About Leo Winkley

Headmaster of Shrewsbury School

Dear Ever-Changing Thing

Featured

It was Heraclitus who observed that there is nothing permanent except change.

The great thing about institutions, such as well-established schools, is that this change takes place within the stable context of a long-held identity.

No institution should stand still. Equally, we should not be blown about by passing fads.

Culture is like a colloid: it has a shape but it gently morphs over time. There must be change, but usually it is gentle, measured, deliberate. And fuelled by reflection, listening, honest self-criticism. This is willed change.

A wave of communal optimism seemed to flow from the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Celebrations. So much was rightly said about the constancy, certainty and loyalty that Her Majesty has brought in her 70 years on the throne. For millions, she has been the still and dignified centre of an ever-changing world.

Times have changed. Some change has been rapid; other change more of a creeping thing. The Queen herself has changed, of course – gathered experience, matured, aged. Yet, she has been constant. Because the things she stands for, the virtues she embodies, are timeless. They do not change. That is what we mean by integrity. If right within…

When Sir Michael Palin (OS) stayed with us during his visit [May 2022] to Shrewsbury, he told me how the place felt reassuringly familiar but better in so many ways. It was not just the physical things – the many new buildings and facilities – but the feel and buzz of the place which he said was both true to its past but felt fresher, kinder, contemporary. You’d hope so, really, but it was lovely to hear him speak so warmly of the School he left in 1961. The change he saw was evolution rather than revolution. A forward journey plotted with a familiar and trusty compass.

Sir Michael Palin – with Charles Darwin behind him


Nothing stays the same. Language itself is, of course, an ever-changing thing. For example, I discovered recently that the word ‘fun’ (which I love to couple oxymoronically with the word ‘serious’), originally meant ‘to cheat or hoax’. Hence ‘to make fun of’. However, its meaning gradually shifted to take on the positive connotation of having a good time. The words ‘terrific’ and ‘tremendous’ – undoubtedly good ones to see in your children’s end of term reports – were originally about fear and trembling. To ‘grin’ was to bare teeth in pain; it then became the word for a fake or forced smile, before becoming the real thing.

To be ‘egregious’ was a compliment – ‘eminent’, rather than the modern negative ‘offensive’. ‘Sad’ used to mean ‘satisfied’, then it went to meaning ‘serious’, then ‘grave’ then ‘sorrowful’. ‘Smug’ once meant ‘crisp and tidy’ – a good thing, surely? – but nowadays, it’s undoubtedly something to avoid.

As we enter the closing weeks of an academic year, the pupils are grinning and bearing the seriousness of exam season (public and internal); and our Upper Sixth are approaching the major change of leaving school. The school will change again as new pupils and staff join in September. As times roll on, we must do all we can to avoid being smug or egregious; and to embrace positive change with a tremendous spirit of serious fun…

As our Shrewsbury School motto states: ‘Intus Si Recte, Ne Labora’. If right within, worry not. The right things within us are constant. It is virtues and values of integrity that remain steady and true.

The challenge is to keep hold of them amidst a world of ever-changing things.

Dear Jack

Featured

You are seen by many as a key figure in the advancement of gay rights in Britain. An icon for a more tolerant and accepting society.

Before that, you were a Headmaster. At Shrewsbury School.

We have a room at School named after you. Lord John (aka ‘Jack’) Wolfenden.  Imaginatively, we call it the Wolfenden Room.  This honours you as a former Headmaster of Shrewsbury School (1944-1950). 

Jack Wolfenden’s portrait at Shrewsbury School

However, your name is more widely associated with the ground-breaking report published in 1957 that bears your name: The Wolfenden Report.  

After you were Headmaster of Shrewsbury, you went on to be Vice-Chancellor of Reading University, Director of the British Museum, a life peer in the House of Lords, and a very influential figure in public life. (So, there’s hope for me yet!)

Male homosexuality had been illegal in England since an act of parliament in 1533. Female homosexuality was never specified in law. It has never been illegal to be a lesbian; neither was is tolerated, accepted or spoken about until relatively recently. The law became more emphatic in 1885 with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made all homosexual acts illegal, even those carried out in private.

After WWII, arrests and prosecutions for homosexuals increased. For example Alan Turing, the cryptographer who helped to break the German Enigma code, was victimised for his homosexuality. Charged with ‘gross indecency’, he was forced to choose between prison or hormone treatment. He also lost his job. His death in June 1954 was treated as suicide.  All caused by the attitudes of his time.

Turing’s case, and those of other high profile individuals such as the actor John Gielgud, led the government to set up a Departmental Committee of 11 men and 4 women to consider both homosexual offences and prostitution.  Jack Wolfenden was appointed Chair of the Committee.

The committee first met on 15 September 1954 and over three years sat 62 times. Much of this time was taken up with interviewing witnesses. Interviewees included judges, religious leaders, policemen, social workers and probation officers.

Jack Wolfenden in Committee

During the time the committee sat, you discovered that your own son was homosexual.

Your influential report put forward the recommendation that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence’.

Two members of the committee had resigned during the process and one remaining member of the committee openly disagreed with the recommendation. But, the recommendation was made. And it was a pivotal moment in the advancement of gay rights.

The report recommended decriminalising homosexuality. Although the report condemned homosexuality as ‘immoral and destructive’, it concluded that the law’s place was not to rule on private morality or immorality.  It also said that outlawing homosexuality was a civil liberties issue.

It took a long time for the report to convert into law.  There was plenty of opposition.

The Home Secretary who had commissioned the committee didn’t actually like the findings – he has hoped the committee would recommend tougher legislation against homosexual acts between men. 

This gives us some sense of the heavily dominant assumptions of the time.

Instead, the report proposed that there ‘must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law’s business’. The report’s findings were debated in Parliament but a motion in 1960 to implement the report’s findings was lost and efforts to implement the report’s findings were stalled.

The Sexual Offences Act passed in Parliament in 1967, 10 years after the publication of the report. Based on the Sexual Offences Bill, the Act relied heavily on the Wolfenden report and decriminalised homosexual acts between two men who were both consenting and both over the age of 21. 

The Act, when it did arrive, applied only to England and Wales. (Scotland decriminalised homosexuality in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982.)

It should be said that there is a big difference between decriminalisation and legalisation.  Peter Tatchell, the well-known contemporary gay rights activist, commented on the 60th anniversary of the Wolfenden Report in 2017:

“The report did not urge the repeal of anti-gay laws, merely a policy of non-prosecution in certain circumstances. The existing, often centuries-old laws were to remain on the statute book under the heading “unnatural offences”.

In other words, by only moving a little bit in the direction of acceptance, the 1957 report was just a bit less prejudiced – it was hardly emancipatory.  It is one thing to decriminalize; quite another to actively accept.

How does history judge you, John ‘Jack’ Wolfenden?  Well, it is only fair to judge the Report in the context of the attitudes of 1950’s Britain.  In this context, it was pivotal.

The Wolfenden report began an important process that ultimately led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. And beyond that, paved the way for further breakthroughs in equality legislation.  Much more recently, Parliament passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013 which introduced civil marriage for same-sex couples in England and Wales.

Judged by the standard views of your time, we can justifiably view you as an influential reformer – a champion of greater acceptance of diversity in matters of sexual orientation. You triggered a change moment – one that set off a slow and sometimes stuttering progression towards fair treatment for all sexual orientations – one that is ongoing today.

What else do I learn from you, my predecessor, dear Jack? At least these three things:

  • That deep change takes time – steps, increments, the occasional leap; some things can be done quickly, often the most important things take time.
  • That this is particularly true of cultural attitudes – shifting dominating moralities and enabling pluralism takes time; you don’t often get there in one glorious jump
  • That deep change requires leadership – it takes determination, persistence – it requires courage – one of our 6 Salopian virtues.

I think that all at associated with Shrewsbury should feel quietly proud of the link between us and you, Baron John ‘Jack’ Wolfenden. You provide an inspirational example of the willingness to challenge received ideas; to re-shape thinking (your own and others’); and to push doggedly yet respectfully for a more tolerant, fairer society.

@leowinkley

Dear 2022

Featured

Your family has been hard to love of late. 

I wrote to your younger sibling, 2020, in her infancy – when she was only a few days old.  I made wishes for her.  And, almost as soon as I had written, I felt ashamed at the presumptive folly of my wish-making.  Yet here I am again.  Full of hope.   

Back in 2020, following a poet’s lead [Philip Larkin: ‘Born Yesterday’), I wished your sister dull.  I wished 2020 the blessing of being ordinary; for her to be about the gradual spreading of ordinary happiness.  I had in mind the steadiness of contentment, rather than the mercurial fireworks of ecstatic highs. 

We all know that 2020 was anything but dull.  And contentment a rare thing. Yet, contentment for all sentient beings must surely be the worthy (if unreachable) endpoint for our biggest hopes.  

My own hopeful thoughts – always infinitesimally tiny in the noisy ocean of possibilities ahead – evaporated as soon as they were voiced.  Hopes are ethereal.  Yet they persist. 

And I can’t help but have high hopes for you, 2022. 


No-one could call a pandemic dull or ordinary.  As well as craving safety, shelter, wellbeing; our species sought certainty, direction, leadership; and we hoped for normality.  2020 gave us little, and her sibling 2021 less.  Lockdowns, limitations and restrictions carried their share of dull.   But these years have been full of extremes.  And they have taken so many on earth to the darkest of places and beyond.  The despair, the suffering, the confusion of 2020 extended into 2021, joined by a stark sense of inequity across and within nations.  Gaps opened further between regions where vaccination programmes surged into life and those where people were left exposed.  The images remain; the suffering continues.

It is really not my place to comment, from the privileged comfort of my protected patch of the world.  Human beings across the globe have felt the awful power of this virus.  In many ways, this reality calls for the absence of words: sombre, shared silence is the only authentic response.  Words are hollow bubbles. 

And yet, like thoughts – like hope – like bubbles, indeed – words float up again out of the silence. 


2020 and 2021 were very, very rough for so many, and in so many ways.  This fact colours everything. 

But, there have been positives.  Shared hardship elicits waves of compassion.  Fellow-feeling flows from the levelling effect of a common threat.  The extraordinary kindness and devotion of so many individuals and organisations, to good causes, to the protection of others.  These are incalculable, potentially paradigm-changing pluses.  We could become more caring, more empathetic, more kind through all this. 

The collective force of human ingenuity has saved millions of lives, enabled continuity, and opened new possibilities. Our thirst for equity has been sharpened: calls for social justice have been voiced more passionately; heard more clearly; actioned more purposefully. Our duties to the natural world have never been more prominent, nor more urgent; lockdowns have caused the small shoots of regeneration; big (though perhaps not big enough) environmental pledges have been made.

Is there a more urgent desire to make the world a better place; to emerge together to a fairer post-pandemic world. Is that to be your thing, 2022?

So, 2022, I wish you kind.  Kinder than your forebears.  And, from time to time, a bit of dull wouldn’t go amiss.

Dear Wanderer

Featured

When he was little, my brother had a habit of wandering off.  One time, he was playing cricket aged about 10.  The captain of his team had put him in the outfield – fine leg or somewhere similarly remote – right next to the boundary rope.  Adjacent to this particular cricket pitch was a copse.  And in the copse was a stream.  It was favourite place for children at the school to make dams.  My brother was one of the keenest dam builders.  And a less keen cricketer.  In an act of apparently insouciant disobedience, at the change of an over, he simply wandered off.  It was a telling comment on his contribution to the team that his absence was not noticed for some time.  However, when his escape was finally discovered, my brother was tracked down by the fearsome Mr Evans – and roundly reprimanded.  Not so much for his lack of team spirit – though this was of course the case – but for his disobedience.  Fancy wandering off like that?

