Dear 2022 Leaver

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Always pass on good advice.  […] It is never any use to oneself.’   So said Oscar Wilde.  Another legendary wit, PG Wodehouse, similarly observed: ‘I always advise people not to give advice’.  Which gives at least two good reasons to ignore everything else that follows… 

Yet, it’s my solemn duty, as a headmaster, as a parent, as a person of 50 odd years – some of them very odd – to take this opportunity to offer a final volley of advice to you – our leavers – today.   

And the theme, irresistibly, is that of the journey.  ‘Oh, the places you’ll go!’ 

Because today is about departures.  175 of them – each individual, each full of hope and dazzling potential.  Each journey preciously unique.  Some of you know exactly where you’re heading – ‘you’ll head straight out of town’.  Others are going to see where the winds take you.   All of you will go out into the world and make a difference.  Because:

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose

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Cue another inevitability: a final reference to our most famous Old Salopian…

In August 1831, Charles Darwin rushed home from a geology trip to Wales to find a letter from his Cambridge professor and mentor J. S. Henslow. It contained a chance of a lifetime: an invitation to go on a trip around the world on the HMS Beagle. Darwin was elated—he was longing to travel and explore natural history in tropical lands.

His father, however, threw cold water on the idea. It was time for Charles to settle down, he said, not go dashing off on some “wild scheme.” The plan was reckless, dangerous and unfitting for a future clergyman. Despondent, Charles turned down the invitation. But his father had left one ray of hope: “If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go, I will give my consent.” No one was more sensible and respected by his father than Charles’s uncle Josiah Wedgwood. Fortunately Josiah sided with Charles, collaborating to craft a point-by-point response that changed his father’s mind – and Charles Darwin’s future.

When Darwin began the five year Beagle voyage, he was green and inexperienced.  He returned a seasoned naturalist.  He grew from a wide-eyed observer into a profound analytical thinker.  Darwin knew himself better – and he had the beginnings of a theory that changed the world.

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Leaving school is a defining moment of self-determination.  Today, your ships set sail.  We parents and staff are standing on the harbour wall.  We will wave you off with final words of advice and high hopes that your journey is full of adventure, full of discovery.

Final Callover

What advice can we give?  Perhaps this simple instruction:  “Be who you are and say what you feel: because those who mind don’t matter; and those who matter don’t mind”.  Not the words of Mahatma Ghandhi; nor Michelle Obama; nor our own Charles Darwin.  Theodore Geisel.  Better known as Dr Seuss whose words are on the inside of our order service today.  Five years of a Shrewsbury education, and the Headmaster quotes Dr Seuss! 

For me, Seuss was a genius.  A professor of serious fun.  Running through all the eccentric nonsense, there is a golden thread of humane and kindly wisdom. 

Dr Seuss’ stories always affirm our individual integrity to be who we are, and confidently so.  He reminds us that whilst we will always care what others think of us – we should not fear judgement. 

You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

Albert Einstein – another professor of serious fun – said that “Life is like riding a bicycle: to keep your balance, you must keep moving”.  The journey again.  This time on a bike.  Sometimes we will spot the potholes and be resourceful in riding round them; other times we will need the resilience to ride through them.  Keep moving.

This is ‘Good Advice’.                                                  

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Just a few weeks ago, I gave the eulogy at the funeral of my 98 year old step-grandmother, Marie.  Her life’s journey had taken her from the blitz years in London, to mobster life in Brazil, through motherhood into grand and great grandparenthood.  We called her the Old Bat. 

In one of my last conversations with her, Marie passed on her top bits of advice.  “Leo”, she said, “You should always be early; and you should always say thank you.  And whatever you do, you should always give 100% – unless you’re giving blood”.  She cackled merrily.  Her journey almost over, the Old Bat still had joy in her heart.

Listening to people talking about their memories of Marie, it struck me that nobody mentioned her qualifications – or lack of them; how much she did or didn’t earn.  No-one spoke about her CV.  After a long, eventful life, people remembered Marie’s virtues – the kindness she showed to others. 

