Dear Reputation

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Transylvania has a reputation. Literally the ‘land beyond the forest’, Transylvania is known for its beautiful countryside. The Carpathian Mountains arc majestically for over 900 miles from the north to the east of the country. The rural landscape is largely unchanged since medieval times. It’s like going back in time.

Not many will have visited Transylvania – as I recently did – but pretty much everyone has heard of it. The ‘Hotel Transylvania’ films may have done their bit, but Transylvania has long had a reputation. Mention Transylvania and the same things will come to mind. Castles; forests; wolves – and vampires. The legend of Count Dracula.

Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel, Dracula, first published in 1897, draws heavily on Transylvanian folklore. For example, there are many tales of the Strigoi, un-dead souls that rise from their graves and haunt the villages of Transylvania. The defence against them? Garlic and incense. Some scholars say that Dracula is part-inspired by King Vlad, who was ruler of Wallachia in the 15th Century. Arguably one of the cruellest rulers of all time – he was known as Vlad the Impaler – it’s easy to imagine how he earned his grim reputation.

125 years on from its publication, Bram Stoker’s Dracula enjoys a reputation as the archetypal horror novel.  Reading Dracula in Transylvania made me think about reputations – fictional and real.  How reputations are earned; shaped and carried through time; lost and recovered.  I’ve always felt rather uneasy with the word ‘reputation’: ‘beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something’. Just because a view is ‘generally held’ does it necessarily mean it’s true?  Surely a reputation depends on perspective: how much we know and where we are viewing things from?  Thirdly, a concern for reputation might make us suspicious that things are being done for appearance rather than out of sincerity.

But, like it or not, reputation is a reality.  Individuals have reputations.  Our digital reputations precede us like avatars.  The media shape our views of people and institutions.  Businesses and organisations invest in their reputations as they navigate change.  (We might look at what’s going on at Twitter as a current example).  Countries, and their leaders, have reputations; markets turn on perceptions.  In general, we do seem to care about reputation.  But should we?

Shakespeare cautions wariness on the matter of reputation, calling it “an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit; and lost without deserving”.  True, that a reputation that took 20 years to earn could be lost in a few minutes.  Remember Gerald Ratner?  However, it would be easy to find examples where reputation is lost unfairly; or indeed earned unjustly.  Because, to a great extent, our reputation exists in the minds and hands of others.   

More reassuringly, Abraham Lincoln observed that “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

The two are inseparably related. Interestingly, Count Dracula himself casts no shadow; his image does not appear in mirror. It is as though he has no true character. His reputation, however, travels before him. In the end – spoiler alert! – Dracula is defeated by a small group of brave individuals working together in the face of his fearful reputation.

The Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval, realize that you have compromised your own integrity.  If you need a witness, be your own”.  He went on to remark that “skilful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests’’.  Socrates advises that the “way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear”.  In other words, be good, be wise, be kind – and the reputation will follow. 

At a time of Remembrance, and in the week when we welcomed Poet Laureate Simon Armitage to School, it’s appropriate to call to mind the life and reputation of Sir Philip Sidney.  Poet, scholar, MP and soldier, Sidney earned his reputation.  A pupil at the School in the late 16th century, Sidney stands in statue form by the Moss Gates.  His statue casts its shadow on the War Memorial that carries the names of Salopians who gave their lives for their country.  

Sidney died leading his troops in the battle of Zutphen in 1586, aged 31.  The story goes that he took off his thigh armour on the grounds that it would be wrong to be better armoured than his men. As he lay injured on the battlefield, it is said that Sidney gave his water to another wounded soldier, saying: “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine“.  Sidney died of a wound to the thigh.  A model of virtue and character, he is an icon of what we would now call ‘whole person education’.    

Our School aim is to educate and empower young people to flourish as individuals and contribute positively to the world around them.  Our motto – ‘If right within, worry not’ – reminds us of the centrality of virtues above superficial perceptions.  The reputation we strive for day in day out, through the efforts of our pupils and staff, is the delivery of truly excellent whole person education. 

Posted 11 November 2022

Dear Independent State Education Partner

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A few months ago, I discovered the location app what3words. Many will be aware of this ingenious system for finding any 3 metre square location in the world, using a unique combination of three words for pin-point accurate directions. Clicking on the app a few days ago, I discovered some uncannily appropriate word trios for various locations around our site in Shrewsbury. The Bursary is near a square marked: ‘rewarding slim spends’. The door to the building where my leadership team is based is: ‘cool order landed’. And the Headmaster’s house? ‘Blend jobs stir’ – not a bad description of school leadership!

This is my thirteenth year as a Head.  I know my way around reasonably well by now, yet the job continues to delight, test and reward.  I’m in the right place: an inspiring setting, surrounded by interesting people, working with young people.  If you asked me to summarise the work I find the most profoundly rewarding – just three words – ‘partnerships’ would be in that trio.