In 1895, Annie Londonderry became the first woman to ride a bicycle around the world.  Back then, bikes were pretty uncomfortable.  What makes her story even more remarkable is that she’d hardly ever ridden a bike before she set off on a journey that took her across North America, Europe and Asia. She left behind her husband and three children to spend 15 months on the road in order to settle a wager between two rich Boston businessmen. Quite specifically, they wagered that no woman could cycle around the world in 15 months and earn $5,000 while doing so. Annie Londonderry proved them wrong.   She made money through advertising, attaching posters and banners to her bicycle.  Not only was she made of strong stuff physically, Annie Londonderry was an entrepreneurial, defiant, norm-breaker.  An icon of independence.  Fancy wandering off like that?

How to wander

Of course, I am not saying that children should be disobedient, wilful or disrespectful.  As a parent of three teenage children, there are moments when polite obedience seems a very attractive idea.  And as a school, we expect gentleness, courtesy and respect for others.  Equally, we don’t want our children to be meek, sheepish, cautious.  We want them to have some of the spirit and adventure of Annie Londonderry.  We want them to have confidence, purpose, energy.  Of course they can build dams – but not at the expense of the cricket team. 

We want them to develop resilience and resourcefulness.  These qualities also need to be tempered by softer values – kindness, appreciation of difference, playfulness, spirit. As I have always said, school should be serious fun. The past 18 months of restrictions to our freedom of movement have heightened – in many –  a wanderlust.  A desire to travel.  To wander off.  And we could all do with plenty of fun.

One of the great icons of serious fun is Albert Einstein.  A playful genius with a deep sense of humanity. He famously said:

“Life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance, you have to keep moving.” 

Across society, individuals, households, schools and organisations have had to show remarkable resilience and resourcefulness in dealing with the imbalances of recent times.  “You have to keep moving”. Resilience is when you have to ride your bike through a pot-hole or a puddle. Resourcefulness is when you find a way to swerve around the pot-hole. Both skills – and many others besides –  are needed in the journey of life.

The process of growing up is about developing ones sense of individual self and aligning this with a range of obligations and responsibilities to the world around us.   Each individual draws from, and contributes to, the community of which they are a valued part.  This school, in particular, champions the individual; we encourage originality and initiative; we want to see creativity and critical thinking.  Equally, we value community and participation, belonging and service to others.

We want them to be properly ready for life when they wander off from Senior School.

The wondering wandering of a parent

Turn now, dear wanderer, to one my favourite poems about parenthood.  It is a beautiful, short piece of verse by Robin Robertson.

Robin Robertson in ‘Swithering’

All parents know the feelings that come with checking on your sleeping child.  Particularly when they are babies.  You creep in and listen to their breathing.  In the silence, you imagine the private worlds of their dreaming.  Safe in their beds.  Protected from all the possibilities that lie ahead of them. 

Robertson’s poem is unashamedly sentimental – it tells us the gradual necessity of our children’s independence. They are meant to grow away from us.  This is not an act of disobedience, of course – it is an act of self-possession.  And the result of a job well done.

This slow and gentle unhinging of the parental heart is, of course, the whole point, indeed the aim of parenthood – and the endpoint of childhood. In the end, we want them to wander off like that.   But not too soon; not too quickly; and not before they’re ready.

Love – in all its many worded forms – is what powers parenting; and it is love that powers schools too. We act in loco parentis.  It is our job to help fill your children with confidence; to fire them up with love of learning, with the skills and aptitudes to lead happy and successful lives.  As Yeats so memorably put it: “Education is not the filling of buckets but the lighting of fires”.

Fancy racing off like that?

Take a look, dear wanderer, at this aerial shot of the start of the Third Form Race at the end of their first week at Shrewsbury.  I find it rather moving:

Third Form Race 2021

We can see a burst of colour; an explosion of forward-moving energy as they all set off together.  Fancy racing off like that?

You might be able to spot a figure in red lumbering along on the left hand side.  What a privilege it is to run alongside children for the five years of senior school; to be outrun by them – to see them find their stride.  

This photo is not just a record; it is a metaphor.  The sense of a journey begun.  Yes, it’s a race, but most importantly it was something we all did together.  Each child ran for themselves; but also for their house. 

You can glimpse the crowd support on the side-lines.  That’s the grown-ups – parents, family and staff.  There will be challenging moments along the way.  We work in partnership to help them; to find their balance when they wobble; to keep them moving.

The race is not ultimately about placings; it is about personal bests.  It is a race with oneself.  

And it is a wander, dear wanderer. 

It is a wander.


Adapted from an address to Third Form parents and pupils, Shrewsbury School Chapel, September 2021

Leo Winkley: Letters From Shrewsbury

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Dear Emma

Featured

It seems that the whole world wants a tiny slice of your time and your head must be spinning. Yet, as with everything else apparently, you have it all under control.

18 years old, Grand Slam champion, instant global icon. Seeing how you played; seeing how you talk about how you played, sends us all to raid the thesaurus.

Gutsy, courageous, spirited.

Composed, cool-headed, calm under pressure.

Exuberant, joyful, zesty.

Authentic, grounded, genuine.

The real deal.

A champion.

Already an icon.

See the source image
Emma Raducanu – Image from SkySports

Your style of play makes you a mesmerising watch. Your conduct off the court is equally compelling.

Few will experience the scrutiny that you have already been exposed to – and at such a young age. Not many have accomplished a breakthrough quite as explosive as yours. And at the age of 18.

I think back to my 18 year old self. Best not to dwell too long on the messy mix of self-doubt and self-righteousness; flashes of confidence undercut by a need for acceptance, validation, the applause of the crowd. Faults and double faults smoke-screened by bluster. It was all McEnroe and not enough Borg in my case. (That dates me). It was the line judges. The racquet. The sun in my eyes. The cross wind that made me fluff the ball toss. Yes, it took me a long while to take responsibility.

Then there’s you. Not only a champion, an athlete, a history-maker, an achiever of sporting miracles. But also, it seems, utterly unfazed by the feverish swirl of the moment. You are at home with yourself and your surroundings. Poised. At one with yourself. Real.

We have a saying at my school – Intus Si Recte Ne Labora: “If right within, worry not“. In your game, you have to stay within the lines. Yet you do it with such freedom. You make exceptional look so easy. Something so sublime, so uncomplicated in its excellence is the fruit of hard work; of gifts diligently cultivated.

You praised your parents – for their strong values and demanding standards; you deflected glory onto your team; the support of others. All true, and deserved praise, no doubt.

But let’s be honest. This is about you. You radiate something purely brilliant. You are right within. And you will inspire others – many many others – to discover and share their light.

Character as true and as luminous as yours can only come from within. From the person you are. You have lit up the sporting world. As you go on, surely to further glories, I hope your unique light shines on unfiltered and true.

Dear Gareth

Featured

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.

Gareth Southgate, In Conversation, at the BSA Heads’ Conference, York (May 2017)

LFS23

Dear Camel – to the Class of 2021

Featured

Speech to the Leavers of 2021, 3 July 2021

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.  

“Oh.  Right….”

“Mummy – what are we doing here in Chester Zoo?”


Mummy, what are we doing 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.

https://www.shrewsbury.org.uk/sites/default/files/Shrewsbury%20School%20Ethos%20and%20Educational%20Philosophy_0.pdf

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.

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on Pexels.com

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.


Upper Sixth Leave-Taking 3 July 2021

Dear Pedestrian

Featured

Solvitur ambulando: ‘It is solved by walking.’

As a walker, you know this well.

This pithy saying – all the more pithy in Latin – is attributed to St Augustine.  It captures the sense that walking is more than just a physical activity.  Rather, it suggests that walking can be an act of mindfulness; a means of spiritual refreshment; a way of untangling the knots of the mind.  For many, walking and thinking are the closest of travelling companions.

I went through a phase of reading book after book about walking. It was in the aftermath of my father’s death in 2014.  I think, looking back, it was a way of reflecting on his life and its ending.  Big, long walks in the Yorkshire countryside were a way of processing.  I felt drawn to the paths of the East Yorkshire coast; it felt good to be small, yet strangely at home, in the rugged openness of the Moors; the gentle dales and valleys invited me to explore.  Following ancient ways – paths that had been covered by countless pairs of feet – connected me to the unknown folk who have lived and moved across the same land.   

When I wasn’t walking, I was thinking about walking.  I was reading about walking.  I read books by Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin, Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Gros, Rebecca Solnit, Geoff Nicholson, Nan Shephard, Patrick Leigh Fermor.  There are shelves of books on walking, natural history, landscape and language, psychogeography – all kept in our little cottage in the North York Moors.

Holloway

My inner teenager would be both baffled and appalled at this strange obsession with the act of walking.  How on earth can walking be interesting?  The Pavlovian response of most teenagers at the prospect of a long country walk is a derisory scoff or a spontaneous list of other more urgent priorities.  For some, walking looks like a waste of time and energy.  Especially the circular walk beloved of ramblers – why on earth would we walk in a big circle that ends up where we started? 

The word pedestrian (as an adjective) has a telling meaning: ‘prosaic, commonplace, dull’. Doesn’t that tell us something about the status of a walk?

Most prosaically, of course, walking is an act of locomotion; of self-propulsion; it is the simplest practice of getting from A to B.  It is a form of exercise and means of staying physically healthy.  More expansively, walking is a way to discover and explore the external world.  At a deeper level, walking can make us happier.     

Like many of the routine capacities that the fit and healthy take for granted, the able-bodied take the daily process of walking unthinkingly in our stride.  For those who find walking easy, we don’t often register that this unconscious process is supremely complex.  The ability to walk was hard-earned, and hard-learned, over months of early childhood development.  We learn to walk and are free.  Viewed this way, walking is a privilege.  More empoweringly conceived, it is an act of self-determination.  And a route to inner discovery.

You can see why slow self-locomotion seems ordinary next to the rapid movement of car, plane and rocket.  As the industrial revolution brought speed, along with so much else, shanks’ pony became equated with backwardness and poverty.

And yet… slow can be good.

View from Caer Caradoc

During lockdown, the daily walk has become disproportionately important.  For most, the local wander was the default leisure activity.  Ask someone what they did at the weekend during lockdown and they will almost certainly reference a walk.  Being pedestrian has been crucial to our wellbeing.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, pedestrianism was a spectator sport; an heroic activity that drew fans and inspired a degree of celebrity.  Walking was a means to epic feats and the focus of wild wagers.  For example, the legendary pedestrian Captain Robert Barclay Allardice’s most impressive achievement was to walk 1 mile every hour for 1000 consecutive hours between 1st and 12th July 1809.  People travelled to see him walk.  Many other men and women became competitive endurance or speed walkers.  Over time, this craze for pedestrianism gradually passed and became obsolete.  However, history shows that being a pedestrian was not always pedestrian.  

Returning to the current day, walking is a means of exercise and relaxation for many.  You come back from a decent walk feeling physically tired and mentally refreshed.  The quick wander with the dog; the late afternoon perambulation – these all help to dislodge the lumps in the mind’s path. 

I think it is one of the many uniquely special things about Shrewsbury School life that we – by which I mean pupils and staff alike – all do a lot of walking in our daily routines.  Our 100 acre site has walking designed into it. 

