In a quiet little town nestled in the Sussex countryside is a secondary school you’d be forgiven for not noticing if you were just driving through. Established in 1614, it’s a co-ed state school that caters to both day and boarding pupils from Years 7-13.
It’s also, in my opinion, the best school in the world. But I’m a little biased.
For the first few years after I left Steyning Grammar, I’d go back every couple of months to say hi. The staff there had been my surrogate family throughout my teenage years, and like many children who move away I wanted to still keep one foot in the nest.
But eventually, as it always does, life happened and I ended up not going back for about two and a half years: the longest time I’d ever been away.
In the meantime, lots of things changed. New headteachers came and went, new buildings appeared, teachers I’d known and loved left, and of course the student body grew and developed with each passing year.
All of this happened and I didn’t really notice. I still thought about my old school often – in what I like to term the Emo Revival of 2013, I even wrote songs and poems about it – but I didn’t go back.
Then a couple of weeks ago, Twitter suggested that I follow Miss T, who’d been my A-level RE teacher. I did, and then it suggested I follow the Computing department, so I clicked on their profile and saw this tweet:
So of course I replied, and then got chatting to the teacher who was organising everything, and decided it’d be a good excuse to go in and see everyone.
The students came up with the hashtag #sgsequality to describe the day (‘SGS’ being an acronym of ‘Steyning Grammar School’).
The day was built around the idea of allowing students to discuss questions about equality in their own way. They were free to roam around the school, planning activities and sessions which centred around important topics such as bullying, employment, school uniforms, gender diversity in the workplace, trans* issues, LGBTQIA+ debates, and so on.
One quote that was frequently displayed was this one from Will Rogers:
“We will never have true civilization until we have learned to recognize the rights of others.”
The bit I was involved with took place in the IT department. A panel of experts had answered questions via Skype that morning, discussing diversity in the tech space, and I went in at 11.30 to be grilled by students about what it’s like being a woman who works in a traditionally male-dominated field.
I found the students to be respectful, thoughtful and intelligent, asking interesting and informed questions, not just about gender but about work in general.
This didn’t surprise me. Teenagers often get a bad rap, but I find that that usually comes from people who don’t make a habit of talking to them.
Some of my favourite questions included:
“How can you work out when you’re changing yourself in order to fit in with a masculine culture, and what can you do about it?”
“Is inequal pay actually a problem, or is it just something that’s overhyped in the media?”
“We know that popular culture overexaggerates what it’s like to be a digital forensic investigator, but is any of it accurate? What can I actually expect it to be like if I decide to work in this field?”
I talked to the students for about twenty minutes, and then spent the rest of the day catching up with people I hadn’t seen in far too long.
The #sgsequality tag trended on Instagram, with stuff like this popping up and making me happy:
(I deliberately didn’t use any posts that had pictures of the students themselves in them, but if yours is here and you’d like it removed, just ask!)
And it wasn’t just Instagram that filled up with equality posts. Teachers and pupils also took to Twitter to showcase what they were doing:
Look! Asexuality is on there! You have no idea how happy this makes me. Most people think we just don’t exist.
Wandering around the school throughout the day, I got a real sense of how much the pupils were invested in what they were doing. They all seemed enthusiastic about the projects – probably because they’d had a hand in designing them – and there were some really interesting discussions going on.
‘Should boys be allowed to wear skirts to school?’ asked a poster. (‘Yes’ seemed to be the most popular response to this question.)
‘What is pansexuality? Polysexuality? Asexuality?’ queried another. (Sometimes it’s nice to be able to put yourself in a box. You feel less alone in the box.)
‘Laverne Cox is kick-ass, correct?’ I’m paraphrasing. (Correct, of course.)
I can say once again that I’m proud to have gone to this school. Its continued devotion to its students – both academically and on a personal level – is something other educational institutions would do well to emulate.
Plus, the head tweets with the hashtag ‘#SteyningFamily’, which is exactly how I felt about the place while I was there as a pupil, and is a feeling that has never really gone away.
All in all, an excellent day. I hope they run many more in the future.
I’m honoured to have played a small part, and to be part of the #SteyningFamily.