A state of mind

At The Abbey, we’ve always sought to show the full spectrum of womanhood across age, race, religion and more. Our staff and student community mirrors the diverse world in which girls are rightly commanding a seat at life’s table. Society is changing at a pace that will see today’s children entering a new world of university and work, many undertaking courses and jobs that don’t yet exist.

Education needs to be progressive, dynamic and relevant to prepare students more appropriately for the 21st Century and beyond, enabling women to be positive contributors to life and fully prepared to embrace the opportunities and challenges that will break down geographic and cultural borders like never before. And as we head into 2024, we’re deepening our resolve to this. As we’ve said for the twenty years that I have been a part of this community, The Abbey’s commitment to innovative, creative development is a constant in a changing world.

The state of mind has been a talking point for us in the Junior School as we publish today’s issue of the Gateway – not just in terms of how we see ourselves in the world, but how we see a society that feels increasingly fraught. How do we turn fear and grief into love and hope? 2023 has given us plenty to be anxious about, with labour strikes, wars and worrying weather. Our work and social lives have returned at full steam, yet many of us feel lonelier than ever. We navigate the common routines of our day-to-day, while still grappling with very real, existential questions that confront us on a constant social-media loop. The balance seems fragile. World events take yet another turn and it feels more appropriate than ever to look at ways we can protect and nurture our personal happiness and imagination.

For some, that might mean escapism in the traditional sense: losing ourselves in the delight of our Lower Prep and Upper Prep Christmas production this week, or a night of celebratory revelry as will be brought to life in our Parents’ Society Candlelit Procession in a few short evenings. For others, it’s abandoning the strictures of wellness culture and allowing ourselves to eat the mince pies; to drink the mulled wine. Is the unravelling cult of commodified health consciousness an indicator of us retaking the reins to our own experiential happiness?

In my own life, I’m taking the James Baldwin quote to heart: “I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?” For me, that means less time on group chats, and more time having actual chats, in real life, with my friends and family. There is the power of revisiting old joys I have lost touch with – returning to the thrill of carving out time for my ever-growing collection of unread books. It’s the discipline of limiting my social-media diet and instead romping through the stunning Berkshire autumn colours on a long walk with Bodhi. And it’s sharing with our students my own career path from dentistry, through the pharmaceutical industry, to education. It endorses the opportunities to reflect and pivot whenever life offers us a chance to draw a line in the sand, and to embrace such change with courage, optimism and ambition. Our Year 6 Digital Ambassadors led Monday’s assembly thinking about the world in which they grow up augmented by AI – it threw up as many questions in our minds as to what the future holds, as it excited us about the sheer possibilities. 

November heralds the beginning of a long, cold winter. Already, the illuminating significance of light triumphing over darkness has been celebrated with diva lamps and fireworks. And so, as we head into the glorious busyness of celebrating the festive season over the last few weeks of term, my wish for you – for all of us – is the space and time to do what you want, to feel at peace in this world, and contribute to a greater good in the process.

Nisha Kaura, Head of The Abbey Junior School


Gateway 24 November 2023

In this week’s update we have:

  • Maths Week
  • Autumn Serenade
  • Textiles London Trip
  • Taylor Library: 50th Anniversary

and more!

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Advocating Girls

This week we celebrated the stories, among others, of two brilliant women who helped change their profession forever. Rose Heilbron and Helena Normanton were among the first female barristers and the first two women ever to be made King’s Counsel (KC) in 1949.

Both of these women were passionate advocates for two causes that are core tenets of equality. Helena believed women should be paid the same as men for equal work. Rose believed that it was a waste of talent for women to be unable to return to work having had children.

Their stories were shared as part of Advocating Girls: a collaboration between The Abbey and five partner schools from the independent and maintained sectors, with the generous support of Lady Justice Geraldine Andrews and Gray’s Inn. Together we organised an event looking at women and girls and the law. Students ran the whole show with extraordinary capability and assurance: there were drama performances and talks and a remarkable panel of speakers including the Rt Hon Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, HHJ Anuja Dhir KC, Caroline Carberry KC and Sultana Tafdar KC.

The panel discussion came immediately before a performance telling Rose and Helena’s stories. When asked about obstacles in the law in 2023, the panel identified two of the most significant as the lack of equal pay and the failure to support women’s return to the profession having had children. Then we heard brilliant student performers, using Rose and Helena’s words, vocalise exactly the same concerns from over seventy years before.

There are plenty of reasons for frustration in the persistence of these and other challenges. And there are plenty of reasons for dismay in the continuing lack of fairness for women and girls in law, particularly with regard to sexual offences.