Shrewsbury School Site – walking to work

We have to walk from house to lessons; from one building to another; to and from meals.  We walk through a shared  place of calm, natural beauty. I think this is a very healthy thing for all of us.

Walking, woven into our daily routines, is good for the mind and the body.  And it can also help with problem-solving.

Whatever ‘it’ is – it may well be solved, or at least eased, by walking.

Keep walking, dear Pedestrian. 

Dear Three-Dimensional Learner

Featured

As schools in England re-opened for the final weeks of the Easter term, we returned to three-dimensional learning.  After seven weeks of screen time – delivered and shared with as much creativity and energy as we could collectively command – it was a joyful relief to be back in person. 

Three-dimensional learning is, without doubt, the best way to go.  This is particularly the case in boarding schools.  

Certainly, we have shown that a boarding school in remote is possible.  Indeed, necessity has been the mother of some extraordinary invention. We have shown that whole person education can be re-invented for the screen and much can be achieved through flipped learning; break-out rooms; online challenges; virtual collaboration.  Those still not able to be with us here in Shrewsbury have continued to access Online Supported Learning; to take part in house life; to engage in a virtual co-curriculum.  It is vital that we find the best ways to stay together when we are apart.

However, what has been evidenced strongly in our most recent return to in-person learning is that the deepest kinds of learning happen best when we a real community.  That is not to say that great learning cannot happen virtually: it can. But, personal development is a multi-aspect process. Some things can be done by remote control; some things are best down hands-on – albeit at a social distance. 

What we know, though, is that a Shrewsbury Education has one-off elements that achieve full colour and depth when it happens in three dimensions.  Our culture, our educational philosophy, our unique brand of ‘whole person education’ – these are rooted in a sense of belonging to a distinctive community in a real place.

Some of the craft of teaching and learning can be transferred to the screen: we have seen this.  Teachers and learners have undergone a paradigm shift of capability over the past year.  We have seen significant gains in two-dimensional mode.  But a virtual boarding school is, fundamentally, a contradiction in terms. 

We knew it before, and we know it even more deeply now: a boarding school community is three-dimensional.  As we pass the one-year milestone of lockdowns in England, it is clearer than ever that learning in person gives the broadest range of opportunity.  In person, we are constantly connecting, sharing, challenging, transforming, enjoying, celebrating within a real community of real individuals.

It has been profoundly affirming to have you – the three-dimensional learner – back in person.  Back, we hope, for good.    

Dear Optimist

Featured

How are you?  Great, no doubt.  You always say that.

But seriously, it’s been a tough time for you lately, hasn’t it?  I know your policy is always to see life’s glass half-full.  You’re so good at keeping your chin up; turning those lemons into lemonade. You always focus on the other fish in the sea; you never dwell long on the one that got away.  Nothing will shake your belief that the closing of one door leads cheeringly to the opening of another.  You travel with the unshakeable belief that, however difficult the journey, its delays and deviations will all make sense backwards.  You float through your days with lightness of spirit, however many sandbags are tethered to your balloon.  You’re always a cork; never a stone.

You’ll rightly point out that optimism is good for us.  There’s a stack of evidence to support this.  Optimism has many a vocal sponsor, present and past.  You’ll point doubters to numerous nuggets of upbeat wisdom.  Such as this, from one of those great optimists who triumphed, always with humility, over the obstacles she faced:

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit’.

Helen Keller, author and activist (1880 – 1968)

You and your kind walk together on hope’s mossy ground. Air-cushioned shoes soften your steps.  But…

Even you must have felt the earth tremble and shake beneath your springy feet.  Even you must be struggling to see the upside these days.  Even the most clear-eyed spotter of the silver-lining has had her work cut out of late.  As 2020 turned into 2021, the champagne corks popped in muted domestic isolation.  Fresh hopes gathered, but the new year has brought more difficulty.  The light is at the end of the tunnel, you’ll say.  I believe you.  But even you must admit that the tunnel keeps getting longer.   

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m right with you.  Optimism is the way forward. 

In fact, I learn that there are lots of types of optimism, so I should be more precise.  Most optimism is good for you.  Yet, as with most things in life, used to excess, it can turn bad. 

I don’t want to spoil the mood.  But I need to ask.  Can you see any downsides to our optimism?  Well, naturally, you’ll be too interested in the upsides to pay that notion too much attention.  But, it seems, we optimists need to keep it real.  If you insist (as I do) on being so upbeat all the time, we do need to make sure you stand close to the pessimists from time to time and let them speak.  We optimists need to listen to them carefully. 

Optimism bias can do real harm to your strategic planning.  You always tend to interpret the numbers, the data, into the best-case scenario.  Make sure you have some doomsters around you to paint it black.  That way, you’ll have a more rounded plan. 

In an uncertain or rapidly changing business situation, the optimist’s relative disregard for detail, selective inattention to unpromising data and failure to seek new information combine to produce poorly-informed decisions.  So, we optimists need to keep our eyes open to the detail.  And make sure that we share it with others who will likely interpret things differently.  They may spot that the half-full glass has a crack in it.

Optimism bias is a main cause of the chronic inability accurately to anticipate the costs of big projects.  This has been a major issue for governments and private companies for decades.  The grand, compelling vision was so mesmerising that the numbers lost their power to communicate.

Do you mind my asking, how are your personal finances?  Well, yes, it’s not a very polite enquiry but research has shown that similar factors affect personal finance decisions.  Why do so many people consistently pick credit card options that really don’t help them?  Investigations found that people often choose credit cards with a low annual fee and high APR, despite the fact that they regularly fail to clear their balances and pay much more than if they had a higher fee, lower APR card. These are the optimists.  Or are they the putters-off?  The evaders of reality?  The high fee is an immediate but solvable problem (opt for the smaller fee) and the more distant possible failure to pay off the balance thus accruing interest, is an event they believe will somehow not really happen.

It’s just an example.  As is that fact that the high general optimism of children, especially boys, seems to be a contributory factor to accidental injury in childhood.  Sorry to strike a gloomy note again, but it seems that the risk-taker will often be the optimist; and that optimists get hurt more often.  They find it harder to believe that bad things could happen.  This general disposition is surely a strength, isn’t it?   Perhaps a virtue?  

Aristotle’s theory of the Golden Mean suggests, we should avoid extremes.  Global optimism is not clever.  Too much exposure to the bright side will damage your sight permanently.  Courage, un-tempered, is recklessness.  Optimism needs to be tempered by realism; annealed in the furnace of fact.  Optimism, un-tempered, will take some into cloud cuckoo land, a state of optimistic fantasy.  This may be a lovely state of being for a moment, but life’s problems cannot be solved or endured by escape or delusion.  Optimism is a rosy filter but it cannot change the image itself.  The way we view life will help us to address issues that must – in reality – be met firmly on their own hard ground.

Which leads us back to the moment. These current times have put a dent in the soul of every optimist, surely. Even the corkiest of us must be feeling the gravitational pull of the deep. With good reason: we are living in dark, difficult days. And yet…   

Where does this leave us in our optimism?  As the Swedish proverb goes: “Those who wish to sing will always find a song”.  Yes, we must keep singing our songs. 

We must keep counting our blessings. 

And remember to ask a friendly pessimist to check our arithmetic from time to time.

Dear Donald

Featured

You prefer a DM, but here’s a letter. Maybe I’ll send it to your Washington, DC address.  And hope it catches you before the removal crew arrives.

Yes, you’re leaving: moving out of the White House.  The American people who put you there in 2016 have now served notice.  Of course, you’re challenging the landlord.  But you must know it’s time to leave, if not leave quietly. 

The people who put you there knew that you were going to be unconventional.  They knew that you were going to blast your way through all the normal codes.  They wanted you to do just that. They wanted you to speak unfiltered; to appeal to the gut; to give voice to the millions who felt voiceless.   To those whom you championed, you could do no wrong. 

They did not elect a statesman; someone who would unite in victory.  They chose a divider.  A slash-and-burner.  Someone who would become more and more convinced of his invincibility, insulated by a boo-hooray bubble of loyal support; enabled by a street-smart entourage and a legal team on steroids. 

You have given the world something truly special: self-authenticating, fact-free correctness.

In the end, when it came to bidding for a second term, too many people were put off by your aggressiveness.  Your stoking of tensions.  Your deliberate expansion of the differences between those whom you rated and those you slammed.  The badmouthing of traditional allies finally tired.  Your rapt admiration for the world’s authoritarian strongmen.  You acted as if the handbook for global statesmanship was the plotline of ‘Despicable Me’.

History will show that your tenure was a wild, fantastic aberration, won’t it?  Right from the jaw-dropping moment four years ago when the impossible happened, it’s been a four-year episode of The Simpsons.  Fiction made fact; fake news made real. Right?

Photo by Joshua Miranda on Pexels.com

But I am wrong. 

As wrong now as I was then – in 2016 – when I went to bed knowing that it would be Hillary. 

You were never impossible.  You were inevitable. 

I lacked the insight to see your power.  Insulated by my middle-class, old-world attitudes; cosy in my comfortable liberalism; doped by my total lack of understanding of the United States; blind to the frustrations that now erupt from the volcanic inequality of our times.

The wise saw you coming a mile off.  They knew your power before it was real.  The Real Donald Trump.  Destined to be number 45.  You captured millions of votes.  You were properly elected through a properly democratic process.  Free of any skulduggery or intervention from other powers – so far as I know, anyway.  It was a fair win in 2016 – narrow, but fair. 

People saw something in you.  You timed a wave; your words chimed with people who felt marginalised; untouched and under-represented  by politics; unheard; airbrushed out.  You were real to them.  You promised some kind of inversion, turning the old certainties on their heads.     

I am absolutely no expert.  And you won’t read this, it goes without saying.  It seems to me that the version of politics that you invented was all about you.  Like everything else: the foreign policy. The pistol-fired tweets. The weakness for guns. The furious golf. The manic orange glow of self-belief. The anti-COVID bleach you urged into your people’s veins.

It was all you.  Your peculiar populist genius.  The Donald. 

Now, as 2020 enters its final weeks, you are ending as you arrived.  Calling foul with a puckered pout and blow-torching any still-standing norm of decency that has miraculously evaded your fire so far.

It’s been box office, for sure.  Fascinating to see the dignity of office debased.  Iconoclasm is compelling viewing, it seems.  The world has got used to the bombastic, capitalised salvos; the apparent lack of regard for logic, evidence, fact. These are displaced by the fire of emotion, conviction and sheer bloody will. 

Never mind the politics. What kind of example have you set? Really? What have you done for leadership, dignity, democracy?

I can only hope that your actions have equal and opposite reactions in the years ahead. A change of tone to a gentler, kinder, more factful leadership. It will take a long time to heal the divides and rebuild the trust. I hope the next guy in finds a way to reframe the way democracy talks to itself. It’s time to seek proper greatness. 

LW

A Letter From Shrewsbury. Serious Fun. My views only.

Back to your tower.
Photo by Priya Karkare on Pexels.com

Dear Ben Gone to the Sea

Featured

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.

Image
Ben North, poet.

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:

Ben North

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:

‘The Sea’ by Ben North

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.

Ben’s volume of poetry is priced £2.99 and available from Amazon.

Dear Minister for Exams

Featured

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. 

Daily Telegraph, 7th October 2020

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?

Rethinking assessment – a cross-sector alliance

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.

Brian Patten
Brian Patten
‘How shallow is the soul of the Minister for Exams?’

Is there are better, fairer, more human way to assess our children?

Dear John on the Mainland

a brief meditation on connecting to the main

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.