When I was Head of St Peter’s School in York, I had the honour of chairing the City of York Independent State School Partnership. The collaborative programme offered a dazzling array of academic masterclasses, as well as twilight Latin and Astronomy GCSE, History of Art and Russian A Level – all provided free of charge for the children of the City of York. Teachers from each of the 11 partner schools (3 independent, 5 academies, 3 state comprehensive) came together to design courses and share CPD opportunities. We were a loosely structured federation, short on stodgy bureaucracy and constitutional guff, long on imagination and collective will to pool resources to extend opportunity together. Brilliantly led by a salaried project co-ordinator, paid from a collective kitty, the City of York ISSP soon became a model that was copied, adapted and improved in numerous other parts of the country.

In 2013, I gave evidence to the House of Commons Education Select Committee about what makes for successful cross-sector school to school collaboration.  Looking back, I was only just beginning to appreciate the power of partnerships.  A shared mission; proximity of location; openness to listen and learn together; the commitment of headteachers; starting with a clearly defined project and then scaling up and out.  The City of York ISSP thrived because trust between all the partners grew.  And because we were united around a desire to bring children together, from different walks of life, and give them experiences none of us could offer alone. https://yorkissp.org/

Moving to Shrewsbury in 2018, the word ‘partnerships’ was secure amongst my top three priorities.  The existing programme was good, with a unique century-old link with The Shewsy, our youth and community club in Liverpool.  Over the past 4 years, we have worked with 45 state schools, creating over 40 new partnerships across music, dance, sport, careers since 2019.  We were honoured to win a national award for Community Outreach and be named Independent School of the Year 2020.  Many of my colleagues are now Governors in state schools where they learn as much as they contribute.  In lots of settings, the pandemic reinvented, rather than halted, partnership work – the possibilities of online partnership are exciting.  But, getting people together in person is surely the best way.  

Working with dedicated advocates of partnership working on the Schools Together Group over several years, my overriding learning is simple: if you can get expert and passionate professionals in a room together, good things will happen. ‘Blend jobs stir’…  Opening the doors can be a challenge; even if the will is there, state school partners are unerringly busy contending with a range of issues, never more so than with current financial pressures.  The independent sector has plenty to think about too.  However, we simply must keep partnerships in our top three.

Most recently, alongside 24-7 boarding life of Shrewsbury, it has been an enormous professional pleasure to work with passionately committed state and independent sector colleagues to create a new cross-sector partnership charity: the School Partnerships Alliance (SPA). These three words carry game-changing potential for all who care about partnership work across schools. https://schoolpartnershipsalliance.org.uk/

With the strong support of the Department for Education, and the whole-hearted endorsement of the member associations and affiliates of ISC, not least HMC itself, SPA will support schools, and the education sector, in identifying and encouraging effective models of partnership working that benefit all types of schools and pupils.  This is important work that will help grow educational opportunities and joint working across education in the UK.  I hope that HMC member schools will champion this new charity loud and clear.

I am a passionate advocate of an ‘open system’ approach to education.  The increased pluralism of school models (academies, free schools, grammar schools etc) has broadened our educational minds and opened new doors.  It is a lazy, pernicious falsehood to claim that independent schools are self-interested bastions of privilege.  At our best, we are engines of excellence: and this excellence must be shared.  And there is much excellence in the state sector on which we can draw.  No independent school is the same and we each connect and pursue our partnership work in ways that work for us.  What is not in doubt is the absolute centrality of partnerships to our identity and purpose.  All HMC schools get this.

In HMC schools that are sincerely engaged in partnership work, it is not window-dressing; it is not superficial or tokenistic; nor is it patronising morsels ceremoniously proffered from the ‘rich man’s table’.   Proper partnership work comes from sincerely held values.  It flows from the understanding that this activity benefits our pupils and staff as much as those with whom we share.  Rather than obsessively digging at its roots, this vital aspect of the work of the independent education sector should be judged – and nurtured – for its fruits.

Finally, reverting to the typology of my newest technological discovery, how would I locate the spirit of partnership working in just three words?  It would be these three: ‘mutually beneficial collaboration’.  The Edinburgh Open Education Conference 2022 provided plenty of inspiration to extend opportunity and explore new territory in our commitment to independent and state school partnerships.    

This letter was published as an @hmc_org blog on 7 October 2022 to coincide with the Edinburgh Open Education Conference

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 2022

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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 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 Three-Dimensional Learner

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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 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

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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

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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

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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

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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 Video-Conferencing App beginning with Z

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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

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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 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

Dear Gerald

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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

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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 Gobbledegook

Plain Gobbledegook

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….

Against cynicism

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic”. Maya Angelou.

When he rose to speak at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23 of 1910, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt delivered a powerful call to action against the seeping cultural tragedy of cynicism, which, in his view, was a poison aimed at the heart of a just and democratic society.  Roosevelt, who served as the 26th president of the US, cautions against “that […] cheap temptation” to be cynical.  He said:

The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities — all these are marks, not […] of superiority but of weakness.”

One of the tendencies we might find most troubling in contemporary culture is that of mistaking cynicism for critical thinking.  This confusion seeds a pernicious strain of unconstructive and lazily destructive condemnation.  Amid this epidemic of self-appointed critics, it becomes harder and harder to remember just how right Bertrand Russell was when he asserted nearly a century ago that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.”

