Last week, the Chaplain wrote in his chapel address in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that ‘his prayer over the last two weeks has been that we would all seek to treat each other with greater compassion and acknowledge our mistakes when we fail to do so’. This week, responding to the same theme, I wanted to talk about empathy and action in my assembly to our pupils.

Successive heads of St John’s have been in a position to articulate a vision for the School to continue its development, to enable it to respond to the challenges and opportunities and times that we live in, while staying true to the values that the School has held over many decades. Our current vision is underpinned by a number of aims, two of which are:

To create a kind, inclusive, open-minded environment in which the contribution of every individual is valued’.

‘… demonstrate that we can all contribute positively to the world in which we live’.

In September 2019, we launched the Pillars of Kindness to provide a set of guiding principles by which we, as a community, would respond to each other.

One of our pillars states that:

Kindness always involves empathy – seeing the world from another’s point of view – and frequently takes courage. It may involve opening up your own feelings to others or standing up for somebody in difficulty.

Empathy requires a capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

And this is where the real challenge lies, in any situation, to understand or feel from someone else’s frame of reference. When it comes to responding to the commentary and views being expressed in recent weeks I need to be aware that simplistically my own frame of reference is as a white, British female. It will only be by listening to the perspectives of BAME friends, colleagues and pupils, by seeking out diverse narratives through what I listen to, watch and read that I will get closer to being able to understand or feel from a different frame of reference.

Our lived experiences give us a huge number of different reference points and they are well-reported to have the potential to provide us with a host of conscious and unconscious biases. Unconscious bias is one which can influence our behaviour towards another person based on a particular characteristic and it is one which we are unaware of and may make us behave in a manner which is contrary to our stated beliefs. Biases that have been subjected to research based approaches include gender, ethnicity, nationality and sexual orientation. Whether due to conscious or unconscious bias, countless studies have confirmed the power of racial biases to shape everyday decisions in almost every aspect of life:

  • White job applicants were found to be 74% more likely to have success than applicants from ethnic minorities with identical CVs according to researchers at Nuffield College’s Centre for Social Investigation (CSI). Of 3500 fake applications where the only difference on the CV was the applicant’s name, which they based on their ethnic background, while 24% of white British applicants received a call back from UK employers, only 15% of ethnic minority applicants did.
  • Similarly University professors were found to be far more likely to respond to emails from students with white-sounding names.
  • US doctors have been found to recommend less pain medication for black or Latino patients than white patients with the same injury.

When confronted with the data many employers, professors and doctors have been shocked and distressed by the evidence.

The last fortnight has seen an outpouring of emotion in response to societal inequality and has seen a great display of empathy from many. But an empathetic response and no action at an individual, organisational or societal level risks being tokenistic.

Many, many former and current pupils of independent schools have signed a template letter for the attention of the current head teacher of their school. I know that such a letter is circulating on social media platforms for me at the moment although it has yet to be sent. For those of you who have signed it, I am glad that you want us to do better. We have to be personal and contextually alert in our response – to look and listen, to reflect, to have an openness and responsiveness. Where we find we fall short we must challenge ourselves collectively and individually to do better. We have to call out intended or unintended racism alongside all forms of prejudice and discrimination when it occurs in our community and never stand by. I hope our BAME pupils and staff will talk to me about their experiences at St John’s so I understand better and so that we can act.

As a body of staff and pupils there is a real strength to our community at St John’s and this gives so many of us a sense of belonging which gives us a great deal of joy. But the very best communities are prepared to reflect upon themselves, to challenge themselves in the delivery of their aims and look themselves in the eye and ask if they can do better. I am sure we can.