Shrewsbury. Not quite an island.

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”. 

John Donne

Dear Earth-Creeping Mind

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.

Sir Philip Sidney

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”.

Dear Dr Johnson

Featured

As one of the most quoted figures in English literary history and the creator of the most famous English dictionary, I wonder what you would make of current times. What words would you have for us?

By current I mean 2020. 236 years have elapsed since you passed away. Your dictionary has been updated and updated. Language doesn’t stand still; it flows. And is a mirror of its time.

2020 is certainly re-shaping the daily dictionary. The word ‘unprecedented’ is enjoying unprecedented use. And terms such as ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are now in the daily narrative. I wonder how you would define a ‘hand sanitiser’? I suspect that you would probably apply a verbal sanitiser to the expression: ‘new normal’.

Was ‘lockdown’ in your first dictionary? (I know that ‘aardvark’ wasn’t. Nor any word beginning with X). Or ‘Zoom’? ‘Quarantine’? ‘Outbreak’. ‘Pandemic’?

Yes, you would take great interest in the words of our current world.

A genuine celebrity of your time, your sayings resonate as strongly as ever. Your witticisms, take-downs and one-liners are legendary. One for almost every situation.

Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful“, you warned. And elsewhere quipped that “A fly, sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is still an insect, and the other is a horse still“.

Samuel Johnson: Who was he, and why is he so important to the English  language? | The Independent | The Independent
Dr Samuel Johnson

As we travel in unsteady times, I remember your encouragement:

Life affords no higher pleasure than the surmounting of difficulties”. 

These are difficult times, for sure. And, in our corner of the world, we are having to find solutions to new challenges every day. The children in my school continue to display wonderful energy, as well as good-hearted acceptance of the measures we have in place to keep them, and our staff, safe. Equally, there is abundant positivity. My colleagues do wonders daily – and defy words at times.

As you wisely observed, “A man’s [by which you meant person’s] mind grows narrow in a narrow place.”  I see Shrewsbury as a place of breadth in all things. And these times demand wide thinking, not narrow minds. 

The word most used in 2020 is a new one. Coined by the World Health Organisation – something that certainly didn’t exist in your day. Covid. So far this year, this new word has been used in print more than any other in the English language.

You wisely advised: “None but a fool worries about things he cannot influence”.  As we move through difficult times, we will heed your call to focus on the things that are within our control.  In my case, that is giving the pupils in our care the best environment and challenge that we possibly can. And urge them as you did:

“Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect”.

Curiosity and stickability. (Another word for your dictionary, Sir.)

Yours in words.

Leo

Letter written on 18th September 2020 – your 311th birthday.

Dear Jeremiah

Featured

You and your kind seem to be everywhere.

If we spend any time following the news media, we know how much has been said about education.  About the process of awarding grades; about the fairness or otherwise of our education systems; about the process of re-opening schools.  So much of it negative.

More broadly, the reality of COVID-19 in the UK and across the world has utterly dominated.  Understandably. And with good reason. But, this dominance has meant that we have all got used to living with some very negative narratives.    

We have been living with a pervasive language of limitation; a language of blame; and a language of fear.  This must have had an impact on even the most upbeat of people. I think we need to work hard to reclaim a language of possibility; a language of responsibility; and a language of hope.   

The language we use – the way we frame things – will have a direct effect on the children in our care and indeed all with whom we spend our time.  We need to find a way back to more positive language.

To illustrate: let’s consider the example of a child who has climbed a tree.  And got stuck.  She is getting panicked; holding onto a branch.

There is an adult below who calls up to the child. He thinks about what to call out: “Don’t let go!” or “ Hold on tight!”

Which is more likely to encourage child to cling on until she can be reached and brought safely down to earth?

  • Don’t let go!
  • Hold on tight!

Surely it’s the latter: Hold on tight!  Because negative commands and prohibitions can become fixating – paralysing even. In this particular case, ‘Don’t let go!’ reinforces the fear of falling. ‘Hold on tight!’ reinforces the hope of staying safe.

Hold on Tight!
Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

The news media will continue to frame its language as it chooses. I suspect that the negativity, the fear and the blame will continue for a while yet. Of course, there’s a lot to think about and we need to be conscious of risk. The world needs its mixture of pessimists and optimists. We need the optimists to build the aeroplanes; and the pessimists to design the parachutes.

This is a simple but necessary point about the negative effect of negativity; and the positive effect of positivity. It’s time to lift the mood, Jeremiah.

In schools, as we welcome the children back from a long time of separation, it is important for us to assume a language that is responsible – but is framed as positively as possible. Things are getting better; we are more in control. It is vitally important for the children in our care that we are affirmative in how we present and interpret daily life. 

This doesn’t mean having our heads in the clouds.  It is a matter of affirmative presentation. In education, we should be holding on tight to the excitement and optimism that flow freely at the start of a new academic year.  Even if we are starting in a time of limitation, we should focus our talk on all the possibilities ahead and let go of the negativity.

Dear Gavin

Featured

This is an update on your examination in educational leadership. This is being conducted by continuous assessment. There are no specimen or past papers: this is a new specification. Examination conditions have been altered due to lockdown. You may confer as much as you like.  There are no easy answers.  There are are many invigilators.

You may not re-sit. However, adjustments can be made to your answers at any point. You may not appeal your result. Yet. You may withdraw at any point and allow a substitute to complete your examination.

Your interim provisional result status has been assessed by a panel of experts and non-experts. You are currently below the pass mark on the following key areas of this new specification:

  1. Communication
  2. Decision-making
  3. Fairness

The assessment is nearly complete. You are still able to adjust your answers in light of your assessors’ comments. Even at this late stage.  

We are aware that you are taking this assessment under extraordinary circumstances. You may submit a special consideration form.  An algorithm will then be applied in calculating your final result.

Time to reflect, Gavin.

Dear Upper Sixth Leaver

Featured

A message to the U6th (Year 13) pupils at Shrewsbury School, June 2020

Dear Upper Sixth Leaver

This is not how we planned it.  None of us imagined that your final term would be spent in bubbles of isolation.  None of us thought you would be saying goodbye to the school through a screen.  None of us thought that when you went home in March, you were leaving for good.  There is no way to dress this up and make it look nice.  This is not how we wanted it to be for you; and it is really very sad.

Some of you have been Salopians since joining the School in Third Form; others joined in Fourth Form; and others still became members of this community in the Sixth Form.  Each one of you is valued; each of you has had experiences here that will shape and stay with you for life.  Each one of you has been part of a house, teaching sets, sports teams, activities, ensembles, friendship groups.  Each one of you has contributed to the richness and vibrancy of this School.  Each one of you is a Salopian.  Each one of you deserved a better ending.

This year, you have shown extraordinary qualities and never more so in this last term.  You have embraced the new normal.  You had to absorb the news that the public exams to which you had been working for 18 months were not going to happen.  You had to decide how to play the summer term in remote.  You could have disengaged.  You could have been half-hearted; cynical; dismissive.  Instead, you chose to be positive.  You chose to turn a disappointment into an opportunity. 

You kept going with your academic learning, running a race knowing that the finish line had been removed.  You showed a proper love of learning.  Then, we launched Shrewsbury U and the ILM course for Young Leaders.  Again, as a year group, you seized this with both hands and the vast majority of you have participated, engaged and kept your minds active. This will stand you in great stead for whatever comes next. Well done indeed and thank you for all your endeavours.

We are now entering the final fortnight of the term.  Normally, for the Upper Sixth, this is a twilight zone of post-exam fun, communal relaxation, soaking up the place before the finale.  This has been denied to you.  Again, there is no way of making this anything other than it is: a huge disappointment.  None of us wanted you to be living out your final two weeks of school from home. 

The Housemasters and Housemistresses, your tutors and your teachers, are thinking of you.  They are in touch and wanting to do all they can to connect with you share memories of your time here and to celebrate with you.  There is no way of replicating the kinds of real experiences they would like to offer, but they are doing their best and I know you appreciate this.  And, as we move towards the end of term, our Virtual Speech Day aims to give you the very best send-off that we can right now.

Beyond that, you know that we have made a commitment to give you all the chance to be together here at Shrewsbury for a social gathering at which you can share memories with fellow pupils and staff.  We don’t yet know when that will be; the Heads of School have taken your views, and the message we have is that you want to wait until we can do something properly.  We will honour this commitment.

I often say that it is the Upper Sixth who set the tone of the School for the pupils.  This is so true this year – you have done it brilliantly.  Even in remote, this positive tone cascades and permeates through the year groups.  You have been real leaders in so many spheres of school life.  

The Heads of School and their Deputies have continued to guide and shape this term with their dedication, positivity and generosity of spirit. 

Each leaving year group hands on the torch to the one that follows it. Your year group will have a unique place in Shrewsbury history. You have lived through unprecedented times: ‘the year they didn’t do exams’; ‘the year they weren’t at school for the summer term’.

But: we will not remember you as the year that ‘did not’. We will remember you as the year that ‘did’.  You did manage the most exceptional of times.  You did stay together.  And you did the School and yourselves proud.

As each of you prepares to leave Shrewsbury, remember that the School is here for you – for life.  We are all proud of you. You are the year group that did.  And you will go on to be people who do. 

Once again, thank you for all you have given to Shrewsbury. 

See you again soon. 

LW

Dear Myrtle and Maud

Featured

You don’t know me – but you met my wife recently.  You probably won’t remember.  She came to see you in the care home you share with about 30 others.  She was wearing greens and a mask.  You made her feel very welcome: you offered her a cup of tea which she couldn’t accept.  She told me a little bit about you when she got home.  Nothing personal or confidential, of course.  She just said that you were wonderful friends.  And told me how you kept each other going.

One of you is 92 and the other is 94.  I can’t remember which way round.  You sit together most of the day, in comfy chairs in a large sitting room with a decent view of the garden.  You tell each other stories and share memories.  You are not the best listeners, if we’re honest.  But you are great story-tellers – and the best of friends.  You cackle at each other’s jokes; you make mischievous comments about your fellow residents; you play little tricks on your carers.  So they say, anyway.  All to pass the time, which you do cheerfully, and always together.

Truth be told, you seem to have a lot of the same conversations.  If one of you goes out of the room, and returns ten minutes later, you greet each other like long-lost relatives.  And loop back into a familiar conversation.  Like an old juke box on free play.

Like an old juke box on free play.

It seems that you both struggle to remember things from the here and now; from this hour to the next.  But longer-held, deeper memories abound.  And you share them with each other freely.  And often.  The past is more present than the present.  Who knows how much of it is real memory; how much is made and re-made in the telling?

There is a danger here.  I am treading a very thin line.  I want to go somewhere that threads its way safely between the ankle-breaking rabbit holes of sentimentalism or pity or projection or just being condescending.  I may get my foot stuck and be guilty of these and more.  I hope not.  But if I am, I sense that you would forgive – and forget.  

You see, I imagine your talk as a kind of charm.  I picture it casting a safety spell around you.  I see your joyful daily endorsement of one another turn solid; a talisman against – whatever.  Are you aware that there is threat outside the enchanted circle of your chat?  Who can tell?  You don’t seem to be fearful.  Not of anything.  Instead, maybe the diurnal rituals of shared remembering insulate you from the harder truths of the present.

Others around you are exposed.  By their knowledge or their ignorance.  You are exposed too.  Yet, you seem to move together in a different place.  One of dignity and innocence; of knowing insouciance.  In this state, I see your vintage minds shining bright with hope and love and laughter. 

