A Letter From Shrewsbury on the poetry of Ben North, who died 18th October 2020, aged 49.
We never met. And now you are gone.
Twitter introduced us. Your final Tweets: some algorithm brought them to me. It told me that you were dying of a brain tumour. Two in fact.
In this strange, garbled age of unfiltered sharing, your words cut through.
You left behind a trail. It’s clear that you were very well loved. Successful. Creative. And I see that you were noble and angry; brave and gentle in your suffering.
The algorithm led me to discover your book of poetry: ‘Thirty-Three Poems: some of which are about death‘. Dying shared. Poetry shared.
They are beautiful. This one, for example, about a clear, crisp night:
Or this one, clever and wise – ‘This Is a Lie‘:
The final poem in your collection is called ‘The Sea‘. As I write this short letter, I am looking at the slate-grey waters of the North Sea. It is five days on from the day you died. I read it again and consider its simplicity, which is its power. It was not, I think, your last poem. But it is an ending:
Your poems are not brilliant because you were dying. They are brilliant because they are brilliant.
It’s hard not to wonder what else you might have written. As it is, you are gone; and you leave us 33 poems. A slim volume, you said. Yes, short. But full of wisdom and humanity.
What is the end of a poet? To leave something that endures? To connect? To look at the Sea and put it to words. Before the end of the poet.
Thank you, Ben. We never met – but I feel that I would have liked you very much.
There is something in the air. In fact, everything seems to be up in the air just at the moment. I’m not only talking about the logistics of the Summer 2021 exam session – though some good sense and clarity on that would be good. I really hope that you listen to the experts: those who teach and support children.
It’s the whole thing, really. It feels as though it’s time you took a long hard look at yourself.
You’re probably way too busy to read letters. I’ll bet you get a lot. Such as this one; or the one I sent to the paper the other day, suggesting that we have a golden opportunity to re-think how pupils’ learning and wider skills are assessed.
This is a big picture discussion that would need to be held across the width and breadth of education. When GCSEs were invented, the school leaving age was 16. Children in England are assessed by written test more than most others on the planet. As we all know, written tests are not the only measure of a person. Time for a re-think, surely?
I should perhaps emphasise that Shrewsbury pupils do very well indeed on the current diet. Our GCSE results are excellent. We prepare our pupils well and they succeed in these examinations. In that narrow sense, nothing’s broken from our point of view. These assessments are a significant part of the story but our teaching extends beyond the set curriculum; we aim to explore and instil a true love of learning. Character strengths, skills and aptitudes are developed outside the classroom: through sport, music, drama, expressive arts, leadership, enterprise and adventure, to name a few.
Learning cross-fertilises and our pupils are recognised and developed not just in the exam hall but across a wide field of activity. This is what we call ‘whole person education’: the intellective development, which is in part measured by examinations, is allied to active, expressive and reflective learning. The process is about becoming fully human and developing Salopian virtues that will last a lifetime.
Shrewsbury has a long history of asking difficult questions and being willing to challenge the status quo. Is our examination system fair? Can we influence it to be fairer, more holistic, more responsive to the teachers’ knowledge of the children– more fully human. How can we exercise our independence to provide a broad and holistic curriculum? Recent history shows that we are seizing opportunities here: the introduction of the Institute of Leadership and Management Young Leaders Award and the creation of Shrewsbury U, for example.
I know we’re all struggling day to day. Big thinking takes time and effort – and genuine will to address issues. At a national, system level, there is a debate to be had. This feels like the time.
I have two questions for you, the fictional Minister for Exams:
Question 1: Is there a better, fairer, more human way to assess our children?
Question 2: Read Brian Patten’s great poem, The Minister for Exams? And discuss.
Your oft-quoted lines suggest that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” [John Donne, Meditation 17]. You were talking of the ultimate separation that our mortality entails.
In a time when we are trying to operate a community that is both together but distanced, your words take on new meaning.
The sense of isolation that characterised many young people’s experience of lockdown has, with the re-opening of schools in September, been replaced by a renewed sense of community. We learn each day not just how important community is; but also how challenging the time in lockdown was for so many. Concerns over how much learning was actually achieved across the UK’s schools during the remote period are matched by a watchfulness over the mental health impacts of the past six months on the nation’s children.
Shrewsbury has found a way to thrive under the necessary limitations of the day. These first five weeks of term, we have all been on campus pretty much non-stop seven days a week. This has generated a strong sense of togetherness and community. Equally, we remain alert to the world beyond and our part in it. Our school is strongly embedded in its local community and we strive to play a positive role in society.
We were quietly proud to share the news that we have been listed as finalists in the national Independent Schools of the Year Award 2020 for community outreach (winners to be announced 8 October 2020). [Update: we won two awards!] During lockdown, our community engagement work continued, with the Design and Technology Faculty making hundreds of protective visors; the school donated PPE and webcams to local hospitals and surgeries. Difficult times call for sharing, rather than looking after our own interests: sharing, not hoarding.
Shrewsbury the town is, of course, a nearly-island. Nestled in a graceful loop of the River Severn.
Yet, we are connected to the mainland. Alongside an historic association with the Shewsy, our youth club in Everton, and numerous volunteering programmes and educational partnerships with over 30 state schools, this community activity is part of our essence. And it is essential that our pupils foster and develop a keen sense of social responsibility during their time at the school.
We will continue to work hard to give the pupils the best experience that they can have. And to extend opportunities in collaboration with partner schools in the state sector. We are proud to be a distinctive community – a Salopian nearly-island – but we are also dedicated to being a constructive “part of the main”.
The turn of the month was marked by National Poetry Day in the UK. One of our great alumni, Sir Philip Sidney, stands immortalised in statue form above the war memorial at the Moss Gates entrance to the School. Sidney was enrolled at Shrewsbury School at the age of 9.
In his day, lessons were conducted almost exclusively in Latin; and began at 6am. He was an exceptionally diligent and gifted scholar. His untimely but dignified death on the battlefield at Zutphen, at the age of 31, sealed his legend as an epitome of the Elizabethan gentleman-scholar-soldier.
Centuries on, and Shrewsbury School is of course a very different place. But Sidney’s zeal for learning and his apparently immaculate manners still provide a helpful, if historic, role model to boys and girls alike.
Sidney’s famous work, The Defence of Poesy, argues for the power of well-crafted verse. He disdains the reader who has “so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry”. That’s us told!
On National Poetry Day, and indeed throughout the year, I take solace and inspiration from poetry. In fast-moving and challenging times, a moment spent in the reflective mind of another can do us the power of good. Or as Sidney put it: “Poetry, a speaking picture to teach and delight”.