Much of the time, entirely understandably, we focus on the accumulation of skills; the accrual of aptitudes – qualifications – passports to the next port of call; tickets to ride.  Yet, in the final analysis, whilst our successes may be praiseworthy and our accomplishments noble, it is how we treat other people that is the true measure of a life.  And, as Philip Larkin concludes in his exquisite poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’: “What will survive of us is love.”

As you leave school, I hope your journey is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.  In our reading, Constantine Cavafy channels Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.  After fighting the Trojan Wars, our hero, Odysseus, takes 10 years to get back to his homeland, the island of Ithaka.  On his journey, he endures endless obstacles and distractions; alluring sirens and seducers; intoxication; various terrifying monsters, storms and shipwreck.

The poet suggests that it is the manner in which we pursue our goals – the ‘how’ of our lives – that will truly define us.  As we each pursue our own personal Ithakas, it is the voyage that makes us.  Looking further, we see that Ithaka – our intended destination – is not an external thing; it is self-knowledge.   We remember, the two-word message at the oracle in Delphi: ‘Know Thyself’.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The legendary physicist and another exponent of serious fun, Professor Richard Feynman, shrewdly observed: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and [that] you are the easiest person to fool.”  It seems extraordinary – but it is all too easy to mislead ourselves. 

We’re living in the post-truth era, where thoughtful reflection, tolerance and civility are so often side-lined by knee-jerk ‘boo-hooray’ rhetoric and cancel culture; where truth – shaped by algorithms – reverberates in the echo chamber of our personal timelines.  It has never been more important to think for ourselves; to be honest with ourselves.  “If right within”.  

You are in a wonderful position to go out there, in the wide open air, and make good things happen. 

Not by accident, then, do we place kindness at the heart of the Salopian Way.  Our Six Virtues, which we hope you embody and enact in life, promote the survival of the kindest.  Ways of gentleness.  Paths of peace.

Finally: weather is the accompaniment to life’s journey.  Maya Angelou exhorts us always to put a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.  Because kindness changes other people’s weather. 

Better than advice, I offer a time-weathered wish, a blessing resonant with hope for your journey:

‘May the road rise to meet you;

may the wind be ever at your back;

may the sun shine warm upon your face;

and the rain fall soft upon your fields.’

These are moving words.  Yet, we know, of course, that the road will not always rise to meet us.  Sometimes it will be bumpy, rough or unmarked.  The wind will as likely blow full in the face.  The sun will often disappear behind clouds.  The rain will sometimes fall in wasteful torrents or fail to appear when we need it most.  As with Odysseus, this blessing addresses the truth that we can decide, even in adversity, how we see the journey ahead of us.  Whilst we cannot make the weather, we can choose the clothes we wear. 

So, as you set out for your Ithakas, for the places you’ll go, I hope that you clothe yourselves with eulogy virtues – wisdom, courage, kindness.  Love.  Keep a faithful heart and your thoughts raised high.

I wish you good friends to share your marvellous journey; wisdom to find your purpose; resilience to deal with the wrong turns; love and hope to fuel the journey; and kindness to extend to all those you meet along the way.

And until we meet again, may God hold you ever in the palm of his hand.

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Words shared with our 175 Upper Sixth Leavers – and their parents – as they became Old Salopians on 2 July 2022.

Leo Winkley, Headmaster

Dear Ever-Changing Thing

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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

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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 Emma

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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 Camel – to the Class of 2021

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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 Minister for Exams

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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 School As We Disperse

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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)

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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

What’s the point of school?

These were some thoughts at the start of the new school year at St Peter’s in 2018.

This is a strange question for a Head Master to ask, perhaps – but: what is the point of school?

For the grown-ups in a school like mine, for the teaching and support staff, the school provides us with our jobs, our livelihoods, our vocations and a very significant part of our life’s purpose. Every teacher will have an answer to the question: what is the point of school?  But, what of the pupils? For the 571 pupils starting this new academic year at St Peter’s, what is the point of school?   I hope that the most immediate thoughts are things like these: to learn, to have fun, to make friends, to play, to get involved in all manner of activities.