Are you sheltering in some woozy, magic kingdom?  Are you hiding there together?  No.  If you are hiding, it is in plain sight of extinction’s alp.  There: I see you rambling on together – equipped with all the careworn kit of the years – cheerfully talking your way across the rocky ground beneath that final incline. 

The phrase ‘Extinction’s Alp’ is taken from from Philip Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’

This is guesswork, of course.  After all, you were just a 30 second comment.  But you lit up my mind in that short time. 

What I imagine, from this brief window, is two lives wound around each other in a shared present; two friends bound by talk that is potent with memory.  I imagine the two of you together in your chairs side by side.  I picture you laughing.   

And I wish you protected. 

Leo

PS I hope you don’t mind that I changed your names.

Dear Video-Conferencing App beginning with Z

Featured

A few months ago you were quite something – but mostly quite something that Fortune 500 companies, management consultants, international businesswomen and tech dudes did.  Born in 2011, massively profitable in 2019, you certainly moved fast.  Z by name and Z by nature. Now, everyone seems to be talking about you – and through you.

I’ve got used to your sign-on routine; learned the rules of engagement.  Using you for work has become second nature in these days of remote working. For me, work is school. You’ve rapidly become indispensable to us: teachers can teach; pupils can learn.  Pastoral care in remote is so much more meaningful if you can see you tutor group; your year group; your housemistress.  Headteachers can do the mysterious things we do: and we do love a meeting.  I can host and attend meetings to my heart’s content; keep in touch with colleagues across the country who are facing the same questions that I am; I can connect across the world. 

A rather handsome chap doing a Z… meeting

Through your neatly-squared gallery, families and friends are quizzing, celebrating, catching-up, checking in, keeping an eye out for each other.  What greater service can you offer than a means to connect people in these disconnected times? 

Yet, your detractors (rivals?) called you malware.  I’ve been called plenty of things in my time, but never malware.  That must hurt.  Seriously, we did need to check this out and put sensible risk assessments and safeguarding measures in place for use in schools.  This is to protect children and teachers alike.  So, we use your excellent record facility for all our live lessons, for example.  Everything is open to misuse, but we think what you can help us do is well worth the carefully mitigated risk. 

Teaching works well enough if the lesson is well planned and the teacher throws endless energy at it.  We’ve found that short and sweet is better.  And don’t try to collaborate: you seem to work best in a formal, bilateral, conch-holding kind of way. 

The main thing you’ve given us is a way of keeping in contact face to face.  For those of us who live and work in boarding schools, the sense of community, the reality of being together, these are the things that fuel our purpose.  Inevitably, these times in remote have pushed us apart.  You help us to be together apart.

Can I be honest with you, though?  You can have too much of a good thing…  Reading non-verbal signals is exhausting.  Seeing my face talking back at me is unnerving.  Going seamlessly from one session to the next is frazzling.  The ‘celebrity squares’ on the screen make the eyes boggle.  There’s so much to read and interpret in miniature. One day I used your excellent services for 14 different meetings.  All I could manage at the end of that was a sub-verbal grunt. 

Overall, I’m a big fan: a convert.  Like most things in life, you work best in moderation.  Thank you, Z….  You’ve been a revelation. 

And the most cathartic feature of all your many qualities?  The ability to put all your participants – let’s say a collection of headteachers, for example – on mute.  What a blissful silence that is

Thank you, Video-Conferencing App Beginning With Z.  Now, it’s ‘Leave Meeting’ from me.  I need to catch some screen-free Zzzzzzs.

Dear Cricket

Featured

This is a love letter.

You know the old saying: ‘Out of sight, out of mind”?  Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth for me.  The longer you are away, the more I miss you.  Every saying has its opposite.  With you, it’s definitely a matter of ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’.

It’s just not the same without you.  Summer is on its way and the stage is set.  And yes, of course, I completely understand why you can’t be here.  It’s not your fault.  You are a stickler for the rules and are rightly taking your responsibilities seriously.  I know we need to do the right thing and stay apart.

My head tells me this.  Of course, it does.  But my heart?  It longs for you.

I miss the sight of you.  The theatre of green in which you play out your many acts.  The drama of each moment, rich with potential, as something might happen, or not, with the very next ball.  The eager mobilisation of the players, white-clad on the green grass, at the end of the over.

I miss the sound of you.  The thud of ball on ‘deck’; the solid ‘thock’ of willow on leather that sets off a soothing ripple of applause.  The charged, low rev, anticipatory silence between balls.  The slow-moving silence of quiet overs, where sleep seems just around the corner.  The eruption of a wicket.  The sporting greeting of seeing a new adversary to the crease.  The push and pull of players calling to each other.  ‘Come on buddy’.  ‘Next ball’.  ‘Nice areas’.  You can be quite noisy too.  Remember Saturdays at Headingley.  Quite the party animal…

I miss the shape of you. Whether it’s the Friday night friskiness of T20 or the sedate Sunday best of a test.  Or on your days off, casually attired in the back garden.  You look great in anything, really.  I was looking forward to seeing you in your new Hundred get-up. 

I miss the smell of you.  Cut grass.  Linseed oil.  The occasional waft of beer or ice cream on a gentle summer breeze.  Other people’s fancy picnics.

I miss the way you talk.  All stats and facts; and poetry and jokes and random diversions; the idle chat; the shared speculation. 

And, your greatest charm: uncertainty of outcome.

View of the playing fields at Shrewsbury. A perfect setting in which to watch and play cricket.

It’s true, I’m remembering the very best of you.  The perfect days we had together.  You do have your moments: rainy days when the covers stay on and you refuse to come out to play; dull days when you can’t find a way to make life interesting.  Honestly, though, those grey days don’t linger in the memory. 

And until you do, I’m going to read your old love letters.  I shan’t dwell on the difficult days.  I’m going to look at photos and films of what we did last summer.  Lord’s, then Headingley.  Wow.  Or our trips to Australia – say, Melbourne 2010?  Other happy times at home: Edgbaston or Old Trafford in 2005.  Or back again to Headingley, in 1981, when we were just starting out together.  Ah, those early days… 

And so on, I’ll keep playing back the memories until you’re back here by my side.

A summer without you?  It’s just not cricket.  So, please, come back soon. 

Dear Candidate

Featured

Watch out for the Columbo question!

You have to be pretty old to remember the detective show ‘Columbo’. A legendary police procedural that revolved around a shabby and dishevelled looking detective – Lieutenant Columbo – whose sharpness of mind was in direct inverse proportional relationship to the sharpness of his dress. Columbo used a negative first impression to his advantage, fooling the suspect into writing him off as a bumbling idiot. He would then reel his quarry in as they underestimated him; they grew casual, over-confident, sloppy. His interview technique was crafty – and highly effective.

Columbo’s best trick was to appear to have ended the interview, saying something like, “Well, I’ve taken up plenty enough of your time already”, and turn to leave. And then, just as he is shuffling off, Columbo would turn round and say, “Oh – just one more thing”. This was always the killer question – the one that caught the suspect off guard. So, watch out for the Columbo question…

Oh, congratulations on getting short-listed. Now, the interview. Could I offer a few words of advice for you to take or leave?

First up, it’s worth remembering that every moment is part of the interview – how you enter the building, how you interact with Reception and other staff, how you say goodbye and take your leave, how you communicate before and after the interview. It all feeds in.

Lieutenant Columbo: a master of interview technique?

Whilst I wouldn’t hold Lieutenant Columbo up as an example of how to dress for interview, I would certainly look out for and respect his type on an interview panel. In my experience, the ones who come over as tough, searching, probing, penetrating with very specific and clever questions – they are not the ones to fear. The more specific the question, the more obvious the answer they are seeking. You simply have to make a judgement as to what kind of angle they are on, and play it accordingly.

No, the ones to be very careful with are the open-enders, the ‘can you give me an example of a time when you…’; the smiling, friendly question that will give you the scope to say anything you want. This is where preparation and anticipation come in. You need to have thought of examples that show what you stand for, what makes you different, what shows that you care and are serious about your chosen course or career.

I recently spent a day interviewing candidates for a headship. It was absolutely fascinating. It’s always interesting meeting people at interview. Not just because different people take the same questions in such differing directions. You learn a lot about people even in 45 minutes in the admittedly formal and controlled circumstances of an interview. Some people make a fantastic first impression and then gradually fade away; others make a slow start and really grow into the interview; the best will start strong and keep getting better.

The reality that struck me once again is the old cliché that ‘first impressions matter’. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This doesn’t mean that our first assessments of people we meet are spot-on accurate. In fact, we are often wildly off-beam. But the fact remains that the way we present ourselves to others at the first encounter will either help or hinder us. Whether it is in the context of a university or job interview, or – most excruciating of all – meeting a girl or boyfriend’s parents for the first time, first impressions count.

Given that everyone will, at some point sooner or later, be interviewed, I thought I might share a few thoughts on the subject with you. Let’s start with some things not to do:

• Avoid fancy dress – I don’t mean Disney outfits – rather, avoid anything that is likely to trigger a negative value judgement. The interview is not the place for exciting fashion statements. You want people to sense that you care and are a serious person. That’s about it. Your clothes simply need to reinforce your sincerity. Comedy ties are great – but not for interview. Wacky jewellery, humorous socks, political slogan badges. None of these is a good idea. Dark suits, simple single tone ties (not crazy colours). Shoes matter. Unless you are being interviewed by Vivienne Westwood you should aim to look conventionally smart – not wild, wacky or scruffy.
• Avoid being over-familiar or chatty. Two of the six people I interviewed yesterday said “How are you doing?” or “hiya” when meeting the interview panel. It was not the right register to hit. We all need to be able to adjust our tone to the context we are in. That doesn’t mean putting on an act or being a fake. It’s possible to be yourself whilst also being respectful and formal.
• Avoid cliché or platitudes – “I’m a people person”; “I have a passion for…”; find new ways of saying things.
• Avoid being negative about other people, institutions, systems – anything really. Nobody likes to hear negativity.
• Never lie or over-embellish – you’ll most likely get found out or have to embroider more or sound unconvincing. The best interviewees are determinedly themselves. If you feel you have to lie, you will sound inauthentic.

It’s also important to look closely at what the interviewer is doing; how they are dressed; the tone of question and the way they are responding to what you are saying. Read them as they read you. Fundamentally, it is about making a connection.

This brings me to things you should try to do:

• Hold eye contact – but not in a fixed or challenging way
• Smile – but in a way that is relevant and not loony or fake
• If there’s more than one person interviewing, scan and keep people involved – sweep the room but not like an automated lighthouse
• Sit still – plant yourself but not too rigidily; don’t sniff (bring a hanky), scratch, rummage, jangle, fidget, twiddle or otherwise distract them; convey a sense of calmness and stillness – be a swan rather than meerkat
• Be concise – don’t ramble – but do elaborate when asked; let there be silence – don’t try to fill it
• Answer the questions – don’t be a politician but do steer them to areas of strength and enthusiasm
• Give examples – ideally, think of them in advance – how have you shown initiative, leadership; learned from mistakes; helped change things etc – and make sure they are both true and positive
• Take your time when the curve ball or surprise question comes – and keep your answer to that brief

Right, my dear Candidate. I think I’ve taken enough of your time. Thank you. No, no – please, I’ll show myself out….

Oh – and just one more thing: don’t use The Apprentice as your guide for interviews. That’s entertainment, not real life. True, some interviewers seem more interested in proving their own brilliance than establishing yours, and some can be combative or spiky, but most interviews are open-ended, polite, undramatic and probably wouldn’t make great TV.

