The Head of Heathfield School Sarah Wilson discusses how teaching and modelling tolerance and empathy is the best antidote to cancel culture

Cancel culture is on the rise. It has become familiar to see a person or business called out publicly about something they have said or done. It’s important to call out injustices, but we must also ensure that young people are equipped to express themselves in a reasoned, respectful and empathetic way. For many children, cancel culture has contributed to hesitation and nervousness in expressing opinions for fear of being ‘cancelled’. It can promote group thinking because individuals are not confident enough to stand up against louder voices.

Recognising mistakes and then addressing them is a part of life and of learning. Yet cancel culture does not allow that freedom – there is no room for apologising, demonstrating remorse and making amends. So how can we help our students develop open, unbiased opinion based on information and evidence rather than posts on social media or what their friends say? The solution lies with providing a safe and accepting school culture, also providing opportunity and guidance to develop tolerance and empathy, along with critical thinking and listening skills.

Heathfield School on combating cancel culture
At Heathfield, the emphasis is on encouraging thoughtful opinions and reasoned debate so students can listen to the viewpoints of others

We provide ample opportunities for our students to research and develop thoughtful opinions, rather than relying on the quick fix of something trending on social media. Whole-school debates provide the platform for young people to understand other students’ perspectives and the reasoning behind these views. Appreciating the viewpoints of others is crucial, as is recognising strength in diversity – whether that be politics, academic theories, gender or race.

Each year, we hold our own Question Time, staged in a formal environment with visiting politicians. We also focus on presentation skills, with regular opportunities to deliver these in lessons, year group, whole school assemblies and in Chapel readings. We have a Student Council, and pupils and staff run committees where opinions and ideas can be raised and discussed openly. 

We help our pupils to recognise that tolerance is not passive. It demands an active choice to reach out when there is disagreement, on the basis of mutual understanding and respect. Tolerant people show their strength by being open to different perspectives, a trait that is important in personal development. Empathy is also a complex concept – we are asking young people to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ and understand the feelings of another. It’s really important that every opportunity is taken to model and teach both these attitudes throughout everyday school life and also the planned curriculum.

“Recognising mistakes and then addressing them is a part of learning, yet cancel culture does not allow that – there is no room for apologising and making amends”

When people take an interest in what others think, feel and experience, they are recognised as caring, trustworthy and approachable – excellent skills and attributes for life. In Years 7 to 13, Heathfield’s positive psychology curriculum is used to teach and help students develop the skills of empathy, gratitude and self-awareness, alongside emotional intelligence. Building a school culture where individual voices and different viewpoints are heard and expressed is vital. With the rise of cancel culture, our students need to understand how to promote mutual tolerance and respect and also maintain freedom of expression in their own interactions.

Society is evolving and young people have an important role to play in communicating their experiences and perspectives. Education should help them use their voices confidently and intelligently, forming their own opinions and arguing in an empathic and effective way because that will enable them to make positive changes to their world.

Heathfield School

Further reading: Natasha Devon on navigating teenage years