Yet, the most obvious answer is that they’re in school because they have to be. All children have to be educated as a matter of law.  And it’s a matter of law because education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It is worth reminding ourselves of this blindingly obvious truth. Education empowers and liberates human beings.  This is a fact that we sometimes lose sight of in the Western world.  We can become rather blasé.  In emerging nations, there is an insatiable hunger for education as the route to a happy, independent life.

Parents in this country have a choice as to how they would like their children educated. They can choose for their children to be educated at home.   The vast majority of parents, however, choose to send their children to some version of the institution known as ‘school’.  In this country, most children attend a school that provides education free of charge – state education.  The remaining minority of parents make the choice to send their child to a fee-paying independent school.  Like St Peter’s.

Interestingly, the word ‘school’ derives from the Greek word ‘schole’, with the paradoxical meaning “leisure” or “free time”. When school was invented, it was about putting people into groups so that they could learn in their free time.  So, right at the start, we have the idea that school is about learning and about freedom.

The Revd. Dr Martin Luther King once gave a lecture entitled ‘The Purpose of Education’. Dr King summarised what he believed was the true goal of education in three words: “intelligence plus character“.  By that, I wonder if he meant that education is not only about filling young minds with knowledge and equipping them with a range of skills and aptitudes; but that it is also about developing the whole person; shaping and nurturing the values, the beliefs, the individual character of every child. “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” (WB Yeats).

It is, of course, hard to identify a single purpose to school. Everything is important.   Our academic learning is vital to grow our own individual intelligence to its full and varied potential, to experience the delight that comes from learning new things and acquiring new skills and, of course, to strive for the best possible outcomes in formal exams.  The certificates matter: they form the passports to the next stage.  But, just as my passport is not me – which is good news if your passport photo is anything like mine – the grades we achieve are not the full story; but they do provide the keys that open doors. With this in mind, it is terrific that this summer’s exam results at both A Level and GCSE have been very strong indeed.  This school can provide its pupils with the conditions for its pupils to achieve their own personal best in exams – with the right effort – to secure the passport.  But, this is not the true purpose of education.

As the new school year begins, perhaps more than any other day, we will all of us be feeling a heady mix of hopes and fears. We human beings are made up of a shifting flux of feelings, reactions, emotions, opinions, judgements.  We carry in us a finely tuned emotional dashboard – we all have to learn to manage that dashboard.  This self-management is the most important learning there is.  Through a good education, we learn how to manage our inner emotions; how to direct our attention purposefully; to look after our minds; to control and look after our bodies.

We need to learn how to behave. We have to develop the inter-personal skill-set, the habits and manners, of a fully rounded person.  Education is about becoming the best possible version of ourselves.  It is about becoming fully human.

Thus understood, our education never ends. It goes way beyond our school years.  The point of our school years is to set the pattern and lay the foundations of our lives.

A school is a community of individuals. Every individual matters.  We want each individual pupil to develop his or her own intelligence – to grow the mind – to develop wisdom and insight. We want you to enjoy physical activity, culture, the arts. We want each pupil to find ways to explore their spiritual self.  We want you to thrive on the friendship and shared enjoyment that comes from a vibrant communal life: in house, in teams, in group activities of all kinds.   We want each individual pupil to feel valued and respected for who they are; and to grow in confidence so that, when you come to the end of your school days, you can look backwards with gladness and look forwards with confidence.

School should be ‘serious fun’. School should be about enjoying our learning; facing the hurdles we have to jump; keeping a sense of perspective; being active; trying new things; playing a part in something bigger than your own individual self; growing and staying healthy in mind and body.  A great education should instil a balance of confidence blended with humility; independence tempered by a sense of social responsibility; individuality anchored in a deep sense of communal identity.

What’s the point of school? I think that the point of school is to begin the lifelong project of educating the mind, the body and the soul.  This is the all-round education I want to offer all the pupils in my school this year.