Making a difference…

THE MAIN ITEM FOLLOWS THIS SHORT CALL TO ACTION: If there is one thing I would wish supportive readers of my blog to do, it is to write an email of support for our campus planning application appeal to by end of Tuesday 17 November 2020, and please include the relevant planning references in your subject line (or at the top of your email): 

APP/TO355/W/20/3249117 – Claires Court School
APP/T0355/W/20/3249119 – Sports Pitches and Pavilion

Detail here on what to mention…

In almost every way, the last few weeks have reset my sights and affirmed anew the values I hold dear. Regular readers will have noted that my Blogging and Tweeting have taken a rest, largely not because I don’t feel I have something to say, but because my audience has indeed narrowed and become much more focussed on those areas of my life on which I can in my view make a difference.

In any normal year this century, by now I would have run many major events in and outside of school, visited dozens of institutions and contributed to dialogue on at least 5 different national/international committees and councils. Just this term, my ‘track&road’ miles would have averaged over 200 a week and I would in that process have used at least 2 return train tickets, drunk on-the-go Costas every other day and stayed over at 2 academic conferences in the last 4 weeks. School would have celebrated its 60th birthday in grand style, Speech Day assisted in the reopening of the new public leisure centre in Maidenhead, and our PTA Fireworks captured 1500 or so of our community to celebrate the new decade. I will have enjoyed very much the fruits of the hop & vine. Many hands would have been shaken and almost as many backs slapped and hugs embraced

This is no normal Academic year. Since September, my footprints move between SL68EG and SL68TE, with the once a week visit to SL63QE and SL66AW showing (if you look very closely) I seem not to have entered those premises past the front gate, and when they do, barely inside. My median average mileage on weekdays is Zero. No trains or stations visited. I have been home for breakfast, lunch & supper every day. My ration of coffee sits at 1 a day, usually before 9am, and alcohol largely reduced to Adnam’s low alcohol Ghost Ship. I have shaken no hands, nudged perhaps only the occasional golfer’s elbow and embraced solely the air. My screen hours & wifi miles have of course soared. I seem to have participated in just as many ‘events’, ‘evenings’, conferences and such like digitally, and I look forward to presenting at an international Berlin conference in December. But because these take no time to get to or return from, such contributions have clearly diminished in apparent importance because I have been able to be ever present in my school everyday in person. And it’s about that lived, daily experience I write below.

Apart from my 20 minute sandwich break round the corner with Mrs W circa 12.15, I have been at school every day for 11 hours. I’ve a practical, physical change every hour as the school ‘breaks’ for the outside between lessons; at lunch now I join B10&11 as their take-away monitor, carrying out hot lunch in boxes for those choosing this indulgence. The boys’ experience of ‘food’ queuing has reduced to about 1 minute, and they seem to really enjoy their new rights of a proper break from their work, also with play & friendship clearly the winners. I have become hugely conscious of the individual personal stories developing through the week, be they around the good news of the arrival of a #lockdown pet, or the loss of an aged relative, the damage to family businesses or the recovered time at home that hard working fee payers have also witnessed. As one of my Year 8 boys made clear to a prospective teacher at interview yesterday, the adults working with 13 year old boys need to be mindful of the mental health challenges that are arising in their generation, and be respectful of the need to work positively to build their relationship with their classes at school, should they join us.

Whilst this may not be ‘life as we know it, Jim*’, and I resent every day the presence of Covid-19 in our community, we are all very clearly ‘alive, alert, on our mettle and on guard’. There are many unseen but known enemies, starting with the virus; hate and unkindness are as toxic, and just as invisible. As we train ourselves to wash our hands, cover our face and manage our space to distance the virus, we also need to remind ourselves to use our eyes, visible emotions and language to be open to support others and maintain positive relationships. Actions that appear more passive, such as listening & watching, have become even more my tools of choice; experience quickly causes my hackles to rise if body language I see indicates ‘no good’ is at hand. Just being present, in any of the 5 yard bubbles quickly causes other souls to merge for a chat, a question, a ‘thought for the day’. Wednesday across the school community caused us all to pause for more than a moment, and assisted in making very much more real what families on Armistice Day, 1920 must have felt, mourning for lost loved ones and a time gone by, whilst recovering in the middle of a world pandemic. ‘Wear Red to Remember’ was the way we overcame the lack of availability of poppies, as my headline photo for my blog of that week showed.

