“We need to take serious note of the outstanding young role models around us”

Last weekend the world looked on as two young women, Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez – both still teenagers, at 18 and 19 years old respectively – put on a stunning display of not only sporting prowess, but also poise, dignity, compassion and resilience. They showed in every sense what young women can and will achieve, and why it is not just tennis fans who have so much to be excited about.

From start to finish, the Women’s US Open final was in so many ways – and quite rightly – a celebration of women, who firmly took centre stage. Held on the twentieth anniversary of September 11th in New York, female cadets unfurled the US flag on court. It was a poignant way to mark such a significant occasion, and also a reminder of the role women are playing in all walks of life and across society.

For me, one of the most memorable moments of the match took place before a tennis ball had been hit. Both finalists, Emma and Leylah stood alongside six incredible women of the ‘Original 9’, who in 1970 broke away from the United States Lawn Tennis Association, and later threatened to boycott the US Open, to demand equal pay for women. (Today, women and men receive equal prize money at the US Open .) It was a powerful image of progress, courage and optimism. The legendary Billie Jean King, who is credited with leading the movement and remains a fierce champion of equality, tweeted after the match, “It is wonderful to see this generation living our dream.”

Billie Jean King tweet

What an outstanding reminder of what women have achieved. Not only is Emma such a young champion, but she was the first person ever to win a major tournament as a qualifier, and did so without dropping a set. Listening to their on-court speeches after the event, I was overwhelmed – but not surprised – by the maturity and compassion shown by both finalists, and the respect they showed to each other. I’ve read about how Emma has spoken so much about resilience in her interviews since her victory. And I think we were all touched by how Leylah said in defeat that she hoped she could “be as strong and as resilient as New York has been the past 20 years”.

We really need to start to sit up and take note of the young people making waves all around us. They are ripping up the role model rule-book, calling-out what’s not right in the world, being fearless agents of change and inspiring each other. We need to look “up” to, and take serious note of these young role models all around us. To take just one incredible example, Marcus Rashford has done so much to drive change and bring others with him in addressing child food poverty. He has certainly inspired so many girls in our schools. Eight-year old Leila at Blackheath High was so inspired that she has cooked hundreds of meals for her local community, receiving special recognition from Marcus Rashford himself.

And as we look to COP 26 in November, it is Greta Thunberg – still only 18 years old – who is driving change and forcing the world to listen. I know how much of an inspiration she is to girls in our schools. I am equally proud of our students across the GDST who are taking the initiative and holding us to account, working with us at Trust Office to drive our environmental commitments in school, as they help shape their future.

Like Leylah and Emma, girls in our schools are also incredibly resilient, something that we aim to harness in our students every day. Like all of us, young people have faced so many challenges over the past 18 months and throughout the pandemic. It has of course been very difficult, but I see in this generation incredible levels of compassion and maturity that will not only be a source of great strength in their own futures, but for us all.

After the challenges of the last 18 months, I have started off the new term with a renewed sense of joy and hopefulness for the future. Speaking of tennis, it has been wonderful to witness the joy and celebration shown by so many people who watched the final between these young and outstanding women (and if you want another reason to smile, watch the video of Emma Raducanu singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ after her great win – a moment of pure joy!).

It is important to remember the optimism we feel in these moments as it’s all too easy to get disheartened by the lack of progress in the world, but looking at young people all around us really should bring us so much optimism and excitement for the future. I have been so lucky to be able to spend more time in schools over the last couple of weeks, since the start of term. I have been buzzing by the optimism and energy I have seen as I’ve spoken to girls who are themselves buzzing with ideas.

It is really time to seize the moment and do all we can to support young people in creating a positive and equal future. Every day across the GDST, we are committed to doing all we can to empower girls in our schools, to give them the tools and confidence to step-up and then step-out into the future.

Saturday’s tennis final broke boundaries in so many ways, as well as reminding us of the great boundaries already broken. With all the conversations I’ve had with girls in our schools over the last couple of weeks, I know more than ever that this young generation will continue to break new ground and never give up in supporting each other to achieve equality – game, set and match.