A good interview will aim to put you on a stage and allow you to perform. And in order to perform you need to prepare, to practise, to think about what you want to convey to your audience, and to work out how to be true to the best version of yourself. Because, when it comes down to it, it is you who will have to do the course or the job or impress those parents or whatever this interview is all about. You don’t want the interviewer or interview panel to choose some phoney, invented you. Just the best you.

Good luck. Sock it to ’em.

Dear ‘So’

Featured

So.

For a little word, you’ve been enjoying a very high profile lately.  Wow – you’re positively everywhere!  Indeed, it has come to my attention that you are at the start of so many sentences, you’ve become ubiquitous. You’ve never had it so good!  

All kinds of utterances seem to feature you right at the start.  In everyday speech, you seem to be the opener of choice.  Everywhere, it’s ‘so’, ‘so’, ‘so’.  How did you get to be so prominent?  You really know how to get noticed.

A few years ago, it used to be ‘Look’ that opened the batting.  Along with her partner ‘Right’.  Or, ‘Well’.  Or ‘Now, then’ – remember them?  Or even that rather clumsy fellow, ‘Er’.  Not so anymore.  They’ve become also-rans.  It’s all ‘so’ now. 

Yes, you’re everywhere, ‘so’.  In Tweets, on news interviews, in texts.  Always up there at the front of things.  So obvious you can’t be missed.  Sometimes short and punchy; other times drawn out and deliberate. Always there.

So, you see – it’s great to see your confidence, but there was a time when you used to be in the middle of things.  Holding things together rather than striding out in front on your own. 

That said, it’s important to be in the middle of things from time to time, so it is.  True, you were less prominent back then, when ‘Look’ and ‘Right’ were top of the pile.  Your celebrity status was so-so.  (Although I remember you on a Peter Gabriel album when I was at school – that was pretty big). Now, you are at the front of so much. 

Maybe… just a little too much?

Don’t get me wrong – it’s great to lead from the front.  Sometimes.  Maybe not all of the time?  Sometimes it’s good to let others lead every so often.  (Note to self, so help me!). 

Could I be so bold as to offer some advice?  A word of warning?  I wonder whether you might be getting just a little overexposed?  I just worry that, in the not-so-distant future, people will tire of you.    

Insomuch as I’m one to give advice, will you take this in the spirit it’s meant?  Certainly not a matter of urgency: just something to be aware of when you get a moment on your own.

So. Will you give it some thought?  I hope so.  You have so much to offer.  In smaller amounts.

Till we meet again, it’s so long.  (Or, more likely, not so long….)

Leo

PS I realise I’ve used you over 30 times even in this short letter.  So sorry!

Dear School As We Disperse

Featured

This is most of what I said to pupils and staff at our final whole school assembly of term due to the Government closure of all schools on 20th March 2020

Thank you all for gathering.  This is indeed a gathering and I suspect that some of you will be wondering whether we should indeed be gathering like this.  If you are asking this question, I would simply say this: we are a community and part of what holds a community together is being together.  We have been eating together; meeting together in House; we have been together in lessons and activities; we are together now as a School.  

So, this is a necessary whole school gathering.  There will be no Chapel or year group assemblies tomorrow morning: this is our last whole school gathering for a while.  There are some important messages to share with you all now, as we are moving into a different mode of activity over the coming weeks, and the remote learning programme begins on Monday 23rd March. 

We have been travelling through uncharted territory; and these are uncertain times.  I want to pay tribute, again, to you all for the way you have conducted yourselves, in particular over the past few weeks.  I also want to thank my colleagues, sitting behind me here, and all those in other places and roles in the School, for the phenomenal effort that they have been putting in to care for you and keep you learning.

Human beings don’t much like uncertainty.  We like to know what is coming next.  We may like the odd surprise – pleasant ones – but as a general rule we want to be in control of what happens to us.  We like to be in command of events.  However, we are all living in times where events are controlling us. 

Conscious that this makes us uncomfortable, I am reminded of the words of the great Maya Anglelou, who said: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”. 

We are Shrewsbury School and we will not be reduced by these events.  The stage we are moving into now, means that we are going to disperse for a while.  This is something that we do every holiday: we disperse across the country; we disperse across the world.  And then we come back together. This time, as we return to our families and guardians, we are not sure when we will all be back here together.  This will become clear in time, but for the moment, we become a virtual community.  What I want to emphasise is that, even though we are dispersing for the Easter period, we are still a school, still a community.  The digital age gives us multiple ways to keep in touch.  You can keep in touch with one another.  We can keep in touch with you.  

There is great strength in community and we can continue to draw strength from each other.  However, the truth is that these coming weeks and months are going to challenge us as a civilised society; and they are going to challenge us as individuals.  Much will depend on the attitude we bring to our own individual circumstances. 

Ten days ago at a similar assembly I spoke about the coronavirus Covid-19.  My message aimed to raise awareness of the need for good hygiene; civilized behaviour, civic good sense, concern for others and a ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach.  I said that I didn’t know whether School would close but I thought it likely we would be going into a significant period of disruption, with ongoing pupil and staff absence.  I said that we will be delivering a remote learning programme so that each of you will be able to continue your academic progress and preparation for summer exams.

Yesterday afternoon’s announcements from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Schools told us two new things.

Firstly, that all schools in England will close their doors at the end of this week. This is country-wide.  It is part of the effort to limit the spread of the virus.  As a boarding school, we have asked your parents to arrange for you to be at home or with guardians by lunchtime on Saturday; many pupils have already headed home.  Let me clarify three things:

  • This is not a decision we have taken ourselves.  It’s a national decision.
  • The School will still be operational next week.  We have a duty to stay open for children of key workers – that includes people who work in the NHS, the police and other public services, for example. 
  • We are still open for all of you as we deliver our remote learning.

So, we are not in fact closing: rather, we are moving into a different mode, with the remote learning programme running all of next week for all pupils through to the published end of term.  In other words, we will keep you learning.  Clearly, all the other things we do together here in the co-curricular programme and house life will stop for the moment.  But learning, where practicable, will continue remotely. 

Secondly, yesterday evening we were told by the Secretary of State for education that the summer exams would not go ahead. 

I want to speak now to those of you in public examination years.  The Fifth Form and the Upper Sixth.  Yesterday was very big news.  I feel for you. You have every right to be disappointed; worried and confused.   You have taken a big shock.

I want you to be clear that this news landed with us at the same time that it landed with you.  We heard through the BBC.  I can share with you my frustration that schools were given no warning; no hint – in fact, quite the reverse – of this decision.  We were given no heads up and therefore no time to think carefully on your behalf about how we might support you for this news.  I would have liked it to be different for you.  However, these are unusual times. 

It looks pretty clear that exams will not happen as scheduled this summer. As it stands today, schools have been given no details on how GCSE and A Level qualifications may be awarded.  We don’t know yet how university and higher education establishments will make decisions on offers.  We will get this clear in the coming days. As soon as we know, you will know.

We also need to recognise that the Government is dealing with an unparalleled challenge and we need to accept that we have to be flexible, adaptable, calm and responsible.  We also need to ask the right questions and get sensible answers for you.

In the meantime, there is only one prudent message to those of you in exam years: please don’t let up.  The only sensible assumption at this point, even with yesterday’s announcement, is that you may well need to show your knowledge and skills in some kind of formal way.  It is hard to remain clear-headed and motivated when the finish line seems to have been moved or even erased.   But our strong advice is to keep your game head on and keep preparing.  Especially until more details are known in the coming days. 

There is a more profound reason for this. 

In the case of Fifth Form, whether or not you sit in an exam hall, your GCSE learning is fundamental to the next stage of your academic journey. You have been building a foundation, layer by layer, brick by brick, for the studies that follow.  No learning is ever wasted.  Nothing you have done has been lost. All your GCSE subjects develop skills that will then flow into your A Level studies. 

Some of you may even have been punching the air, celebrating, feeling that the pressure is suddenly off.  Please, think again.  Think bigger.  Most of you will be disappointed at the sense that you have done all the training but don’t get to run the race.  I get that.  We will continue to support and monitor your progress.   We need to see you continue to engage and to learn. 

So, my message is don’t write anything off; don’t underestimate the value of the knowledge and skills you have built up.  Don’t lose momentum.  Don’t switch off. 

Turning to pupils in the Upper Sixth:  I have been trying to put myself in your shoes.  I really feel for you.  What is the good news?  Is there any?  Well, we have been told that pupils should not lose the chance to go to university.  We wait to see what this looks like but there is a promise there that we expect to be delivered. 

Again, just as with those a couple of clicks behind you in Fifth Form, you need to keep on top of your learning.  You need to maintain momentum and be prepared.  We don’t yet know how university places will be confirmed and how assessments may be made.  It is hard to keep training for an event that has been changed, deferred, apparently cancelled.  But you need to keep in training. 

So, my academic message is this.  Keep to your academic programme.  Be prepared to showcase your knowledge.  And remember that this is also about momentum; maintaining the pace, focus and agility of mind that you will need to carry into your studies after Shrewsbury.

There is a broader social and personal development element too.  The final year of school is one of culmination; a rite of passage into the next stage; a series of markers to be enjoyed in the doing and savoured in the remembering.  It also a year of leadership; and mastery – that sense that you are on top of your game and yet with everything ahead of you. The bonds of friendship run deep after several years of co-travelling.  You deserve the right to earn the next stage in your journey; in most cases, that means a university place.   Perhaps more deeply, you only get one opportunity to leave School.  You also deserve to finish school well. 

I talked earlier about that fact that we are now dispersing.  And we don’t exactly know when we will be back in full session with everyone here on site.  I make this commitment now to the Upper Sixth:

We will get you together again; and we will celebrate you.  We will find ways for you to be together, to mark your time here.  We will see you off well and ensure that you end your Salopian career on a high.  Please, don’t feel that you need to create events and moments in the next 48 hours.  Now is too early.  We will work hard to make sure you have the rites of passage that you deserve.

It is my firm belief that the Upper Sixth help set the tone of the school.  You are leaders.  We look to you to see what a Salopian is.  You are absorbing a range of uncertainties.  And I don’t undervalue that.  But, there is also opportunity in all this.   

We all of us need to close this section of the term in an orderly and considerate way.  Staff have been working flat out on our behalf; we all want to say our farewells – our ‘see you soons’ – in the best possible way.

Turning to non-exam years – the Third Form, the Fourth Form and the Lower Sixth.  You too are facing disruption and a new normal.  Remote learning is now our key mode of delivery.  Inevitably, for a while, elements of our diverse programme and all that this means for us, are on hold.   You do need to keep learning and we will keep you on it.  This is a massive opportunity to get ahead and make incredibly valuable intellectual and academic progress.  Please, seize it. 

All of us need to seize this opportunity to deepen our skills; read more widely.  We don’t want to fritter away our time in an orgy of Netflix and gaming binges.  We can sue this time to become better thinkers; cleverer problem-solvers; more creative collaborators.  The Salopian spirit is one of enterprise and adaptation: we need to be true to this spirit as we enter a full, demanding and meaningful programme of remote learning.  

I have always said, and firmly believe, that school is not about the gathering of certificates.  It is about deep learning.  Now is the time to show this truth this more than ever.

Widening our focus back to the whole school, and hopefully without being patronising, or devaluing all the feelings, worries and frustrations you may be experiencing, I do want to ask that we all keep a big perspective.  And think of others as well as ourselves.    