Cynics have a jaundiced view of life. They operate from the assumption that people are motivated purely by self-interest rather than acting for honourable or unselfish reasons.  They tend to assume that anything that appears to be well-meant and for the good of others, is corruption and selfishness dressed up to look pretty.  Cynics are suspicious of decision-makers; they seek to knock things down in the expectation of exposing their corrupt foundations.  They like to negate and destroy.

Now, you might well say that a drop of cynicism is a sensible homeopathic remedy against the abuse of power and the apparent madness of our times. History illustrates that, indeed, institutions and individuals can use their responsibilities and powers to evil ends.  In this way, the part-time cynic might say that she protects herself from the abuse of power.  However, I would like to suggest that cynicism as a default setting is as imprisoning as the abusive use of power and self-interest.  It is also a lazy non-participative attitude.

Roosevelt concludes:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat…”

Powerful stuff indeed.  Yes, as the modern world spins with shape-shifting complexity, the appeal of making a retreat into self-protective cynicism may be increasingly tempting.

In her excellent book, How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran, regular columnist in The Times newspaper, writes against succumbing to the temptation to recline into lazy cynicism:

When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas. Cynicism means your automatic answer becomes “No.” Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment.

And this is, ultimately, why anyone becomes cynical. Because they are scared of disappointment. Because they are scared someone will take advantage of them. Because they are fearful their innocence will be used against them — that when they run around gleefully trying to cram the whole world in their mouth, someone will try to poison them.”

Ok – you do have to be a bit savvy; a bit street-wise. Not every individual is trustworthy; not every organisation is benevolent.  But, the default must surely remain with optimism.

This place, this school, is the least cynical place I’ve ever worked. You are the least cynical children I’ve ever worked with.  Ok, there can be the odd rolling of eyes; the occasional sideways glance – but I forgive you that – you’re teenagers after all! (He said, patronisingly).

And for the very most part, you raise your concerns and express your voices in a constructive spirit. See, for example, the work of the School Council, as I did yesterday, and you can admire a blend of open discussion and reasoned challenge.  You don’t have to be cynical to change things.

The staff here are the least cynical I have ever worked with. Even the longer in the tooth rarely grumble, and if so it’s mostly about sensible things.  On the whole, this is because our School encourages a constructive approach to life.  That it is better to get stuck in, than to stand on the side-lines and comment; that it is better to participate than be a spectator; that you get more out if you put more in.  That it’s easy to sit in the armchair and poke fun at others; but much harder and more rewarding to get up and do something.  That it is the creators, the optimists, the constructors, who make a difference.  That nobody ever put up a monument to a critic; and, when it comes down to it, nobody likes a smart-arse.

We must be on guard against the pernicious laziness of cynicism. Here’s to positive engagement; true critical thinking; making change happen from the inside.

 

 

[Source credit for inspiration and excerpts in italics: http://www.brainpickings.org – Theodore Roosevelt on the Cowardice of Cynicism (Accessed 8.5.2018)]

Hope as a call to action

The turn of the year can precipitate a curious compound of hope and despair.  We look back at the year gone by and review the events of our own lives, as well as those of our family and friends, and the wider world.  We might ask ourselves whether it has been a good year – for us, for our friends and family.  We might ask whether the world got a little bit better during 2017.  We might wonder whether it got a little bit worse.  Are there reasonable grounds for hope that we are always moving to a better, fairer, kinder global human community?  Or, is there more persuasive evidence that human-kind is becoming a more confused, desperate and disparate family.  

How would we measure out a response to such a question?  It might be that it comes down to our own individual temperament and outlook:  how we choose to see the world.  As one thinker remarked:  “There is no such thing as a view from nowhere”.  In other words, we all view the facts and events of our lives, the happenings in the world, though our own individual lenses.  It may be that those who see reasonable grounds for hope are, temperamentally, more hopeful, more optimistic people.  And those who see reasonable grounds for despair are inclined to see the world from a gloomier, pessimistic – they might say realistic – perspective. The old half-full, half-empty binary.

Hope, allegedly, springs eternal.  (As an Arsenal Fan I can testify to this).  This observation may say something about human beings; it may provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to live life in hope and feel oft-let-down; or whether a shrewder tactic is to reconcile oneself to disappointment and then be pleasantly surprised when things turn out well. 

To my mind, it is not just desirable, but actually our duty, to live in hope.  Hope is not a matter of outlook – a kind of wistful, fingers-crossed, ignore-the-bad-bits dreamland.  Hope faces the hard realities of life and tries to address them.  Hope is not wishful-thinking: it is a call to action.

But, how would a hopeful person answer this question: is the world a better place at the end of 2017 than it was at the start?  We might start by citing all the many very real horrors, tragedies, brutalities, disappointments, disasters and apparently chaotic turns of events.  We would soon find that we have stacked up a powerful body of evidence to suggest that 2017 was a bad year, maybe even a mad year.  And all this evidence might justifiably lend weight to the view that human civilisation is going in the wrong direction. 

