students inform how we lead – but it does mean that we continue to listen and respond.”

She will conclude her speech by referring again to the theme of the Conference, Girls – The Voice for Positive Change, saying: “I firmly believe that young women will increasingly lead the change that this generation are calling for. It is our job as Heads to enable and empower them to do this in a way that is effective and lasting. It is our job to teach them to discuss and debate the most sensitive topics with an active ear, to listen and respect differing opinions and nimbly present their case with strength, passion and conviction.”

Mrs Price will also say that parents have a vital role to play in this progress:
“As part of this, we have to work with their parents to enable them to understand what for many is the new language of this generation and I know that many of our schools are currently running a series of talks, both in person and online, addressing the themes of inclusion, diversity and gender – and I would encourage all of us to do this. There are parents who are deeply unsettled around some of these topics – notably gender and gender transition – and the language surrounding this. This presents challenges for schools but as we put the wellbeing of each student first, with carefully thought through structures in place to support this, all of us can manage this sensitively and effectively with our parents.”

RSE Training Should be Compulsory for New Teachers
In light of the above issues, Mrs Price will also call on the delivering of RSE to be made a compulsory part of teacher training.

She will say: “As schools increasingly focus on delivering Relationships and Sex Education with the degree of expertise required, it is important that our teachers are adequately trained to deliver this. To really teach and facilitate these discussions well, teachers need to be prepared and confident to manage this. To date, this important topic is not a component of PGCE training.

“I am calling for RSE to become a mandatory part of teacher training going forward, as a matter of urgency. If teachers are going to get this right, they need adequate support to do this.”
Independent – State School Partnerships
Mrs Price will also defend the ‘demonised’ independent schools sector and praise its partnership work with state schools:

“As the Girls’ Schools Association, we along with our colleagues within the independent sector have so much to give to support the Government’s commitment to improving the quality of education in this country and in addressing the themes mentioned above. Periodically our sector is demonised as being at the heart of the weaknesses within the education system and the source of inequality.

“I would task any politician to look at the independent sector of today as a whole and hand on heart say that as a group of schools, we are not working with genuine commitment to support our state sector partners to widen opportunity and for the betterment of education. Some will say that the choice of educational opportunities that come within our democratic society is wrong, but parental choice must be preserved if we are to remain a true democracy.

“However, what is wrong is evident disparity between what schools through the state-funded and independent sectors are able to offer their students in terms of resource and therefore opportunity. This was brought into stark focus during the pandemic as independent schools accelerated their online learning offerings within days of the national lockdown in March last year, while many students in the state-funded sector struggled to access meaningful teaching. This was not, I may add, through a lack of want but too often a lack of technical resource.

“What needs to be remedied is not losing the independent sector, which would not solve the weakness in funding. What would be wrong is if one educational system failed to work in partnership with another. I can stand here this morning and say with conviction that there is not one GSA school that is not actively working in collaboration with a local state school.”

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