We need to:

  • look after our physical health: staying active; getting exercise.  We may need to be inventive – loads of good creative ideas on the web
  • look after our mental health
    • try to avoid obsessive following of the news – I am going to limit myself to a couple of downloads a day; keep informed but deal in fact
    • Try not to obsess on a spiral of ‘what if’s’ – there are too many of them – we need to deal in the immediate; control what we can control; look after others health is good for our own wellbeing; we need to be grateful.
    • It’s important to connect with the natural world; get fresh air; sense the gradual arrival of spring; notice and appreciate things of beauty – this may sound a bit soft, but this is really important and good for all of us
    • We should use this time to try new things; read new books; do practical tasks that mean we produce things of value and give us a sense of positive control and growth
    • We need to help each other keep perspective and stay positive
  • Continue to observe the good hygiene guidance that we have all been given – especially on handwashing
  • You need to support your parents: they are dealing with incredibly heavy and diverse burdens themselves – they have all kinds of challenges to face.  You can play your part in so many ways.  Each of us needs to support our family.
  • We are Salopians and we are also citizens of a nation and citizens of the world.  We need to play our part.  I ask you to think about how you can actively help your local communities when you are home.
  • Finally, we have an overriding civic duty to follow Government directions on social distancing; protecting the elderly and the vulnerable; behaving responsibly; taking only what we need; thinking of others; and helping to slow and limit the spread of COVID-19.

So, to close.  

We are social animals and we will miss being together.  These times will test us all.  Stay in touch with each other – and with the School.

This place has been around a long while and it is not going anywhere.  I live on site and so do 70 of my colleagues.  Many of us will be in and around School throughout the Easter period.  Next week we will be delivering the remote learning programme and planning for delivery next term.  This term’s formal learning concludes at the end of Friday 27th March.  A core team will keep the school open and running as necessary and appropriate over the Easter period.  Our commitment is that the summer term will start on 21 April and that we will all re-start then, most likely with our remote learning programme.

This is a time for each of us to show what we are made of.  Our school motto tells us: “Intus si recte, ne labora”.  If right within, worry not.  It seems right to ask – what does this actually mean, now, here, in these unprecedented times?  I think that it means that we need to show character.  We need to live out our Salopian virtues: to show wisdom, kindness, courage, integrity, self-mastery, and spirit.    We are a community of learning.  And we will continue to be a community of learning in the weeks and months ahead.

I’m deeply proud of the people you are; and the people you are becoming.  Try to find opportunity in these unsettled times.  Keep learning.

I wish you and your families well.

We’ll stay in touch.

Floreat Salopia!

Dear 2020 – Day 82 (Mothering Sunday Update)

Featured

Well, 2020. You certainly turned out to have a nature only a mother could love. Fires, floods and now this.

I write now at the close of Mothering Sunday. Reading now what I wrote then, when you were 9 days old, I wince. I wished you dull. I wished you fairer, kinder, more happy than your siblings 2019 and 2018. Look at you now? 82 days old and so hard to love.

Recalling my wide-eyed, new-year wish-making, I find myself curating a curious mix of shame, defiance and hope. Like a parent, I can see that you are not living up to expectations; like a parent, I fear for you; like a parent, I regret the way things are going. And yet, like a parent, I cannot give up on you. Even as you continue to behave so badly. Or so it seems.

You are far from ordinary and the big stories of your life so far have been nothing but horror. You have a lot to answer for and there is so much you could do better. But, there is so much about you that is admirable and good. So much ordinary kindness and extraordinary courage that your acts and errors are requiring from people across the globe.

Yes, you are far from dull. And you have a very dark side. Below is what I said back when you were tiny, just 9 days old:

Welcome to the world, new-born thing. I hope you find your feet quickly. And I have some other hopes for you too. Your older sister, 2019, was a fiery one. Capable of so much good, but full of contradictions and often quite disagreeable. That’s teenagers, I suppose. Mind you, she was nowhere near as confounding and unpredictable as her older brother 2016. You never knew what was coming next with him. I wonder how he looks now, four years on.

Anyway, after 25 years of teaching, and 16 years as a parent, I know not to judge one sibling by another. Each child is wonderfully, bracingly different; unique individuals with promise and potential; needs and demands; fears, expectations and hopes. The poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem to the newly born daughter of his friend, Kingsley Amis. He wishes her something “none of the others would”. Instead of wishing her beauty, talent and love, he says: “May you be ordinary […] In fact, may you be dull.

My hope for you is like that of Larkin. You’ll have your moments, for sure, and as with all your family, there will be sadness, despair, loneliness – horror even, sad to say. But… I hope that the weight and volume of all the unseen good, and the plain day-to-day ordinary that you think and do, all this stuff will be the thing that truly defines you. I hope you are fair: or at least, fairer than your forebears – gradually but meaningfully fairer. And kinder too.

There are lots of other things I hope for you, new-born thing. But Larkin’s odd and surprising incantation says it so much better. He wishes balance and ordinariness. A life more ordinary: “If that is what a skilled, / Vigilant, flexible, / Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness is called”.

Having re-read these words, despite all the chaos, confusion and despair you’re causing 2020, I still have hope for you. Alongside the awful, there is still the wonderful. There is even some unintended good coming from your most troubled acts.

Life with you is anything but ordinary, 2020. For so many, it must feel like day after day of creeping horror. This is a crushing truth: you are doing so much harm.

And yet; and yet. Despite everything you’ve done so far, I stand by my hopes for you. There is good to you. And, like a parent who can somehow always see the good in its errant teenager; can still sense the virtue amongst all the vice; the kindness in the carnage: I’m sticking by you.

Still hoping, 2020.

Leo

Dear Detectorist

Featured

Can I set the scene? It’s a beautiful English summer’s day.  We’re on a sandy beach in North Yorkshire.  It’s one of those rare, ultra-calm, windless days when sound travels with exceptional clarity and everything feels close, and yet distant, at the same time.  

There are several families on the beach, climbing on the rocks, building sandcastles, skimming pebbles into the sea.  The air is perforated with the shrill cries of children on the beach and those of the circling seabirds overhead. 

A group of canoeists paddles into the bay and beach their canoes.  About 10 of them sit down on the beach and produce a lavish and unlikely picnic, cracking open bottles of beer and reclining in wet-suited splendour, looking, from a distance, half-human, half-seal.

On the cliffs we can see nesting gulls.  There are bird-watchers toting binoculars and draped in bits of kit. There to spot anything with feathers.  Crowds of twitchers along the clifftop, angling their necks and pointing their bins to capture the plummet of the gannet; the serene arc of the curlew; the rock-hopping of the oyster-catcher; the busy aeronautics of distant puffins. 

The tide is at its lowest, so you can clamber all the way through some of the caves and reach the open see the other side.  The rock pools are populated with anemones and seaweed.  There are barnacles aplenty on the craggy rocks.  With a firm stab of a booted foot, you can dislodge a stubborn little arthropod, inspect its inner workings, emit a noise of fascinated disgust, and carefully reinstate them on the rock.  You can look for crabs in the rock pools. 

Then, a new couple comes down the steep steps carrying two metal contraptions.  Those of us already established on the beach are giving them the once over. Gently sizing up the new arrivals, as they rattle their way onto the strand. We reckon that they are mother – probably in her 60s – and grown-up son – around about 40.  We surmise that he’s single, quite possibly still living in the maternal home.  Something about his clothing suggests that: the saggy luminous orange kagool zipped up despite the clement weather.  Beige trousers that are just a bit too short in the leg.  And, the footwear: a frightful public union of sandals and socks, so often the preserve of the unattached.

Saying very little to one another, each puts on a pair of chunky red head-phones.  They plug the lead into their devices.  And off they go.  Pacing – slowly, methodically – up the beach.   Sweeping their instruments before them.  Immediately engaged in their work.  Immersed.  Listening intently for a ping – a ping that would signal the confirmation of metal. Occasionally they stop; put the metal detector to one side; and dig with a small trowel in the sand.  And turn up something, nothing.  Something and nothing.

They do this for an hour and a half.  Gradually, the pair becomes the object of most people’s attention.  As we all keep a casual eye on them, questions gently mount in the mind, like sand passing through an hourglass.

Eventually, idle curiosity grows into something more urgent and we have to break the silence.  Someone goes over to address the pair.  “Have you found anything yet?”.  The man, to whom the question was directed, jumps in surprise.  “Sorry!”, we say.  “Didn’t mean to shock you….  Have you found anything?”.  Probably an annoying question to poke into this unwelcome break in his focus.  “Not yet”.   It’s clear that conversation is not high on his agenda for the day.  “What’s the best thing you’ve found?”, we persist. “Found a Roman coin once. Gave that in.  Mostly it’s ring pulls ‘n shot gun cartridges”.

So, let’s get this straight. You spend all that time looking and you only get to keep the things that aren’t worth anything. “Yes, that’s about it”.

All pass-times can seem a bit clubby, a bit geeky to the uninitiated. But it’s fair to say that metal detecting would probably come in quite low on a league table of activities that command instant respect. Adrenalin sports would top that table: base-jumping; parkour; free-climbing. These are high impact activities where adventure, movement and risk are the chief gods.

Your deities are different.  The gods of metal detecting are method, patience and luck.  It is a ritual of hope.

An archaeologist will likely bristle at the sight of you.  Others might disparage you as funny, slightly deluded individuals grubbing about in largely fruitless isolation.  I’ve never done any metal detecting but there’s something rather wonderful about the sight of you.  The undiluted focus, the obsessive fascination, the hermetic zeal of the activity.  Something meditative about the gentle hovering of the detector disc above the ground, its faithful attention fixed on the floor, as you guide its slow, sweeping motion. 

You and your metal detector are bound in a mutual and private search.  You seem so focused on the detecting work, so insulated from other events, that I could easily imagine you walking with steady confidence off a cliff – still listening for the jubilant beep.

Why do you do it?  Is it because you’re looking to find that special find?  Or because you are part of a citizen scientist movement, democratising knowledge and encouraging a love of heritage. Or, do you do it because the process of looking is, in itself, a pleasant, addictive, even life-enhancing state? Metal detecting, like fishing, is about waiting. 

So, I’m putting aside any sniggering assumption that people who use metal detectors should be pitied or even derided for their dodgy clothing and apparent lack of social skills. I’m going to park the idea that your type are acquisitive Golums, addicted to antique shiny things; or rural bounty hunters methodically stripping the land of its precious little secrets. Maybe you detectorists are ok. Oddly cool. Maybe even role models.

As an activity, metal detecting requires patience and method.  It encourages the constant readiness for discovery; the acceptance of simple labour in the pursuit of some ecstatic moment, a chance unearthing of something really interesting, really valuable.  Like all the best hobbies, metal detecting stands on a central foundation of futility.  And the infinite resurgence of hope over experience.

If I’m feeling poetic, I could see your metal detectors as instruments of hope. Ok, they may not be style magnets but, viewed in this way, they are images of the human being’s desire and determination, to search out truth and beauty, and to continue to hope that truth and beauty do indeed lie out there.  Truth and beauty are often to be found buried, obscured by the accumulated silt of other, less remarkable things.

All the great thinkers and spiritual leaders have emphasised the need for hope.  We know that human beings are capable of acts of ugliness, cowardice and falsehood.  These thinkers hold us firm to the belief that, as individuals and as communities, human beings are capable of great beauty, courage and truth.  And that these great universals can be unearthed in all kinds of places; in all kinds of interactions with others. 

Presumably, detectorists are afflicted by finite disappointment on a routine basis.  It’s part of the process.  But you seem to be powered by infinite hope. Maybe you detectorists aren’t that odd after all. 