The Boys of Year 7 assemble Wednesday 11 November at the end of first break.

I have remained an avid reader of the education & political landscape, both home and abroad, and like so many others increasingly come to understand the criticisms of that previous generation 100 years ago, coming to terms with, and holding to account those who had been in leadership during the Great War. ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ was a phrase used to describe the British Army’s incompetence in the Crimean War, but quickly surfaced again as our nation counted the cost and scale of human devastation in their midst. Of course the individuals in that Army of 1918 made sure it was Britain and its allies that won the war; I quote from Dr Gary Sheffield’s article of this title “Haig’s army played the leading role in defeating the German forces in the crucial battles of 1918. In terms of the numbers of German divisions engaged, the numbers of prisoners and guns captured, the importance of the stakes and the toughness of the enemy, the 1918 ‘Hundred Days’ campaign rates as the greatest series of victories in British history.

In the same way, we cannot dismiss that incompetence has featured institutionally and politically in the initial days and weeks of our country’s response to the arrival of the current coronavirus pandemic. Clearly collecting symptomatic patients in hospital wards ensured ‘super-spreader’ events happened throughout the country, and even more tragic, the onward transfer of the elderly into care homes wrought the appalling death rates we saw in April to June on the care sector. Cronyism has been almost as bad as Centralism, with the unwillingness to trust established Public Health England and local authority commissioning and purchasing causing whole failures in supply chains. The ‘Test & Trace’ managers choice of anonymous, unskilled call centre operatives has made this phrase an oxymoron for what is actually going on.

I recognise fully though that the medics, the care services more widely, the scientists and statisticians have rapidly learned and adapted their practice for the betterment of the society they serve; as with the troops in Flanders, we’ll overcome this pandemic because of them leading from the fore. Politically too, the grass roots have done their stuff to push back and change the face of government, be that overtly as in the US elections, or tacitly on the departure seen yesterday in Lee Cain’s resignation as the Prime Minister’s director of communications, just as it seemed he was to be promoted to be Boris’ Chief of Staff. Coupled with Dominic Cummings, the two have promoted a culture of intolerance and animosity to all that has not served the country well. Both Number 10 and the White House have managed to disrupt some of the most carefully balanced services in such a way that experience and expertise have been lost from government at a time when that’s what we as a society need most. Sensible hands are needed on the tiller, knowing how to navigate through the most serious of storms, and knowing what equipment to trust to secure the safety of those fellow travellers (us, that is, Joe Public).

My story here at school sits alongside that of my colleagues, 5 fellow headteachers, leading and managing in a matrix of command and control, power decentralised to those who know what locally works, with one communication voice to our community keeping people regularly briefed and chasing the demon out when it threatens to arrive. I have written before that Tony Blair got it completely wrong when he wrote about ‘Education, Education, Education’. Forgetting that Education sits in a triangular partnership with Welfare and Social care has caused our country one of the greatest harms. In my school at least, we have not modelled the Results above Process; Teachers do what they do best, by creating an environment in which children can learn. Pastoral systems need to be as robust as Exams, and welfare services need to be integrated with the wider public services for which our community pays its taxes. Marcus Rashford is only a footballer, but he experienced hunger throughout his childhood and he has shone a great light on the tragedy unfolding across our communities; it takes too long for food resources to reach children if we don’t use the centre in which they can be so easily found – their schools!

Government may be learning: that initial slogan of “Stay at home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” worked perfectly, and it did what needed to be done. Government itself seems to have done none of those things, because it did not stay focussed on the job of keeping ‘Home, NHS and Lives’ safe. Hell bent on pursuing its own political agenda, it failed to create the coalition of all of the parties and our 4 countries that we needed back last March, to ensure politics took a back seat to the mobilisation needed to ensure those from all points of our national compass were able to act as one to ride out the pandemic. The historians will have their day for sure, and decide whether or not Sturgeon continued to play a blinder to Johnson’s buffoon. She has stayed at home, mobilised her country, played to the crowds as Merkel has done in Germany by being steady, competent and visible, and…really ‘Making a difference…’

*sad Star Trek reference

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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