I can see that.  I would not try for one second to downplay the depth and breadth of suffering – some of it born of random chance, much of it carried out through human agency.  However, perhaps because I am a hopeful soul, I find myself looking back to the many good things that occurred in the last 12 months.  I find myself thinking of the countless kind and noble acts carried out by human beings; acts of compassion, generosity, friendship.  The daily good news stories that don’t often dominate, or even penetrate, the news media.  These acts were born of the same human free will that also proved capable of wickedness and depravity.

But, is my optimistic view justified?  What evidence is there that the world got a bit better last year?  Well, my mum, who is also an optimist, shared with me a list, published by Future Crunch, of 99 global reasons to celebrate progress in 2017.

They include the following:

          In 2017, the hole in the ozone layer shrunk to its smallest size since 1988

          The World Health Organisation unveiled a new vaccine that’s cheap and effective enough to end cholera, one of humanity’s greatest ever killers.

          In 2017, the United KingdomFrance and Finland all agreed to ban the sale of any new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040

          In the United States’, the official poverty rate reached 12.7%, the lowest level since the end of the global financial crisis.

          On International Women’s Day 2017, Iceland became the first country in the world to make equal pay compulsory by law.

          Women now occupy 23% of parliamentary seats around the world, up from 12% in 1997.

There 93 other reasons to be cheerful in this list.  The 99 positive facts suggest progress – or at least the gradual putting right of wrongs.  Many are, of course, the flip side of deep and long-running negatives – they show progress towards – rather than arrival at – a worthy and ideal destination.  A destination at which each living being, and indeed the planet itself, is treated with respect and given the opportunity to thrive.  Behind these facts, and alongside the reality of the very many negative events of the past 12 months, there is the hard truth to face: that the world remains an intensely divided, brutal, imbalanced and unfair place.   

We can face this fact with despair; we can ignore this fact and immerse ourselves in comfortable self-interest; or we can pledge to do our bit, in hope.

There are, I believe, (and hoping not to sound trite), reasons to be cheerful.  Easy to say, perhaps, in our comfy corner of the world.  However, I would still like to believe that the turn of the year is a moment of profound hope and opportunity.  And, a time at which we can remind ourselves of a daily call to action.  That is, a call to action, born of hope, that we can, in our individual lives and in our daily actions, make the world a better place. 

International day of the girl

Benazir Bhutto was a Pakistani politician who served as prime minister of Pakistan from 1988-1990 and again from 1993-1996. She was the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation.  Ideologically liberal, and a secularist, she was a controversial figure in Pakistan, feared and revered in equal measure for her modernising views and charismatic leadership.

Bhutto’s political life is far too complex to do justice to in just a few minutes, dogged as it was by controversy and accusations of bribery, nepotism and corruption; Bhutto was ousted from power through a rigged election. After a period of time in opposition, she came to power again.  Although her efforts at reform and liberalisation were thwarted, her name was synonymous with democracy and she became a global icon of women’s rights.  Bhutto was respected in the west as a stateswoman of global reach and significance.

After losing elections in 1997 and 1998, Bhutto went into self-exile in Dubai from whence she continued to lead her party through proxies. She returned to Pakistan in 2007 to contest the 2008 elections.  She knew well her return to Pakistan put her own life at risk.  Bhutto was assassinated in a suicide bomb attack in Rawalpindi.  Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, although the Pakistani Taliban were widely suspected as being behind the attack that ended her life at the age of 54.

Spool forward half a decade. On the 9th October 2012, Malala Yousafsai was climbing onto a bus in Taliban-ruled North Western Pakistan.  She was 14 years old.  As she boarded the bus, a gunman appeared, asked for her by name, and shot her in the head.  She was left for dead.  Miraculously, however, Malala survived the attack.  She and her family were flown over to the UK and settled in Birmingham.  The reason for the attack, for which the hard-line Taliban claimed responsibility, was an open diary that Malala has been writing and publishing, under a pen name, arguing and campaigning for the rights of women and, in particular, for the right for girls to receive an education.

The story of her recovery – from delicate surgery at a Pakistani military hospital to further operations and rehabilitation in the UK, was widely covered in the media. Malala was discharged from hospital in January 2013 and her life now is unimaginably different to anything she may have envisaged when she was an anonymous voice chronicling the fears of schoolgirls under the shadow of the Taliban.

Malala has become an international symbol for, and advocate of, the fight to improve girls’ literacy around the world. She is iconic of the power of human will to overcome brutality and marginalisation.  In 2014, Malala became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  This year she was made the youngest ever UN Messenger of Peace.

Earlier this week, exactly 5 years to the day that she was shot, Malala began a course in PPE at Oxford University. She is at Lady Margaret Hall, the same college that Benazir Bhutto had attended, and following the very same course.  In Bhutto’s day it was an all-women college (as it was when my mother was there); in Malala’s, it is a mixed college (as it was when I was at the same college): co-education has become very much the norm in our part of the world.

Indeed, we live in a part of the world where the idea of equal access to education is taken as read; a given. Lucky us.  The world still has a long way to go, even in our supposedly enlightened times, before we have a society where girls and women enjoy equality and fairness.

