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 Wanderer

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

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

How to wander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wondering wandering of a parent

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

Robin Robertson in ‘Swithering’

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

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

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

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

Fancy racing off like that?

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

Third Form Race 2021

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

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

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

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

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

And it is a wander, dear wanderer. 

It is a wander.


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

Leo Winkley: Letters From Shrewsbury

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Dear Gareth

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Written on the day of the Euro 2020 Final, 11 July 2021

I remember when we met in 2017. You kindly joined the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) Conference in York when I was Chair of the BSA. We did an ‘In Conversation’ session in front of an audience of boarding school headteachers. You took questions from the floor. You gave us 90 minutes of your time. Then you went to visit Martin House – the children’s hospice where my wife worked at the time – and spent the rest of the day with the families and staff there. You did it all for no fee and with the utmost of respect and attention to all those you met.

When we were ‘In Conversation’, you did not know that a journalist had found his way into the audience. You had spoken with candour and honesty about your own experiences of adversity; your insights into leadership; your sense that schools and football clubs have a lot in common. You spoke about mental health and the need to speak out and encourage dialogue, especially amongst boys and men. The reporter focused on your answer to a stray question about whether young footballers were paid too much. I’m still sorry today that we let that happen. You were noble in making light of it. However, I knew it had caused unwelcome noise. You rose above it. And your words had the insulating effect of integrity. And truth.

Thousands upon thousands of people have a Dear Gareth story. You have become an icon of leadership; a national treasure; a hero. The values you showed on that day in York have been on display, with unerring reliability, in recent months. No wonder so much has been written and said about you. Your virtues have been written large in the media. And rightly celebrated. Humility, integrity, honesty, compassion, care, endeavour, courage, spirit. The authenticity of your answers on that day in May 2017 was merely a snapshot. 90 minutes that showed the authenticity by which you live and work.

I’d like to add my letter to the pile, the mountain, of praise and appreciation. Not so much for what you have achieved – though your accomplishments are remarkable, proud and historic. This letter adds to the billions of words of admiration for the way you have gone about your work. The way you have lead; the values you have communicated; the template you have set for others; and the players you have inspired to be athletes on the pitch and activists off it.

This letter is written on the day of the final of the Euro 2020 competition. You have led the national men’s football team to a first major final since 1966. I don’t know who wins. I don’t know if it’s coming home…

What’s come home to me – as I have followed and admired your leadership, your work ethic and your communication – is the mighty power of sincerity. Whatever the result, these qualities (and many other things besides) make you a winner.

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

LFS23

Dear 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 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 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”.

Older People: thoughts on living longer

One day a year, it’s international ‘older people’s day’.  An interesting – and presumably deliberate – choice of words to talk of ‘older people’, rather than ‘old people’ or ‘the elderly’. This turn of language prompts some questions about what we mean by ‘older’. What is ‘older’? Who are these ‘older people’?

Of course, we’re all ‘older’ – you and I are all older than we were yesterday. And we will keep being older all our lives – presumably until the point where we are simply ‘old’: the point when the relative becomes absolute.

Older People’s Day is about raising awareness of the issues related to ageing. It aims to be a day to ‘respond to the opportunities and challenges of population ageing in the 21st century and to promote the development of a society for all ages’. (OPD Website)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declares that: “Most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of ‘elderly’ or older person, but like many westernized concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa. While this definition is somewhat arbitrary, it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin to receive pension benefits. At the moment, there is no United Nations standard numerical criterion, but the UN agreed cutoff is 60+ years to refer to the older population.

Although there are commonly used definitions of old age, there is no general agreement on the age at which a person becomes old. The common use of a calendar age to mark the threshold of old age assumes equivalence with biological age, yet at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not necessarily synonymous.”

In other words, the term ‘older’ is relative to where in the world we are born and where we live and the kind of life opportunities open to us.  These are the conditions of birth that drive our life expectancy.  WHO use 50 to mean ‘older’ in global terms.

Respect for one’s elders used to be a given in pretty much every culture. This may have brought with it some rather brutal or disparaging attitudes to the young. The Victorian approach to children being visible but inaudible (‘seen and not heard’), for example, indicated a clear age-based hierarchy. But, it also brought a healthy regard for those of mature years.  This is less so now. Arguably, the young and vigorous attract respect; the ‘older’ and less vital are often viewed as a burden; a problem; or just out of touch.

We have an increasingly top-heavy population. The ‘younger’ have a growing duty to carry the ‘older’. And this duty is increasing. How much carrying will our children and grandchildren have to do? How much tax and NI will we have to pay to support the NHS and state pensions? How long will you have to work before you can retire? Will the notion of retirement disappear altogether?

Living beyond 100 will become the norm in your children’s generation, according to projections from the ONS. Within two decades, the average (that’s the average) life expectancy of a new born girl in UK will be 97 years and 4 months. Baby boys born in 2037 should expect to live, on average, to the age of 94. By 2057, the average life expectancy for a female will be 100. Average. You could consider yourself unlucky not to reach 100. For boys, that mark will be reach in 2080, according to the ONS.

The key, though, is not just life expectancy but healthy life expectancy. That is, being ‘older’ and yet being independent, healthy, mobile etc. Not just being alive but being able to live. This is increasing at a lesser rate. In other words, the old will become more and more dependent on the young. For longer.

