What is it to be inspired? Literally it is breathing in: a breathing or infusion into the mind or soul; a sense that we are drawing in something special – or that something special is drawing us in. Something remarkable and exalted. Something of worth.
One of the ways we are celebrating this lovely school at the moment is to discuss inspiration: who inspires us and why. My choice of inspiration was Helen Musson: both for who she was, and for the group of people to which she belonged. Helen was a fiercely passionate educator and campaigner for girls and women and she was also head of The Abbey School for 33 years.
When she took over the school there were 32 students in inadequate buildings and the future was uncertain. Luck and whisky then played their part. There was a surge in popularity of the drink; a windfall tax; and a government with grants to spend. Helen secured the grant and brought The Abbey – not even named that yet – to Kendrick Road.
The intention was to put the school where the astro is today, but she saw the limitations of that site, marched across the road, and negotiated with the farmer managing what was then open farmland for the site we now occupy. The school became The Abbey in 1913. Helen led it for another 20 years, through the First World War, the depression, and countless challenges; under her stewardship it started to become the school we know.
In part this story is inspiring thanks to Helen alone. Her defiance, vision and optimism, her relentless refusal to accept adversity, her sheer belief in what the school could be and achieve – these all still feel vivid today.
But this story is also inspiring because of the movement to which it contributed. Helen was a distinguished member of a group of campaigners who transformed the education and in turn the life chances and choices of girls. We need no reminding of the constraints and injustice Helen and her contemporaries faced in their youth: women were denied formal education, university education, full property rights, the vote.
A significant part of the movement that swept much of this away was education. Perhaps the most famous members of the campaign to which Helen belonged were Frances Buss and Dorothea Beale. They had a vision of intellectual and personal freedom for girls and women. They founded and led schools to achieve it. And they both ascribed their passion to one place: to the education they had themselves received.
What that education gave them was an assurance in their power to change a world that was not good enough. In turn they shared this with their graduates: the confidence to believe in justice and the purpose to achieve it.
Our present mission remains that of Helen Musson: to equip our students today with that same confidence and purpose, and the determination to live lives illuminated by joy. Two things above all remind us that our campaigning spirit, our belief in social equality, are needed now as much as ever.
The first is that the world is still not where it needs to be. We go back four generations to Helen Musson. At the present rate of progress it will take another five generations until we achieve gender parity. In co-ed schools studies show that teachers devote 10%-30% more of their time to interactions with boys: what a pervasive demonstration that is of the hidden limitations on girls – and what a powerful reminder of how much an education that champions and celebrates girls can offer.
The second is how far we have come. Helen’s achievements and those of her contemporaries are towering. The world has changed beyond recognition and, for all the challenges we continue to face, it has changed in so many ways for the better. That for me is above all the source of inspiration and joy and hope. Schools like The Abbey have for decades sent out graduates to live fulfilling lives and to help transform the communities around them. Every summer term as we prepare to wish another cohort well on that journey, it is impossible to witness their energy, their wit, their kindness and courage, and not feel cheered about everything they represent. Here’s to their future and ours.