A BBC article published on 10th October listed the 10 toughest places in the world for girls’ education.  9 of the 10 countries listed are in Africa.  In the Central African Republic there is one teacher for every 80 pupil; in Niger only 17% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate.  Only 1 in a 100 girls Burkina Faso completes secondary school.  In Ethiopia, over 40% of girls are married before the age of 18 – this applies across all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Yesterday (11th October) was international day of the girl.  And with over 130 million girls still out of school, the global campaign for the right of access to schooling and education for girls is as urgent as ever.  Icons such as Malala, following in the footsteps of her own hero Benazir Bhutto, can influence and draw attention to the host of issues that affect girls and women across the world: poverty, disempowerment, lack of education, sexual and physical abuse.

Who knows what things Malala will go on to achieve in her life? Because she has been exceptionally brave; because she has been exceptionally fortunate to escape an attempt on her life; because she is using her extraordinary voice to change the world; and because she knows the liberating power of a good education.

Handedness and points of difference

Studies suggest that 90% of the global human population is right-handed and 10% left-handed. This means there are about 60 left-handers in this room.  A minority group. If you are left-handed you are – well – a bit different.

It turns out that men are more likely to express a strongly dominant left hand than women. If you are a Muppet, however, it’s almost certain that you’ll be left-handed.  This is because a right-handed puppeteer (and we can assume that about 90% of puppeteers are right-handed) – they will use their right hand to articulate the puppet’s head, and the left to move the arm-rod.  So, in the world of Muppets, and other hand-puppets, it is the right-handed Muppet that is the minority animal.

Simpsons fans will have noticed that Bart Simpson– and indeed Ned Flanders – are both lefties. This may be a function of the fact that the creator of the Simpsons is left-handed – as was Jim Henson, who invented the Muppets.

Yet, despite the common terminology of “left-handed” or “right-handed”, the distinction is less than absolute. Some of us are more ‘handed’ than others.  We are in effect dotted along a continuum between strong left and strong right.  In between these extremes lie various degrees of mixed-handedness and ambidexterity.  Some of us will prefer the left for certain tasks but not others – we might write with our left hand but play tennis with our right, for example.

Interactive sports such as table tennis, badminton, cricket, and tennis have an over-representation of left-handedness. In cricket, for example, around 1 in 5 on the all-time list of international male cricketers bat left handed.

The smaller the physical distance between participants, the greater the number of lefties. In fencing, for example, it seems that about half the participants are left-handed.  Plenty of boxers are ‘southpaws’. Meanwhile, in non-interactive sports, such as swimming, we see no over-representation of left-handers.  It’s not a relevant factor.

Handedness is something of an evolutionary mystery. One of the earliest theories proposed that handedness in humans was originally evenly distributed, but hand-to-hand battle in the ancient world killed off the lefties because they held the sword with their left hand and the shield in their right, thus leaving the heart much less protected than for righties, who held the shield on the left. As the lefties perished on the battlefield, so did their genes.

A later theory proposed pretty much the opposite — that left-handedness gave warriors a competitive advantage “for much the same reason left-handed tennis players, boxers, or fencers have an advantage.”

In a book called ‘Right Shift Theory [1985], Marian Annett observes that animals have roughly 50-50 split between righties and lefties. Your domestic dog, cat, rat or rabbit has a pretty much even chance of being left or right pawed.  But, for humanity the distribution of preference and performance is dramatically shifted to the right.  Why?  This human bias was triggered, says Annett, by a shift to the left hemisphere of the brain for certain cognitive functions, most likely speech. . . .   The development of complex speech has led to right-hand dominance.

It was once hypothesized that the cultural link between left-handedness and negativity arose due to the left hand’s use for hygiene purposes in non-industrialized countries – that is, wiping your bottom. However, the association has much deeper roots, including the very etymology of the word “left”, which derives from the Anglo-Saxon lyft which means ‘weak’ or ‘broken’.

Even modern dictionaries include such meanings for left as “awkward,” “clumsy,” “inept,” and “maladroit,” the latter one borrowed from French, translated literally as “bad right.” Most definitions of left reduce to an image of doubtful sincerity and clumsiness, and the Latin word for left, sinister, is a well-known negative connotation.  There are many references to God’s right hand – not so many – in fact none that I could find – to God’s left hand.

This tells us a little about the cultural bias that has existed around handedness.  It is not all that long ago in this part of the world that, if a child showed left-hand preference, she was educated (that is, forced) to use the right hand.  I can remember a boy in my class at school called Stuart.  He had terrible hand-writing – a tiny, spidery drawl across the page that often meant his teachers got frustrated at marking his work.  The reason?  He preferred to write with his left hand but his mother was very superstitious, associating left-handedness with negative forces.  It was she who insisted that Stuart learned to write with his non-dominant right hand.  Don’t worry, he’s now a very successful businessman.  And a good touch-typist.

Why talk about left-handedness? Well, it’s a point of difference.  And, I’d like to suggest, that difference is good.  We should not only tolerate and respect difference – we should celebrate it – loudly!  What a tedious and sterile world it would be if we were all right-handed; all good at the same things; all interested in the same things; held the same views; wore the same clothes.

