Katherine Woodcock, Headmistress of Sydenham High School, on what it means to be a school with a social conscience

Recently I had the enormous pleasure of reconnecting with Kiko Matthews, a British adventurer who became the fastest female to row the Atlantic, solo and unsupported in March 2018. She raised over £100,000 for King’s College hospital which saved her life and, inspired by her story, we were privileged to sponsor her in her endeavour.

Not one to stand still, Kiko has now launched her latest challenge, KikPlastic, cycling the coast of the UK to raise awareness of single use plastic and encourage communities to do more to tackle the issue. An ever-increasing tide of plastic is threatening our coastlines and we must take steps to tackle it in the UK and further afield where the impact is greater. Our responsibility to educate future generations extends to ensuring that our pupils develop a social conscience beyond their school years. Communities are built on respect and at the heart of all we do here at Sydenham High School is a respect for those around us, including our physical environment.

“Apathy is not something our pupils suffer from” – Katherine Woodcock

So what does it mean to be a school with a social conscience? We aim to ensure our pupils have a strong moral compass; that they are accepting and respectful of themselves and others. This extends to a sense of global responsibility. As a school we began the new calendar year pledging to do our bit to reduce plastic use. In addition to environmental ethics, we encourage a greater understanding of social injustices and inequalities. As the leaders of tomorrow, our pupils need to take the lead, whether this is through the LGBT+Q society, the Eco Council or our African Caribbean Society. 

Teaching citizenship and social responsibility should be embedded within the culture of a school. Looking back over the past term, I am proud of our students’ personal development as well as their academic successes. Our recent publication of ‘The Feminist Issue’ provided our pupils with a platform for writing about sexism, with the hope of changing misconceptions about men and women, particularly in the workplace. Schools have a duty to ensure that pupils not only have a voice, but also feel empowered to make a difference. Becoming socially conscious involves understanding the community around an individual. Apathy is not something our pupils suffer from and we are proud of the fact that they lean in and recognise the importance of responsibility beyond their everyday lives. 

When I look back to my own teenage years in the Eighties, I think we have made great progress, but the world is an increasingly challenging place. How are young people to make sense of terror atrocities, the rise in knife crime, climate change, least Brexit and US politics, the online world and the pressures on young people? And yet, I look at the pupils here and feel so positive about their ability to cope with the future and to actively engage with the issues that matter to them. Despite the landscape they face, our pupils are confident, possess a true sense of self, and recognise only too clearly what is right and wrong. Most importantly, they genuinely care. 

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