Maybe I’ll follow you up the beach and see what I might find. Or not find.

Leo

Dear Gerald

Featured

News of your passing has reached me.  You went out smiling, I’m told, and at the very decent age of 81. 

You worked all your life at the same school.  As a caretaker, odd-job-man and general lifter-and-shifter.  You spent over 50 years serving the same school community.  Same in name, but – like a river – always changing and flowing forward into different times with different people.  Yet, you were a constant. 

I remember you from when I was a child, growing up with a teacher for a Dad, in a boarding school where the staff children roamed free in the holidays.  And during term-time, our teacher parents were busy looking after other people’s children.  You were one of the benign constants that held us gently in place.  You were an ever-there. 

With your trademark greeting, unerring in your cheerfulness, you would say to all you met: “Lovely to see you!”.  You’d bellow that greeting in advance from a distance; or boomed it as a valediction – a validation – as you rolled along to your next task, your next greeting.  You were utterly indiscriminate – in the best way.  You showed no judgement.  Yet this greeting did not feel cheap or empty.  It was a simple, joyful affirmation. Your famous wheezy laugh fizzed with gentle mischief.

You wore blue workman’s dungarees, with splashes of paint and oil and grease, over a white string vest (have I made that up?) and always, whatever the weather, a bobble hat.  Yellow, was it?  And lacking the bobble.  

One time, you dropped a large metal radiator on your foot.  It landed like a heavy blade, taking one of your toes off in your shoe.  You wrapped and carried it like a little bug in your huge hands, searching for someone to help you.  The first person you met was my Dad.  He drove you to the hospital and kept you talking.  Something you did willingly, as if you were sharing a routine trip to the shops.  They patched you up somehow.  And you never forgot the kindness. 

From time to time, some of the children at the school would try to find fun in you.  You defused their nuisance with your constant greeting and undefended heart.  Soon, everyone knew that there was no fun to be had in setting traps for you.  Rather, they saw that you were a treasure; an institution; a legend.  Your loyalty; your appetite for hard work; your unearthly strength; your trustworthiness; your sheer reliability: these were qualities that even the most bone-headed of us could see were golden virtues. 

Love came from what you did; and love was the source of it.  And you were loved for being you. 

Rest in peace, Gerald.

Lovely to see you.

Leo Winkley

Dear 2020

Featured

Dear 2020

Welcome to the world, new-born thing. I hope you find your feet quickly. And I have some other hopes for you too.

Your older sister, 2019, was a fiery one. Capable of so much good, but full of contradictions and often quite disagreeable. That’s teenagers, I suppose. Mind you, she was nowhere near as confounding and unpredictable as her older brother 2016. You never knew what was coming next with him. I wonder how he looks now, four years on.

Anyway, after 25 years of teaching, and 16 years as a parent, I know not to judge one sibling by another. Each child is wonderfully, bracingly different; unique individuals with promise and potential; needs and demands; fears, expectations and hopes.

The poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem to the newly born daughter of his friend, Kingsley Amis. He wishes her something “none of the others would”. Instead of wishing her beauty, talent and love, he says: “May you be ordinary […] In fact, may you be dull.

Well, 2020. You are 9 days old as I write this and there is no danger of you being dull. At least, that’s what the news suggests. Of course, there’s lots about you that will be mundane, ordinary. And, indeed, good. Particularly when lived and viewed from this safe corner of the world in Shrewsbury.

My hope for you is like that of Larkin. You’ll have your moments, for sure, and as with all your family, there will be sadness, despair, loneliness – horror even, sad to say. But… I hope that the weight and volume of all the unseen good, and the plain day-to-day ordinary that you think and do, all this stuff will be the thing that truly defines you. I hope you are fair: or at least, fairer than your forebears – gradually but meaningfully fairer. And kinder too.

There are lots of other things I hope for you, new-born thing. But Larkin’s odd and surprising incantation says it so much better. He wishes balance and ordinariness. A life more ordinary: “If that is what a skilled, / Vigilant, flexible, / Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness is called”.

May you be dull, 2020. May you catch more happiness.

Yours in hope

Leo Winkley

Plain Gobbledygoop

Plain Gobbledygook

Not so long ago, I was sitting on a train back from Manchester in a half full (or, if you’re that kind of person, half empty) train carriage. Coach B of the Arriva Trains Wales Express: a two-carriage number that grinds its way from Manchester all the way down to Carmarthen.

As is the way in this country, there was an instant (and literally unspoken) agreement amongst all the travellers in Coach B of the Arriva Trains Wales express – that there would be no talking. Accordingly, after the train guard has done his announcements, the carriage fell into silence and we were together alone in our moving metal carapace.

‘Travel silence’ is something that we do very well in this country. If you sit on a train in Spain, Italy, India or the US, for example, it’s a-buzz with chat and noise. In England, there is a strict and unspoken traveller’s code: only mad people, drunks and foreigners speak on English trains.

So it was that a culturally-binding silence settled over Carriage B. At each stop this hush was briefly perforated by the incomprehensible, tinny announcements from our train guard; white noise that barely roused us from our private inner worlds.

Then: a phone rang. A few of us scrabbled about to check if it was our phone. (Everyone over the age of 40 seems to have the same ring tone these days). Anyway, the silence was then broken for several minutes as the recipient of the call conducted a lengthy business conversation.

Well, you all listen in, don’t you? It’s impossible not to. Unless you’re plugged in, you can’t help but overhear. We all tend to speak-shout into our phones when we’re on a train and it’s a small carriage.

It was, in all honesty, not a very interesting conversation. A business call. In fact, it was such a dull conversation that it somehow travelled through the spectrum of dull and came out the other side, transformed into something genuinely engrossing.  It seemed that things were at a critical point in the negotiations to land a big contract.

The phone call was punctuated by a mesmerising range of professional jargon, management and business speak. A multitude of technical expressions and organisational clichés reverberated around the carriage, soaking the captive travelling audience in a sound-world of industry chat.

The high – or was it low – point phone call was the closing sentence.

“Going forward, I think what we need to think outside the box. Let’s touch base later”.

And with that the call was over.

Now, I find that sentence had quite hard to live with.  A recent survey by the Institute of Leadership & Management, revealed that management speak is used in almost two thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter of people surveyed considering it to be a pointless irritation. The top three most annoying and over-used bits of business jargon were: “touch base” (39%); “going forward” (55%); and top of the pops was: “thinking outside the box” (57%). My carriage-mate had managed to squeeze all three into the same sentence!

Now, let’s remind ourselves that I’m being a Nosey-Parker, eavesdropping on one side of a private conversation. You might also say that if you make a call in a train carriage, you deserve what’s coming to you.

All this enforced overhearing prompted me to think about two things. Firstly, about the value of plain speaking – that is, speaking clearly and free of unnecessary jargon. Secondly, about the value of speaking as a person, an individual; rather than sounding like a manual.

You can tell when someone is saying things in her or his own individual voice. The person comes through the language. The danger of management-speak, jargon, slogans, cliché is that they diminish and muffle our original voice; these over-used expressions standardise us.

Words can be beautiful, powerful things: a means of conveying such a range of sense and feeling; such diverse ideas and observations. We can use them to create fresh possibilities; we can use them to numb; we can use them to agitate; we can use them to soothe.

Most human activities – such as sports, the arts, careers – have their special languages. Think of sport, for example. These are sometimes called ‘language games’. In these games, esoteric terms and expressions resonate with the initiated; by those who understand and are part of the club.

And so it is with education. We bat around all kinds of special language; educational acronyms and shorthand abound. Schools are wonderful generators of idiosyncratic terms. The idea that we should meet in Grot and then do our Top Schools after having tea in KH only makes sense in our small part of the world.

I’m not objecting to specialised language. I’m objecting to dull and lazy language.

What became the Campaign For Plain English was started by the redoubtable Chrissie Maher OBE in 1979. She fixed her aim on various uses of language which she felt were deliberately obscure. It was a campaign against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information.

On the hit list were longwinded official writing; management-speak; professional jargon; tired and overused expressions; silly job titles that see ticket inspectors become “Revenue Protection Officers”, supermarket shelf-stackers go by the title of “Ambient replenishment controllers”, and teachers are “Knowledge Facilitators”. I mean, seriously?

The Campaign for Plain English (or Plain English Campaign as it now seems to be known – you can see what they did there) aims to remove these word-soups from institutional life. They want to get professionals, in particular, to speak more simply. For example, a recent educational document (not ours I hasten to add) deployed the following sentence: “High quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process”. What this actually means is: “Children need good schools if they are to learn properly”.

The issue here is that bureaucratic language excludes meaning – often, it would seem, deliberately. It’s important we don’t get infected by this linguistic virus. We need to find our own, distinctive voices – and delight in them.

Personal statements, for example, should be personal. Essays should be in (pretty much) our own words. We should avoid cliché and jargon but rather make the effort to use interesting and original language. This does need to be carefully done. All of us, not least Headmasters, succumb to over-embellishment and can sound pretentious, and our text (including this one) over-written. Everyone needs a good editor.

Scaling up from our day-to-day context, it is so important that all of us, especially the young, use the power of their words, opinions and voice. Salopians are polite and gentle souls but sometimes you have speak truth to power – even if your voice shakes.

It is mission-critical (is that a cliché?) that Salopians think and speak for themselves. This is a theme that we will repeat and repeat as a school. The world is full of versions of the truth; we all need to be mindful enough to de-code and challenge these versions in the post-truth era. We need Salopians young and old to challenge and to initiate change.

I have said a lot about speaking. As somebody very wise once said: “God gave us one mouth and two ears: we should use them proportionately”. It is critically important that, in the noise of populism, YouTubing and democratic broadcasting, we retain the ability to listen actively.

Active listening is not just waiting for the other person to stop speaking so we can make our much more interesting point. Only by deep and active listening do we fully acknowledge the rights and the values of the person we are speaking with. Even if we despise the views of another, we need to listen deeply to understand them.

Of course, the trick in all this, is that human beings learn by imitation. We observe, we copy. That’s how babies start talking. It’s only natural that we mimic the language of others. This is language with stabilisers. The journey our children are on (in fact we are all on), is to find their own authentic voice; to get rid of those linguistic stabilisers.

For pupils, my simple message is to speak in their own voice. I want them to be confident enough to stand outside the verbal uniform of teenage jargon. I want them to dress their language differently.

Meanwhile, back in Carriage B of the Arriva Trains Wales Express from Manchester to Carmarthen, we’re nearing Shrewsbury station. In silence. After my (albeit unspoken) righteous indignation at my carriage-mate’s choice of language, I’m feeling an uncomfortable guilt at my linguistic snobbery.

What it reminded me, though, is that language can be used to numb and neutralise. And, equally, that it can be used to ignite and enliven the mind. Each mode has its generative powers; each has its dangers.

Words have a power to reveal or to conceal. Political discourse is replete with spin and double-talk, linguistic sleights of hand and verbal finessing. The delight in language is a wonderful thing. Selective and careful deployment of what the teachers at primary school might call ‘juicy words’. It’s good to make interesting sentences and fill our self-expression with colour.

Language can be used to mislead, to obscure, to obfuscate, to redirect, to exclude. So, as in all things, there is a time for floral language, a time for using technical vocabulary and a time for plain speaking. A time to rage against cliché. A time to speak up, in our individual voices, here in Salopia and in the wider world.

Something tells me that the world needs its teenagers and young adults to speak up – and keep speaking up.

And let’s try not to use clichés. After all, it’s not rocket science….