I’m not saying it’s cool to be left-handed, any more than it’s cool to be right-handed. In fact, often we don’t even notice.  A person is a collection of features which, when all added up, amount to something unique.  What’s cool is authenticity – being who you are and letting others be who they are.

So here’s to lefties. Here’s to the leftie in all of us – even us common old righties.  Here’s to all our many points of difference.

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.

‘Dear Mum and Dad’. On being fully present.

Dear Mum and Dad

Please don’t worry too much about what you might have heard about the fire at school. We’re all fine. And it was quite exciting with all the fire engines and confusion.

I did break my leg jumping out of the second floor window but the school nurse was very nice and the hospital is so close by, it wasn’t too painful walking there. They put a cast on after a few hours waiting and I’m fine now. The doctor said I should be back on games in a year or so.

My new boyfriend Jerry has been a great help. He’s one of the hospital porters and is previously married with two tiny children who are just lovely. So cute. He’s very keen to bring them down to meet the rest of our family before we make any further plans. I know you’ll like him.

I’d better go now – my room-mate Sally has made some friends from outside of school and we’re meeting them in the supermarket car park down the road. They sound really interesting.

I’ll call soon – hope you’re all well and the dog isn’t missing me too much.

Lots of love.

Becky.

PS.

None of the above is true.

What is true is that I think I’ve failed my English exam.

I just wanted you to keep a sense of proportion.

This letter, and versions of it, have been doing the rounds for a few years now. It’s a neat way of raising the question of how we keep things in perspective in our daily lives; how we maintain a healthy sense of proportion.

Parents want certain things for their children; we all have our goals, ambitions, and hopes. Each one of us lives with personal fears and none of us is free from problems. The very fact of being alive – that stuff happens to us as well as because of us – means that with the smooth comes the rough. You cannot have one without the other.

The fact is: everything matters. Details matter. The daily events and challenges, the problems and their solutions, these are the stuff of our daily existence. Under-performing in an exam is not what any of us want; failure matters. And, particularly in the happy absence of greater threats and worries, this is a big deal. The worries of tomorrow do have to be met. We should not respond by drifting off into a comforting netherworld of reassuring psychobabble or bury ourselves in distractions, worthy or otherwise. Nor is it productive to beat ourselves up mercilessly over our failures.

Each of us experiences different doses of rough and smooth through our lifetimes. There are common experiences – exam or interview nerves, pain, bereavement – but there is no sense that these are evenly distributed (far from it), nor that we each feel these human experiences in the same way. We hear news every day of fellow human beings far worse off than ourselves; people who would rightly be staggered at the smallness of our worries compared to relentless and fundamental sufferings that others endure day by day. And yet, for me at least, I’ve never found the point that there are plenty people worse off than me to be of that much comfort; nor that it could have been much worse if things had happened a little differently.

So, how might we get relief (if you’ll pardon the pun) from life’s ups and downs? How can we retain a healthy sense of perspective? Lots of wise things have been said by thinkers and writers over the ages on the question of staying happiness and wellbeing. In these rather gloomy January days, such questions may be even more pressing than in the lighter days of summer.

Some suggest that it is about taking time to step back from, perhaps to hover above, our problems. This elevation then gives the chance to consider the issue in the broader sweep of our lives. What looks like a big bump when viewed up close, diminishes when we widen the lens of perception. It’s still there, and needs to be clambered over, but when we then descend back to the present issue, we may feel it is less imposing.

A second suggestion is to lose ourselves for some time, and regularly, in the concerns of others. We tend to get mired in our own problems, turning inward and growing depressed and frustrated. Finding ways to serve and help others makes us feel better. Extending ourselves to others helps recalibrate our settings and refreshes our perspective.

Alan Watts, a British philosopher whose birthday it was yesterday, argued that the heart of the issue of perspective is to do with our desire for security and certainty. In his 1951 book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, he suggests that we misguidedly pursue certainty; but this is not an achievable aim. It also keeps us oscillating between an unsatisfying view of past and an insecure view of the future – neither of which provide a sense of wellbeing. As such, he says, we need to accept the fluid and unpredictable nature of things. Watts goes on to say that we are at our happiest when we are fully immersed in the present – rather than dwelling on the past or agonising about what lies ahead. We can take control of certain things (the revision for the English exam); other things happen to us (fires, floods, illness). But the thing which we can always reliably control is our attention to the present moment.

Watts wants us to put our full effort into the here and now. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the future and respect and treasure the past. We each exist on a timeline and we do need to prepare for what lies further up the line. Rather, he suggests that the current moment is where our default setting should be. Being fully present – being concentrated on the task at hand – these are the times when we are most productive. When we are painting, or playing hockey, or solving a maths equation, or playing the oboe – we are not thinking, ‘I am playing the oboe’ or ‘i am solving this quadratic equation.’ We are what we are doing.