The Office for National Statistics estimated in 2022 that there were 2 million adult victims of rape in the UK. If they linked hands to form a human chain, it would stretch from the south coast to the Scottish border. For all forms of sexual assault, the number was 8 million. That human chain would stretch from Reading to Moscow.

In 2021 alone over 67,000 rape offences were recorded: 184 a day (only recorded cases – the true number is likely to be many multiples higher). Of these 3.6% ended in completed prosecutions; 2% in conviction. Trust in the system is low and declining and that starts from first response. A recent survey showed that 71% of men and women believe the culture of policing must change to respond better to violence against women and girls.

This is the context for the continuing work of Advocating Girls: to become a campaign connecting girls at school and professionals in policing and law so that voices are heard and experiences shared. To respond to these continuing injustices with a relentless, fierce and unyielding hope to support and accelerate change.

This emerging campaign is a collaboration between The Abbey, Wimbledon High School GDST and City of London School for Girls and will see continued partnerships with other schools and across the justice system.

Despite the ongoing challenges, there was so much to celebrate in the event this week. The remarkable trailblazers who began the process of change. The extraordinary progress that has been made already. The sense of unity about the path ahead.

Above all it was an occasion to celebrate the achievements of the eminent women so generously giving their time and the students from all six schools. They were so impressive in their vitality and clarity of purpose. The room was full of both realism and optimism, of resolve and potential.

When Helena Normanton spoke of what gave her hope, as she battled the repeated obstacles in her way, she said simply that she believed discrimination in the end was doomed. She believed that ‘while any woman is held back from the position to which her talents draw her, the whole of womanhood is lowered’; and that ‘women would not stand it, and nor would men’. Advocating Girls is about continuing to see that belief and that hope fulfilled.

Will le Fleming, Head


Gateway 17 November 2023

In this week’s update we have:

  • Model UN
  • UK Space Design Competition
  • Artist In Residence
  • The Circuit: Digital Safety

and more!

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Gateway 10 November 2023

In this week’s update we have:

  • World Biathle Champion
  • Kandinsky in Reception
  • Valencia Trip
  • National Children’s Orchestra

and more!

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One of the joys of school is the chatter and laughter as students dart between lessons and activities. So when the school falls silent during a Service for Remembrance, it presents a special moment of stillness as students unite in thought and respect.

Experiences shape us and our networks enable us. In the Engagement & Development team, we exist to build real-world relationships, ensuring the Abbey student experience is strengthened through our network of former students, and connected through partnerships to the communities in which we live. Our alumnae and community network is vast, their shared lived-experiences are rich and these connections are meaningful.

For alumna Joanna Watkinson, née Locke (1999 leaver), remembrance is a deeply personal experience: she is a former RAF helicopter pilot, her husband serves in the armed forces today and her grandmother was one of the first women to receive an army commission in the 1940s.

Jo was part of an all-woman combat helicopter crew sent into action in Helmand province in Afghanistan. As part of a four-woman team, she flew missions taking troops and supplies to the frontline. Sadly, her four-year flying career with 28 Sqn based at RAF Benson was cut short when a helicopter in which she was a passenger crashed in the California desert. The only option for Jo and her colleagues to escape the wreckage was to dig their way out under the aircraft and crawl through the gap they had created. Her injuries led to medical discharge.

Jo’s story is the embodiment of courage, resilience and resourcefulness but moreover, her humility is palpable.  As the country falls silent in remembrance, she will be thinking of her family who have and are serving in the military, of friends lost too soon through combat, of those who experience unimaginable horrors whilst serving and the experiences of everyone impacted by war today: “my heart breaks for all those affected by conflict”.

I am so grateful to Jo and all our alumnae who so generously share their life experiences to enrich and empower our diverse community. We are immensely proud of our former students and how they apply themselves to the challenges of the real world, not afraid to use their voices and driven to live lives of meaning.

To finish this story, Jo has not let the physical and mental scars of her early exit from her chosen career hold her back.  She is now a human performance specialist in environments where safety is absolutely critical – aviation, maritime and healthcare to name a few – and is a mum of two. As if life wasn’t busy enough, this autumn, she started a PhD on ‘how to empower women in aviation’ looking at practical ways to increase equality of opportunity across the industry.

Marianne Clarke, Director of Engagement and Development


Gateway 3 November 2023

In this week’s update we have:

  • Bebras Computing Challenge
  • Kilimanjaro Update
  • Naples Trip
  • Brazilian Samba Workshop

and more!

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Remember, remember

We are fast approaching that time of year when our culturally diverse community celebrates significant milestones in their calendar. I may have gone too early for some, whereas others may be well advanced in their planning – but the clock is ticking on preparing for festivals including Diwali, Hanukkah and Christmas.

