Towards the Light: Reflections on the Opening of the Ada Benson Building

11 March 2020

The new Ada Benson Centre for Sixth Form and the Arts was officially opened last week in a ceremony attended by former heads of school, VIPs and returning alumnae. Our guests of honour were Cheryl Giovannoni, CEO of the GDST, and Dame Pippa Harris (1985), the Chair of Bafta and celebrated producer of Call the Midwife and the First World War epic 1917, among others. 

The evening itself was conceived as a celebration of the extraordinary spirit of OHS girls past, present and future. As our guests arrived, they found this theme embodied in the objects assembled all around them in the brightly lit atrium: the girls’ latest sculptures and artworks were joined by precious editions from the OHS library and historical records from the archive; a portrait of Ada Benson stood alongside a time-lapse film showing the construction of the building dedicated to her memory; and the murmur of conversation from the assembled guests was accompanied by the soft strains of Y13 Olivia as she sang and played piano in the corner of the room.

It is in this modern, purposeful space where the future will take shape in the hands and minds of our amazing students

Once all the guests had arrived and been helped to food and drink by our wonderful student volunteers, it fell to our guests of honour to explain the significance of this moment. First, Dr Stringer came up to acknowledge the influence of her predecessors, Mrs Carlisle and Dr Hills, in originating and steering the project. She then reminded us of the deeper history inspiring the building: of the enduring influence felt by Ada Benson as a pioneer of women’s education, and of the role this new building will play in drawing a genealogical link between the originating spirit of OHS and the future that awaits. Next, CEO of the GDST Cheryl Giovannoni spoke to us about the present face of OHS, confiding to the audience that girls from OHS are the ones she hears from most in all the Trust, because they’re the ones who seem to believe most passionately in the power of reasoned discourse and democracy. 

Finally, we heard about the future of OHS from Dame Pippa Harris (1985), the celebrated producer of 1917 and current Chair of Bafta. Dame Pippa started by telling us how OHS drama productions and her teachers’ faith in each girl’s potential inspired her to pursue a career in film at a time when such a path was nigh-on unthinkable for a woman. Next,  Dame Pippa acknowledged that the issue of equal representation hasn’t gone away, but qualified this with examples of how things are improving everyday. Looking around the room, Dame Pippa concluded by telling us that she knew she was in the presence of the storytellers, writers and performers who would one day go out into the world and make sure women’s stories are told. And it is this promise, ultimately, for which the Ada Benson Building was built, because it is in this modern, purposeful space where the future will take shape in the hands and minds of our amazing students. 

After concluding her speech, Dame Pippa cut the ribbon for the building (using some antique cloth shears!) and visited the new NT Live auditorium named after her. Meanwhile, other guests had the opportunity to explore the new art faculty and Sixth Form spaces and to learn more about the building’s origins and purpose: its past, present and future.

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