So, the third suggestion is that we should endeavour to be fully present in what we are doing. We should maximise the amount of our time we spend in this mode of full absorption. This is the state in which we are happiest; when the issue of proportion does not trouble us. And at the other times, the good and the not so good, when we stand back and take stock of the landscape of our lives, we need to keep a healthy sense of perspective. And, having taken a good look, we need to get back to the task at hand with our fullest and best attention.

Creating a happier world: The Dalai Lama @actionforhappiness

A long-held dream of mine is to meet the Dalai Lama. I have yet to realise it. Not fully anyway.

But, on Monday 21st September, World Peace Day, I was in the same room as him for two hours – along with 2,000 other people. The ‘Creating A Happier World’ event was held by Action For Happiness and top of a remarkable bill (including almost all of the leading names in the happiness movement) was the Dalai Lama.

The term ‘Dalai Lama’ means ‘ocean of wisdom’. He is the spiritual leader of Tibet – and was once the political leader too. Tibet no longer exists. Most (though not quite all) Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of the Bodhisattva avalokiteshvara – god of compassion. A bodhisattva chooses to reborn, rather than escape the cycle of life (samsara), because of a deep compassion for all beings.

How did they identify Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, as the reincarnation? When the 13th died, he left indications of where he might be reborn, which triggered a search –The search party looked for signs: in dreams; in the direction of smoke emanating from the cremation of the 13th Dalai Lama; in visions seem in the holy lake, Lhamo Lhatso, in central Tibet.

Once they have identified the right area, they search to find boys born in right time frame; they present a number of artefacts which they have brought with them in preparation, to the child. Amongst these artefacts are a number of items that belonged to the deceased Dalai Lama. If the boy chooses the items that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, this is seen as a sign, in conjunction with all of the other indications, that the boy is a reincarnation.

It took them 4 years to find Tenzin Gyatso. And the 14th Dalai Lama may be the final Dalai Lama. He has expressed doubts as to whether he will be reborn.

It is the effect of his life’s work that is of most profound interest to me. The Dalia Lama was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his non-violent position on the invasion of his former country; and for his unique brand of active compassion. His face, his image, is a near-universal icon of compassion and humanity.

It was moving to spend two hours in his presence; to listen to a being whose education, honed in the Tibetan monastic tradition from the age of 6, is rich and complex, and yet whose message is disarmingly simple.

It was hard to do anything other than listen, spellbound – but a few notes made it into my journal:

  • The power of a smile – how he entered the room of 2,000 people and someone managed to smile at each of the people gathered. “I lost my country. So I think, wherever people show me a smile: that is my country.”
  • His views of western education – “not adequate” – too much focus on exams not enough on the inner life
  • The value of moments of stillness – good for your own individual self; good for the happiness of others
  • That “most of our problems are because of old conception of ‘we and they’”– instead, we should emphasise connectedness and interdependence rather than differentness and distinctions
  • “Money [has] no ability to provide inner peace.”
  • “Material value [has] no possibility to provide us inner peace; only [the] compassionate mind is the only way to reduce anxiety and stress.”
  • “A compassionate heart is very important for our health.”
  • That we should be concerned with the happiness of others – and do something about it:
  • “If you want [a] better world, you have to work.”
  • “My responsibility is to talk – blah blah blah; you are implementing.
  • Encourage schools as communities to make a difference to the happiness of others

Two hours of intense listening to the gentle, loving, often playful wisdom of the Dalai Lama; two hours observing the simple power of human warmth from a being who may, or may not, be an enlightened reincarnation; two hours to reflect on the impact of compassion and how, in our own individual ways, we can create a happier world.

The Dalia Lama offered simple, universal, positive truths that transcend religious contexts. He is revered and respected – and loved – the world over not because of any notion of status but because of his extraordinary power to spread a message of compassion and empower others to create a happier world.

“Now – implement, implement, implement”.

Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing – Prof Tanya Byron inspires and encourages St Peter’s York staff

“Kids should understand their brains; they should understand their whole bodies”.

So said Professor Tanya Byron, consultant clinical psychologist, as she gave an interactive presentation to the teaching and support staff at St Peter’s School, 3-18, the week before the pupils returned for the new academic year.

Professor Byron is a well-known broadcaster and columnist specialising in children’s mental health.   It turns out that she has a soft spot for York, having studied as an undergraduate at York University. So, despite her crammed diary, we were lucky in tempting her up to St Peter’s for an afternoon to talk to our teaching and support staff.

Tanya combines expert knowledge with unstuffy directness and a winning ability to take the stigma out of some very complex mental health issues. Despite the serious nature of her subject, her explanations are gloriously free from clinical pomposity; she connects brilliantly with people and she is not afraid to make jokes – particularly at her own expense. A published author, whose expert opinion is sought on myriad facets of parenting, Professor Byron told her audience that her children have promised her they will write a book on her. The working title? “Great with other people’s kids; sh*t with her own”.

Yes, she’s a straight-talking Professor. Disarmingly honest, likely to call a spade a spade (this goes down well in Yorkshire), Professor Byron encouraged colleagues working across the age range, from Nursery to Sixth Form, to talk openly about mental health concerns. Her talk addressed the psychology behind a wide range of issues and she went on to share various ideas on how to begin to address anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders.