There are timely reminders along the way of course – this week we have been spooked by Halloween, and the changing of the clocks provided that all important extra hour in bed. Further signs will follow and before you know it, Daniel O’Donnell will be promoting another ‘unmissable’ album as a gift for any occasion.

A recent supermarket trip to purchase spicy Spanish chorizo was like navigating a slalom course around pop-up stacks of chocolate selection boxes and table crackers – further prompting our subconscious that December is calling. This will be reinforced in the coming days where different faiths and communities will celebrate the power of light over darkness, good over evil, and the sheer excitement of families enjoying firework displays across the country.

An early memory I have of the build up to the festive season was the annual bonfire and firework display at the home of Uncle Barry and Auntie Anne. Not my real Aunt and Uncle – but I was raised in a time when your parents’ friends were automatically labelled as relatives. Nonetheless good people, and boy did they love Fireworks Night. On the other hand, I did not.

‘Remember remember the 5th of November’ we would all shout as the bonfire was lit – a ceremony that was as symbolic for everyone else as it was terrifying for me. See I was not a fireworks fan. I didn’t like the noise, and I was convinced the remnants of the firework would somehow land on me and ignite my parka jacket. It would be dark, normally cold, and all I could think about was creeping inside and watching an episode of ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em’. I just wasn’t cut out for the high risk world of pyrotechnics.

I actually remember speaking to my parents about moving abroad, as Bonfire Night was not a global phenomenon, we could relocate to a part of the world where the gunpowder plot was not celebrated at all. I presented, what I felt at the time, was a viable plan to move to Sweden – the birthplace of my grandmother. Whether it was the delivery of the idea, remember there was no PowerPoint back then, my parents felt it best we remain in Peterborough – much to my disappointment.

Once Fireworks Night passed, the build up to the different festivals we celebrated when I was at school was far less stressful. And now as an adult, being part of the school community is a blessing as this half-term although busy, is full of excitement, adventure and joy for students and parents. There is so much to look forward to including the nativity at Knell House, Upper III’s Christmas Play, Carol Services for Junior and Seniors, and the fabulous TAPS Candlelit Procession to name but a few.

As the march towards the end of the calendar year starts in earnest, we can’t wait to welcome you into school for some or all of these events, and share moments with your daughter that will last a lifetime. Then in the years that follow, you can reminisce…and remember.

Pete Holliday, Director of Marketing and Admissions


Gateway 20 October 2023

In this week’s update we have:

  • Dancing Stars
  • Economics Conference
  • Senior Maths Challenge
  • House Music

and more!

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Everything matters

Today saw one of the most joyous events in The Abbey School calendar: House Music and Drama (HMAD) at the Senior School.

It is simple enough to describe. The entire Senior School spends the day in the Richards Hall. Each of the four houses stages a show and performs it to the rest of the school. There is poetry, drama, comedy, music, dance, gymnastics. There is exuberance and silliness and laughter, moments of pathos and piercing beauty, moments of illuminating wit.

What makes the event so special is the complete ownership of students. They act and perform and play; but they also plan, direct, choreograph, compose, orchestrate, conduct. And for the House Captains who take the lead, and other performers in Upper Sixth, they do all this while managing the little business of applying to university at the same time.

The shows are impressive by any measure. As examples of student leadership and organisation, creativity and teamwork, they dazzle.

During this whirlwind day, full of energy and spark, I was reminded of two of my favourite literary quotations. Both initially seem pretty dark (that’s an English teacher for you), and neither seems to have much to do with dance and song! The first is Truman Capote’s observation that the reason most people get up in the morning is ‘not because it would matter [if they didn’t] but because it wouldn’t’. Life would just go on without us: the world would not stop.

The second seems even worse, and starker: Leonard Woolf’s favourite melancholy phrase – ‘Nothing matters’.

However, despite appearances, there is something magical in both these sentiments: something that relates to the fierce bursts of joy on stage today. Both provoke us to act. Both challenge us to face down and defy despair: to live all the more brightly, to dance and sing, to cherish and make the most of all that we have, because in doing that we create meaning and beauty and purpose.

Towards the end of his life Leonard Woolf made this meaning explicit: he amended his mantra to ‘Nothing matters, and everything matters’. At difficult times in the world the truth of this statement is all the more apparent and powerful.

Caught up for today in the fun and glory of young people making something wonderful out of nothing, and celebrating each other’s hard work and commitment, one thought was so clear above all: this matters. The passion, talent and effort on show today matter. Every single student, and the futures they weave so brightly through every choice they make: they really, really matter. We are so proud of them all.

George Morton, Deputy Head