Written on the day of the Euro 2020 Final, 11 July 2021
I remember when we met in 2017. You kindly joined the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) Conference in York when I was Chair of the BSA. We did an ‘In Conversation’ session in front of an audience of boarding school headteachers. You took questions from the floor. You gave us 90 minutes of your time. Then you went to visit Martin House – the children’s hospice where my wife worked at the time – and spent the rest of the day with the families and staff there. You did it all for no fee and with the utmost of respect and attention to all those you met.
When we were ‘In Conversation’, you did not know that a journalist had found his way into the audience. You had spoken with candour and honesty about your own experiences of adversity; your insights into leadership; your sense that schools and football clubs have a lot in common. You spoke about mental health and the need to speak out and encourage dialogue, especially amongst boys and men. The reporter focused on your answer to a stray question about whether young footballers were paid too much. I’m still sorry today that we let that happen. You were noble in making light of it. However, I knew it had caused unwelcome noise. You rose above it. And your words had the insulating effect of integrity. And truth.
Thousands upon thousands of people have a Dear Gareth story. You have become an icon of leadership; a national treasure; a hero. The values you showed on that day in York have been on display, with unerring reliability, in recent months. No wonder so much has been written and said about you. Your virtues have been written large in the media. And rightly celebrated. Humility, integrity, honesty, compassion, care, endeavour, courage, spirit. The authenticity of your answers on that day in May 2017 was merely a snapshot. 90 minutes that showed the authenticity by which you live and work.
I’d like to add my letter to the pile, the mountain, of praise and appreciation. Not so much for what you have achieved – though your accomplishments are remarkable, proud and historic. This letter adds to the billions of words of admiration for the way you have gone about your work. The way you have lead; the values you have communicated; the template you have set for others; and the players you have inspired to be athletes on the pitch and activists off it.
This letter is written on the day of the final of the Euro 2020 competition. You have led the national men’s football team to a first major final since 1966. I don’t know who wins. I don’t know if it’s coming home…
What’s come home to me – as I have followed and admired your leadership, your work ethic and your communication – is the mighty power of sincerity. Whatever the result, these qualities (and many other things besides) make you a winner.
My father once told me the story of the baby camel who kept asking its mother questions.
“Mummy, why do we have these wide, spongey feet?” – Well, dear, it’s so that we can walk over sand dunes without sinking. “And what about these extra-long eye-lashes?” – Those are to protect your eyes during sand storms. “Ah. And why do we have these huge fat lumps on our backs?” – Those are humps, dear. They store energy for extended journeys across the desert.
“Mummy – what are we doing here in Chester Zoo?”
Zoos are places of containment. Schools are, ultimately, all about escape.
During their time with us, whether it has been a 2, 4 or 5 year stay, I hope that we have enhanced your children’s natural talents and added new passions and experiences. And that they are prepared for life; equipped with the skills and aptitudes – the spongey feet and absorbent humps – with which to cross through life’s undulations. I hope that they will travel the sands of time with inner confidence and a steady set of values. I hope that they seek out oases. And create them for others.
In recent times, we have all felt the confinement of life during a pandemic. The defensive bars of separation have caused isolation. Motivated by a desire to protect, control measures have brought limitations and caused inevitable frustrations. The national policy on isolating children who are close contacts has become monstrously disproportionate. This must surely change.
No community is immune to the insidious impacts of the pandemic. Parents and educators alike worry about the impact of these times on the health and well-being of the young. However, despite – and in some cases because of it all, we applaud the adaptability, the resilience, the sheer luminous brilliance of the young in our school – this year group in particular. This is cause for celebration, hope and expectation.
A full boarding school community is a magnificently intricate, complex and dynamic ecosystem of which to be a part – whether as a pupil or a member of staff. Each individual is important. Each person’s character and behaviour alters and affects the equipoise and flourishing of the whole.
Shrewsbury strives to be an accepting community that embraces individuals on the basis of who they are. All communities need to do more on issues of equality, diversity and inclusion. We have work ahead on this, but I do like to believe that the natural state of Salopia is one of symbiotic co-operation and the celebration of difference.
Although we have been sometimes apart, sometimes at a distance, shared adversity has brought schools, parents and pupils closer together. Recent times have seen artificial constraints and barriers introduced into the system. The very notion of a remote boarding community is oxymoronic: a contradiction in terms. And yet we made it happen together.