In her talk, Professor Byron described the children of 21st century Britain as “the most emotionally articulate generation of all” who are “better at asking for help” than any before. This is the good news – because the mental health issues they are facing are greater than ever before. “We need to understand the psychology of anxiety”, said Professor Byron, explaining that 75% of individual mental health issues will manifest when a person is between the ages of 14 and 23. She described the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) as being “in absolute crisis” and urged schools – particularly those with strong pastoral care such as independent boarding schools – to lead the way in preventing and managing mental health issues in the young.

In a balanced message, Professor Byron also warned against the “ridiculous over-protectiveness of our children” of which some parents are guilty, citing the effect that a risk-averse society has on children who “don’t know how to fail” and “lack emotional resilience”. She urged schools to encourage risk-taking (within sensible limits). “What child in their right mind is going to want to climb a tree that has been deemed safe?”, she quipped, and went on to celebrate the value of boredom – “It grows your imagination” – and the perils of over-praising children.

In just short of 90 minutes, Professor Byron gave us a “decatastrophised” but urgent message that the mental wellbeing of our children should be high up every school and every parent’s list of things to talk about – and that we need to get busy doing something about it.

Professor Tanya Byron spoke to 200 staff at St Peter's 3-18 on children's mental health

Professor Tanya Byron spoke to 200 staff at St Peter’s 3-18 on children’s mental health

Connecting for Happiness. Thoughts on International Happiness Day, the Eclipse and Comic Relief

Connecting for Happiness

Yesterday the sun was obscured by the moon, the temperature dropped noticeably and the daylight turned to twilight at 9.34 in the morning of what was International Day of Happiness.  As a school, we were all out, with the help of York Astronomical Society, safely viewing and enjoying the passage of the moon in front of the sun.  It was a great communal event, and a wonderful thing to happen on a day of happiness that focused this year on connecting with others.

International Happiness Day came exactly a week on from Red Nose Day 2015, which we celebrated heartily at my school, St Peter’s 3-18, with our biennial fancy dress day.  Comic Relief is a wonderful cause: it fuels – as well as exemplifies – the sense of community that exists in a thriving school.  It is also a moment when the sense of internal community is completely in step with the community at large, indeed the national community.

Comic Relief is a great fund raiser and a great connector.  Whilst it is a day of laughter and legitimised silliness, its mission addresses squarely the fact that we live in a world where not everyone enjoys the same life chances; not everyone has the same opportunities to live happy lives.  Red Nose Day is also, founded on the simple and profound truth that laughter is part of our common humanity.  Laughter is a great connector.  And happiness is something that can be grown.  Sure, it doesn’t and can’t solve all the world’s problems.  But growing happiness actively and concertedly can help.

I spoke to the pupils about international Day of Happiness, suggesting that an awareness day doesn’t imply that everyone has to be happy that day; neither does it imply that happiness can be manufactured.  It doesn’t imply that every other day of the year is for unhappiness.  Rather, it’s a day to raise awareness that as individuals, with our good will and proper attention, can make a difference to the happiness of those around us, and therefore to our own.

The more cynically-minded may suspect such positivist occasions as being naïve and feeble – mere candles held out in the stormy night.  I would say simply that happiness is about action.  And action is what brings change.

As the Action For Happiness movement argues: “After years of happiness research, one thing has proved fundamental – the importance of our connections with other people.  Yet modern societies are built as if the opposite was true. We are surrounded by people, yet we feel genuinely connected to almost none of them. The effects are devastating.  Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking; and the epidemic of loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity. We could change this in a day if we all reached out and made at least one positive connection. The best place to start is with our own daily actions. Here are five simple but proven things that, according to Action For Happiness, we can all do to help create a happier and more connected world:

  1. Do something kind for others

What goes around comes around – and with kindness it really does. Research shows that being kind to others increases our  own levels of happiness as well as theirs. What’s more it has a knock-on effect – kindness is contagious, so it makes our communities nicer places to be.

  1. Volunteer your time, energy and skills

Whether it’s a one-off or something you do on a regular basis, volunteering is good all round. As well as making a positive contribution to the happiness of others, it’s a great way to meet people, get the most out of your local area and to increase your own happiness and wellbeing.

  1. Get to know your neighbours better

Getting to know the people who live nearby helps create a sense of belonging and shared identity in our local area. It also helps to strengthen connections and trust in our wider communities and contributes to a happier neighbourhood for everyone.

  1. Understand each other’s needs

Good communication is at the heart of happy relationships of all kinds. It’s about understanding others’ needs and having our needs heard. And it’s a skill that can be learned that will help deepen our connections with the people around us.

  1. Look for the good in those around you

It’s easy to take our nearest and dearest for granted. Constant criticism can be highly destructive, but we often fall into this trap, especially in established relationships. But if we take time to bring to mind what we value and appreciate about others, we can both get more enjoyment from our time together

Schools are in the lucky position of being close, day-to-day communities where you can see the immediate effect of actions, and where the words we use can change the way we behave.  Every day gives us a chance to grow happiness around us and inside ourselves.

@actionforhappiness @yorkastro