Prestigious sixth-form drops ‘sir’ and ‘miss’ over cultural misogyny

The term 'miss' conjures up images of Edwardian shop assistants and plays into a 'gendered view' of the world, according to Harris Westminster Sixth Form's executive principal

The term 'miss' conjures up images of Edwardian shop assistants and plays into a 'gendered view' of the world, according to Harris Westminster Sixth Form's executive principal

6 Jun 2023, 13:29

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James Handscombe, executive principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, has told students to stop calling teachers sir or miss

A top-performing London sixth-form has told pupils to stop referring to teachers as ‘sir’ and ‘miss’ in a bid to challenge “cultural misogyny”.

In an assembly yesterday, Harris Westminster‘s executive principal James Handscombe told students that the terms were “deeply unequal”.

He added that while ‘sir’ invoked gallant knights such as Sir Lancelot or Sir Galahad, ‘miss’ was “how you refer to a small girl, or an Edwardian shop assistant”.

Instead, students will be asked to refer to teachers by their honorific and last name, such as Mr Handscombe.

‘Teacher’ is admissible, as long as staff agree.

Handscombe told students that the terms fed into “a view of the world that diminishes women”.

“Men get to be fearless leaders and alpha types, get credited for hustling whilst behind the backs of women it’s asked whether they deserve it, whether their career comes from good ideas or good looks, power moves or diversity lists.”

‘Madam has a stroppy connotation’

The policy is not being adopted more widely across the Harris Federation, which operates the sixth-form, or Harris Clapham Sixth Form, where Handscombe is also executive head.

In the case of the latter, Handscombe said it had a “different culture” and was at a “different stage of their evolution”.

Harris Westminster, where 49 students received Oxbridge offers last year, was set up in 2014 as a selective free school that gives priority to disadvantaged pupils with high academic potential.

At the time, Handscombe proffered the idea of adopting a similar policy around monikers, but staff had “too many other things to think about”.

But after the idea was raised again by a female staff member in a meeting earlier this year, the school decided this June was a “good time” to implement the approach due to current year 13s already leaving for the exam period.

Different terms for female teachers were discussed, but staff decided “madam has a stroppy connotation, and ma’am sounds like you’re a royal or from the 1920s,” Handscombe told Schools Week.

The “fanciful” sensei – the Japanese term for teacher – and the “very Hogwarts” professor were also discussed as replacements, before being discarded.

According to the executive principal, both school staff and students are “very on board” with the new approach.

“It’s going to be difficult for us all, but this is your opportunity to change how we do things here, to achieve something those pioneers couldn’t manage, to leave a legacy that will be remembered for the thousand years of school history that we’re planning,” he told pupils.

A lot of schools have ‘other priorities’

Rather than enforcing the policy, or sanctioning pupils who lapse into old habits, Handscombe said it would be “something where we shift the culture by reminding each other”.

Teachers will “ignore” pupils who use the now-banned terms, but will “recognise” not all pupils will know their names so will give them “amnesty to say ‘I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name’ – or, more likely, ‘I’m afraid I’ve forgotten what title you use’”, Handscombe said.

But if pupils refer to a teacher as sir or miss “in order to be disrespectful…then [we] would quite rightly sanction them appropriately”.

He admitted that while he thought “cultural misogyny” was a “global problem that I would like all schools to think about”, he did not anticipate a mass rollout of the policy.

“A lot of schools have got particular things to think about and other priorities,” he added.

The Harris Federation was contacted for comment.

The LGBT+ charity Educate and Celebrate recommended last year the terms ‘sir’ and ‘miss’ be replaced with ‘teacher’ – but that was based instead on the idea of moving towards a “gender-free” model of education.

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