When we resumed on-site learning, we embraced creatively and inventively the systems of control that put distances between year groups, houses, pupils and staff. The Salopian spirit filled the gaps. We found a way to connect and make things happen as fully as possible.
The experience of living with COVID has triggered and accelerated positive adaptations and evolutionary step changes. Much more inventive use of technology in teaching and learning, for example. We have also embraced the brave new world of virtual parent consultations. The challenge of balancing cups of tea and maintaining a polite smile whilst trying to keep a place in a queue have been replaced by privacy and the focusing effect of a countdown timer. Virtualisation has been an enlivening challenge for us all.
Despite the significant gains made, concerns over excessive screen-time, and the darker influences of the digital multiverse, have underlined all the more sharply, the deep value and purpose of whole person communal education.
Education is not a transaction; whole person education cannot be done through a screen. The education that you parents chose – this distinctive Shrewsbury education – relies on a community of individuals who share a common spirit. Our kind of education is about co-travelling; shared experience; wide opportunities; inspiration and challenge. It is about serious fun.
A school is a learning community. What have our leavers learned, I wonder? And what have we learned from them?
I hope that we learn, every day, to delight in the uniqueness of each human being. Whilst we live in times of control and civic responsibility, the human spirit leaps up and refuses to be reduced. I hope that our leavers embody the virtues of practical wisdom; courage and kindness. These things are not learned; they are absorbed gradually over time spent on the Salopian Way.
What do I hope for, when I look out at our Upper Sixth? In times when people are quick to outrage, I hope for tolerance and understanding. In times when Government appears to set education policy in an echo chamber, I hope for respectful dialogue across all the professions.
In times that have never been more complicated for our children to grow up, I hope for kindness and places of safety. In times when change is needed, I hope for the righteous indignation and moral purpose of the next generation. In times of isolation and growing nationalism, I hope for a global mindset. Across society, we see evidence of a crisis of identity. We need people who can connect and join; rather that divide and separate. We need people who try to find solutions to local, national and international problems. People with giant ventures in mind.
In times when the waves of a pandemic sweep across the world; I hope that the waves of fellowship follow.
The former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, suggested that times of crisis identify the hoarders and the sharers. We need to be amongst the sharers. And as we come out of the pandemic and learn to live responsibly with COVID, we have a chance to treasure, enhance and deepen the way we use our returning freedoms.
Our leavers are on the cusp of new adventures. Of course, we will them brilliant futures. When the animals escape from the zoo we want them to be dispersing widely, into new habitats that challenge and inspire them.
So, where are they headed? The Upper Sixth have firm offers to go to 51 different universities worldwide. Three quarters of those offers are at Russell Group universities. All being well, 38 Salopians – that’s a fifth of the year group – will head to one of the World Tops 20 universities in the Autumn. Just over a quarter will be taking a Gap Year, a significant and understandable increase. International destinations are, expectedly, a little down this year but pupils hold offers from University of California (San Diego), Georgia Institute of Technology, Tilburg University in the Netherlands, City University of HK and Florence, Italy.
Salopians will go on to study courses- in order of frequency – in Business; medicine and medical-related courses; Politics and International Relations; History, Geography, Sport, English, Economics, Philosophy (all 7). Four will be studying Architecture; and others hope to study Fashion Journalism and Content Creation; Infection and Immunity; Psychology; Renewable Energy Engineering and Climate Science. Our leavers have offers at the Royal College of Music; scholarships to the Guildhall School of Music; places at the Guildford School of Acting. Four students off to do an Art Foundation Course. One is off to do an Army Gap Year; one to professional sport. What a diversity of destinations!
Incidentally, we were delighted to hear on Thursday that our careers advice and guidance programme – which we call Futures – led superbly Mr Wain and Mr Percival – has been shortlisted for a national Independent school award for best Student Careers. This follows on from being named Independent School of the Year for 2020 and Best Community Outreach programme 2020.
We’re proud of this collective recognition and thank all pupils, teaching and support staff, parents and governors for combining to create an award-winning community.
Today, is the point of departure – a kind of escape. As they depart the friendly confines of Shrewsbury, we celebrate our leavers’ resilience, and brilliance, in times of transilience. (I confess I had to look up the third word in that rhyming trio – transilience means ‘abrupt change or variation‘, apparently. We’ve certainly had plenty of that of late.
For our Upper Sixth leavers – the camels of 2021 with their magnificent spongey feet, their luxurious eye-lashes and their well-stocked humps – this is the day when the gates of the zoo are flung wide open.