Sybil Low by Sybil Low
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In a bold educational reform, a top-tier London school has discarded the use of ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ as forms of address for its staff. The Harris Westminster Sixth Form, spearheaded by executive principal James Handscombe, seeks to eliminate these titles. Since they are deemed to be ‘deeply unequal,’ ths school is ready to challenge prevailing cultural misogyny in educational institutions.

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Key Takeaways:

  • Harris Westminster Sixth Form, a leading London school, is replacing ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ with gender-neutral titles. The goal is to combat cultural misogyny.
  • The decision represents a conscious move towards equality in education, promoting respect for all staff, regardless of gender.
  • The change has sparked debate, reflecting broader societal shifts in language use and gender norms.
  • Despite some backlash, the policy change stands as a potential model for other educational establishments.

Reconceptualising Gendered Norms

Harris Westminster Sixth Form, one of the highest-performing sixth forms in the UK, has taken a stand against the traditional use of ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss.’ Executive Principal James Handscombe argues that these forms of address feed into a world view that subtly devalues women. “Sir” recalls chivalrous figures, whereas “Miss” can be a belittling term used for “a small girl, or an Edwardian shop assistant,” he explained to the school assembly.

Rather than using these gendered terms, students are now encouraged to address staff by their surname. For instance, “Mr Handscombe,” and in emergencies, the neutral term “teacher” will be acceptable. However, this change isn’t the school’s first attempt. When the academy first opened in 2014, the same approach was attempted. However, it failed to stick due to other pressing concerns. Ecentualy it lead to what Handscombe terms a descent into “cultural misogyny.”

Commitment to Gender Equality

The school’s executive principal, James Handscombe, is not new to unconventional thinking. Known for his admiration of Taylor Swift, whom he heralded as a great philosopher in his book, ‘A School Built On Ethos,’ he often turns to her songs and lyrics for inspiration. His “No more Sir, no more Miss” assembly address was shared on Twitter, attracting almost 130,000 views and enthusiastic comments, mostly from female teachers.

James Handscombe' Twitter account
James Handscombe’s Twitter account

In 2014, the school abandoned its initial efforts to drop the ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ honorifics. However, upon its reintroduction in 2023, Handscombe expressed that the reform was sparked by a female staff member earlier in the year, leading to an evaluation of alternative titles such as “Madam,” “Ma’am,” “Sensei,” and “Professor,” all of which were dismissed for various reasons.

Unpopular Opinion: Addressing the Backlash Against Gender-Neutral Terms

The move to gender-neutral titles has been met with a mixed response. Critics argue that the use of ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ has deep roots in educational tradition, reinforcing staff authority implicitly. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, highlighted that the debate reflects broader societal shifts in language and its connotations.

Gender neutral movememnt
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Indeed, some schools still prefer using ‘Sir,’ ‘Miss,’ or ‘Ms’ without surnames. It can be unreasonable to expect students to remember all staff names. The change has also stirred questions around whether a shift in honorifics can indeed impact deeply ingrained cultural biases. Or whether it is merely a superficial change.

While the traditional use of honorifics like ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ may be a nod to educational customs, it’s worth considering the evolving landscape of gender identities and societal norms. For many, gender-neutral titles such as ‘Mx.’ provide an opportunity to better represent their identities and bring inclusivity into traditionally binary spaces like classrooms.

Furthermore, gender-neutral language can also be a tool in challenging gender stereotypes, breaking away from traditional assumptions that certain roles or positions are tied to a specific gender. The switch to gender-neutral terms is not just about individual identity but also about challenging and reshaping societal norms and expectations.

However, implementing these changes is not without its challenges. For some, gender-neutral language may be difficult to grasp, especially for those for whom English is not their first language. Therefore, educators and administrators must handle this transition mindfully, ensuring that the change is gradual, inclusive, and thoughtful. This can include explaining the importance of gender-neutral language to students and providing them with resources to understand and use these terms correctly.

The Bottom Line

Harris Westminster Sixth Form’s move to abandon ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ reflects a growing awareness of subtle gender biases in educational institutions. Though met with both applause and criticism, the change marks a significant step towards promoting gender equality and challenging deeply embedded cultural misogyny.

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