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 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 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 Pedestrian

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Solvitur ambulando: ‘It is solved by walking.’

As a walker, you know this well.

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

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

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

Holloway

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

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

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

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

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

And yet… slow can be good.

View from Caer Caradoc

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

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

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

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

Shrewsbury School Site – walking to work

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

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

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

Keep walking, dear Pedestrian. 

Dear Three-Dimensional Learner

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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 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 Myrtle and Maud

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

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

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

Like an old juke box on free play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I wish you protected. 

Leo

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

Dear Video-Conferencing App beginning with Z

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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 ‘So’

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So.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe… just a little too much?

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

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

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

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

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

Leo

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