In the week before half term, you may remember that I spoke about Freedom of Speech and I encouraged you to read the Human Rights Act – I wonder how many of you did? We learned that everybody has a right in law to freedom of expression, but that it also comes with duties and responsibilities placed upon us all to use it in a safe way.
Those of you who had thought about this might have had a field day at half term. Unfortunately, adults are too often the worst proponents of using freedom of speech responsibly: politicians have been lying and abusing each other over Brexit; social media trolls have been attacking the Duchess of Sussex (who herself has been on the receiving end of public accusations over private matters from her own father); if you were following the cricket, you would have seen an altercation between the England captain Joe Root, who was batting, and the West Indies fast bowler Shannon Gabriel, which ended in the stump microphone picking up Joe Root’s comment, “Don’t use it as an insult; there’s nothing wrong with being gay” – presumably in response to a homophobic taunt from the bowler.
The adult world, as I say, while sometimes setting a great example to us all, too often sets a very poor one.
I like to think that at school we can be better than that. We are, to some extent, in a community small enough to set our own rules more firmly and to be accountable more obviously to each other for our own actions. Unlike social media, or newspapers, which seem to be able, unwittingly or not, to light the touch paper to human unkindness, a school can protect itself more easily. I would like to live in a 100% respectful society. Usually when we do surveys of pupils, teachers or parents at this school, answers to questions around bullying, or respectful culture, come out extremely positively. However, that is not to say that bullying does not exist at all – and indeed it would be a lie for any school, and probably any corporation – to say otherwise. I am not interested in 87% or 92% or 95% respectful, but 100%; where every single person can come to work or to school every day free from the fear of abuse, disrespect or unkindness. Wouldn’t that be amazing? And do you know what? I think you all want that too. Every one of you. One hundred per cent. To respect and be respected. So why don’t we just do it?
Well, the thing is it takes self-awareness and guts – and we do not all have it. At one of the schools I worked at, the pupils themselves identified three categories of bully:
Category A was the one who said the words, or did the deed. The active one; the one who stood out.
Category B was the one who encouraged it from the background, who spurred him on.
Category C was the one who stood by, knew it was wrong, but did not say anything.
This came from the pupils, not from staff – and what self-awareness! How many of us, they asked, were in category C? It was, and remains, an uncomfortable question. How many of us are in Category C?
The fact is that to live in a really kind school, we all have to get out of Category C – and we all have to respect those who stand up and speak out against bullying. You all know where and when unkindness is going on; or where and when people are under attack from others. You know when you have been involved in name calling, or seen and heard it. However, it is too easy to let it slip by out of self-preservation. The older boys probably have an especially important role to play in this; you have been through several years of school now and have the platform to set the best of examples and to help make other people’s lives better. Do use it wisely, as indeed Joe Root did. You may even have been on the receiving end yourself before; do try to use that knowledge to help others. We all have a huge responsibility here. You should all want each other to leave here happy and confident in yourselves, because in years to come, long after you have left Bedford School, you will want to help each other. Only yesterday, I heard of a young OB, a rower, who so sadly has his funeral today, who was supported by all his crew-mates from school until the end of his life. Likewise, I know of OBs who have supported each other’s careers for years. You, over time, will want to look back and know that, while you were at school, you stood up for what is right.
At the start of every year, I ask you to work hard, play hard and be kind. Of the three, the last is the most important. You will never regret being kind; it will always come back to you in multiples.