Changing our Culture

This week, Upper Sixth Form students, Sophie Forbes-Laird and Nina Leech, guest write on the Headmistress blog about leading the Changing our Culture project.

97 percent of women in the UK have been sexually harassed, recent research has found. As young women ourselves, we and our friends were not nearly as surprised at this statistic as our male peers, when it circulated social media. 

In England and Wales, 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted. Again, as young women in today’s society, this statistic did not shock us. Sexual assault and in particular sexual harassment is far too common, and given women are regularly the victims of this behaviour, it’s an issue important to many of us at BGS.

In April 2021, Ofsted published a report following the rise of the Everyone’s Invited campaign. This is an anonymous platform, looking to fight rape culture through education and awareness, allowing young people to submit their experiences of sexual assault and harassment. Over 50,000 testimonies have been submitted, with that number still rising today. The Everyone’s Invited research also found that 9 out of 10 school girls had received unwanted inappropriate pictures online and had been subject to sexist name-calling. Everyone’s Invited highlighted a huge issue in society and the culture surrounding young people across the UK, importantly it began a conversation about experiences that are so common, that they get overlooked. 

Recognising that change needed to happen, Sixth Formers from Bedford School and BGS began collaborating on a ‘Changing our Culture’ project;  We are both passionate about this issue and have both been involved in the project from its inception in 2021 and took over the lead this year to drive this project forward. 

Our project has a real focus on sexual harassment and sexist comments. More violent behaviours are rarer and unrelatable to our younger students; but every single one of us can help change the culture that we live in. 

Research finds that the root of so many of these unacceptable behaviours stem from a long history of objectifying women. We want to encourage the students we are working with to recognise that small changes to behaviour and humour can make a  huge difference to our culture and stop the encouragement of the unhealthy attitudes towards women and girls that have been circulating for so long. 

We recognise that to change the environment that young women are growing up in, we need everyone in our community to get behind this issue. Therefore we have been really fortunate to have been met with excellent collaboration and support from the Bedford School citizenship team, students and staff; working together is key so that both boys and girls have role models that they can look up to.  Although girls are generally the victims, sexual harassment and assault are not problems for women to face alone; and they are certainly not ones we can reduce without the boys and men in our community engaging with the issue. It’s not unlikely that young men would be unaware of the challenges women face, for example on public transport, if they aren’t directly experiencing it. 

That’s why the focus of our project with the boy’s citizenship team has been on developing empathy.  We aimed to educate the Year 9 boys on a culture of respect within the school community as well as the wider society.  We were fortunate to find great empathy and an eagerness to engage from both the older boys in the citizenship team, but also the younger boys in Year 9, who we worked with last Tuesday, in their citizenship morning at Bedford School. 

An informative presentation was given by two girls and two boys from Upper and Lower Sixth tackling rape culture and focusing on how to be a positive ally towards the girls and women in their lives; including a clear focus on what behaviours are not tolerated or acceptable.

Following the presentation, partnerships of Sixth Form students ran ‘breakout rooms’ in which practical scenarios were discussed with smaller groups of Year 9 boys – including discussions on consent and solutions. The boys listened and engaged with the issue seriously, the breakout rooms allowed them to ask questions and develop their understanding. We feel it was really powerful for them to learn about these issues and hear our experiences. The session was very successful and hopefully, this chain of positive behaviour will continue to be infiltrated not just into the school community but elsewhere as well. 

The morning left us feeling enthusiastic about the future of this project, and we look forward to running a similar session with our Year 9s at BGS, ensuring our message is delivered consistently across our communities. Delivering this project together, as two united schools, was really powerful and something we will remember for a very long time. We are honoured to be the ones delivering this message, it feels like the start of a truly positive change. 

We are thankful to all of the Sixth Form students who gave up their time to help us. We are excited for this to be a continuous link between our two schools, so we can keep shining light on these issues and spreading this awareness. Alice Swallow, Head of Citizenship at Bedford School, who greatly supported us alongside our pastoral staff at BGS, pointed something out to us recently; that, by September 2024, the students leading this project will be the first year group that we brought this project to, when they were in Year 9. From then on, everyone across our schools will have the opportunity to both listen and lead this campaign. This is exciting and  we cannot wait to see the positive impact this project continues to have.

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