Alumna Professor Katie Willis, Head of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, gave the following speech at this year's Commemoration Service:
Being back in Chester Cathedral for what is my twelfth Queen’s School Commemoration Service, but the first since I left in 1986, leads me to reflect on two things. The first is how can it be 30 years since I did my A levels and headed off to university. The second, and more important point, is how did I get from here to where I am now, Professor of Human Geography and Head of one of the best university geography departments in the country – at Royal Holloway, University of London.
My passion for Geography was ignited at school. Here was a subject which resonated with my curiosity to understand the world around us; how and why places were different, requiring an understanding of landscape features and climate, as well as cultural practices and economic processes. My A Level Geography teacher, Mrs Affleck, deserves particular thanks (or blame) for giving me the Geography bug. I was originally thinking of studying Law at university, but decided to study Geography as I loved it so much and then to do a law conversion course. Well, thirty years on, I am no nearer doing that law conversion course. Instead, my love of Geography remains undiminished, and I have been fortunate to make it my career – teaching and conducting research in human geography.
Geography investigates not only why places are different, but also seeks to understand inequality and how inequalities can be addressed. My research has looked specifically at issues around gender, migration and development and I have conducted research in Latin America, China, East Africa and in the UK. I will draw on some of this research in the rest of this speech, linking my and your experiences as Queen’s School pupils to broader issues.
Place is a very important concept in Geography and the Queen’s School is a very special place for current pupils and staff, but also for those of us who have left. In my family my sister, my mum, two aunts, my granny and a number of cousins were all Queen’s School girls. The Queen’s School, like Royal Holloway where I work, was a pioneering institution in the 19th century, providing education for girls and young women at a time when this was often viewed with suspicion. Today it is easy to forget just how ground-breaking this promotion of girls’ education was and how fortunate we are to live at a time and place where allowing women to achieve their academic potential is taken for granted. Girls in other parts of the world are not so lucky. In rural Kenya and Malawi where I have done fieldwork, girls are often denied access to schooling, particularly after primary school. This might be because families do not see the value in educating women, as their main role in life is to get married and have children. However, increasingly the barriers are financial, such as the cost of school fees, books and uniforms, travel costs if there are no schools nearby, and the potential income that could come from sending children out to work, rather than to school. Governments and non-governmental organisations have done a great deal to improve access to education, but significant challenges remain.
As a Queen’s School pupil I benefitted so much from the education I received from the age of 7 when I joined the Junior School at Needham House. This education was not just about passing exams, but also developing skills and interests – in my case in sport (particularly lacrosse) and piano - but for others in art, drama, debating and any number of other activities. Of course, I do not want to present my schooldays as unrelentingly happy. There were stresses and strains, particularly coming up to exams, but also worries and insecurities that often blight us as teenagers as we seek to find our own identity and carve out our place in the world. Modern technology is a wonderful thing, but they can also exacerbate difficult situations. This means that the pressures I and my classmates felt thirty years ago will be even more immediate for the current generation of Queen’s School girls. In such a context, the School’s nurturing approach towards its pupils is particularly important, providing a supportive
environment to help every girl achieve her goals and open up a range of opportunities.
Opening up possibilities is a vital part of a Queen’s School education and we are all fortunate to finish our studies here equipped to make a range of choices about what we want to do with our lives. For some of us, those choices will involve travelling to different parts of the globe. Part of my research has been on British people who have moved to China. I am particularly interested in finding out about women’s experiences of this migration, and have interviewed over 100 women as part of this project. Some women have moved to China to work, taking advantage of the opportunities that Chinese economic growth has presented. However, a significant number of women have also moved to China because of their husband’s job, sometimes putting their own career on hold to accompany their partner and often to raise a family. The experience of living in a different cultural environment can be exciting and life-enhancing, but it can also be frustrating and difficult. It is unsurprising, therefore, that for some women their China experience was a vital step in their career plans, or family activities, while for others the move proved to be much less successful.
For the women and men I interviewed in China, their migration across international borders was a choice and was relatively straightforward, as they had the documentation and money to be able to travel. Millions of people around the world are much less fortunate. They do not have the resources to travel legally, but for some, that migration is vital for safety and security. My current research is on unaccompanied child migrants. In 2015, over 3,000 unaccompanied children arrived in the UK fleeing civil war and persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, and Save the Children estimated that approximately 26,000 unaccompanied children arrived in the whole of Europe last year. For children arriving in the UK, they are given protection under international law because they are children. However, once they become adults, if their asylum claims are turned down, they can be deported at any time. This is clearly a traumatic situation, as many have been in the UK for a number of years, are in school, have foster families and friends, and do not know if their families are still alive in their country of origin.
This speech is clearly not the right place to discuss the rights and wrongs of migration policy, but I was delighted to see the report in The Queen’s Speech newsletter about The Raft; a drama, dance and music production by Senior School girls drawing on their responses to the ongoing migration crisis. It strikes me that this production epitomises another key aspect of Queen’s School education – an acknowledgement that we are part of a wider community, well beyond the school gates. It is important that we recognise how our lives are part of social and economic networks that stretch across the globe, and that we are aware of our privileged position and support those less fortunate than ourselves.
I have been very lucky to travel a great deal as part of my job. For some of you, staying nearer to home may be much more appealing. Regardless of how near or far you roam in the future, I am sure that your Queen’s School experiences will play an important role in shaping your choices and opportunities. This has certainly been the case for me and I will always be immensely grateful to the staff and my classmates for helping me embark on the journey to where I am now.