We might feel that, being ‘younger’, these issues are not relevant. Older People Day might prompt us to reach out more to the ‘older’ population. Or it might, out of pure self-interest, spark a realization that the decisions, policies and attitudes that we promote and allow in our youth, will come back to affect us in our old age. When it comes to getting older, we will reap what we sow. And the reaping season will be longer than the sowing season.

So, thinking about older people, and issues to do with ageing, is in all of our interest.

Tristram Hunt is mostly wrong

The Shadow Education secretary has finally emerged from the shadows and released the most depressingly predictable salvo against the independent education sector. Once again we hear the language of combat (“class war”) and the trench-lines are drawn by the very politicians who should be creating a climate of positive engagement. Is this sort of old-style blunderbuss polemic really the best way to ‘force’ independent schools to engage in partnership? Is Mr Hunt aware of the fact that almost all private schools are already working hard on partnerships, resource-sharing and constructive cross-sector dialogue?

As Mr Hunt is privately educated himself it cannot be the politics of envy. Rather, he has ill-advisedly adopted the politics of the battlefield. His belligerent rhetoric is no more than ill-informed propaganda aimed at breeding mistrust. How can partnerships thrive in such an angry climate is cultivated from the top? We will never ensure the best possible provision for 100% of our children if our politicians keep firing missiles at those 7% in fee-paying schools.

He’s right to care about partnerships. We care about partnerships in York. The DfE has just awarded us £20,000 to develop a Maths Primary Partnership. This builds on the huge and growing success of the York ISSP @YorkISSP which has been running and thriving since 2007. He seems to have overlooked the good that is going on; and missed the opportunity to change the tone of the conversation across the sectors. What a shame he felt he had to go into such an ominous and sabre-rattling mode.

Mr Hunt should return to the shadows, get himself better informed and come into the light of day with something positive and new to say. Back to the shadows.

The map and the territory: avoiding educational Sat Nav

In my car we have a battered old map from 2006.  I really should get a new one.  Friends have suggested I should get a Sat Nav. 

I refuse to as a matter of principle.  Why? What’s wrong with a Sat Nav? I did ask myself that recently when I was lost in south London trying to find a house to collect a piece of furniture I’d bought on e-bay.  But, I do prefer to read a map.  Indeed, I wouldn’t set off on a journey without one.  Handy though the Sat Nav would have been on that particular trip; and indeed convenient though they are, I don’t like the idea of being told what to do by a disembodied voice, however silken and beguiling its simulated female tones. I prefer to think for myself. even if that means the journey is less certain for it. 

I think that when you’re on a journey, when you’re driving, you should be alive to everything around you; sure, you need guides, you need people to point you in the right direction if you take a wrong turn; you should benefit from the experience of those who travelled the route before.  But, not to think for yourself about where you’re going, and how exactly you are getting there; that seems to me to be sleep-walking through life.

My famous name-sake, the Russian author, playwright and philosopher Leo Tolstoy, led an interesting life, often rejecting the obvious path, ending his life living extremely humbly and spurning his aristocratic inheritance.  Famous for his novels, such as Ware and Peace and Anna Karenina, he also wrote a lot of essays and philosophical reflections. One such was this: he wrote that “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time”.  He elaborates that “Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow – that is patience.

 I wonder whether the appeal of Sat Nav technology is tied up with our desire for the fastest routes through things; with a lack of patience; with laziness.  Please understand me – I’m not having a go at technology – progress is good; technology empowers and liberates people.  This is good.  But, my question is whether the quickest route is always the best.  And whether sometimes it is better to make choices for yourself rather than accept the wisdom programmed into a computer. 

Indeed, there are some hilarious – and also rather disturbing stories – about the extent to which people will hand over their free will to their Sat Nav, trusting them despite all the evidence of their senses. I love the true story about the group of bank workers on a Christmas shopping beano to France who were taken to the wrong country after a sat nav blunder diverted their coach seven hours off course.  The office outing was scheduled for the French city of Lille; they were diverted 98 miles away to a village of the same name across the border in Belgium.

Staying with Belgians (nothing personal against them of course), a Belgian truck driver blamed his electronic way-finder after leaving a £20k trail of destruction in his wake in Wadebridge, Cornwall.  Directed by his sat nav into an unsuitable cul-de-sac, the hapless trucker put his foot down in a panic, ending his turning manoeuvre by ploughing over a mini roundabout, getting a car trapped under his lorry, and destroying five more vehicles.

And what about the story of the cab driver taking Earl Spencer’s daughter Katya to a Chelsea football match ended up 146 miles off course in Yorkshire after  the driver’s sat nav directed him to the tiny village of Stamford Bridge.  They missed the Blues’ 2-1 victory over rivals Arsenal.  Good thing too (as an Arsenal fan).

Clearly, it’s not the fault of the machines, but the mindlessness of their users.

Schools shouldn’t give their pupils a Sat Nav; we mustn’t allow our youngsters to slumber brainlessly as they are led by educational GPS. The learning journey is about discovery – the map and the territory;  it should be enlivening; it should not always be comfortable; it should challenge us.  Certainly, we do not want to be paralysed by fear of the unknown; we want to feel secure and at ease – and we all need occasional reassurance that we are on the right path.  But, there are many ways to get to where you’re going.  Our job, as teachers, is to provide maps to guideour youngsters over the ancient ways; the job of the pupils is to read the maps for themselves.