Sadly, I am publishing this blog two days after seven local Croydon residents have been killed in a tragic tram accident, which has taken the life of a former student of our school. Additionally, at least three former students have also been injured. The fragility and unfairness of life can sometimes take your breath away.
Today is 11th November, Remembrance Day; the day that each year we solemnly remember all of those who have been injured, or who have given their lives, for our country. We especially remember that their sacrifice was given so that we can live in a peaceful and open democracy, free from tyranny. They have the same day of remembrance in the USA, where it is called Veterans Day. It is an opportunity to be grateful for all that we have, it is an opportunity to reflect, and it is an opportunity for love. I hope that both of our countries are embracing this opportunity especially well this year. As our school family reflects today, our thoughts will also be with those in our local community who have been so deeply affected by this week’s tragic accident.
It seems to me however, that no matter how much we remember and reflect, the human race takes a long time to learn. We often take three steps forward followed by two steps back each time we should be learning the lessons of fighting, war, hatred and division. And while, over many centuries, we have made significant progress towards tolerance, understanding and mutual respect – for many it might be all too easy to forget our achievements given the emotions and feelings of recent months and years.
Our best days lie ahead, I am convinced of that. To get there though, many of us need to do a better job of listening, talking, discussing, explaining and importantly, accepting. There is huge wave of populist, nationalist and isolationist opinion sweeping many parts of western civilisations. Surely we can only move past that through education and by being careful to explain, involve and adapt. Minds are best opened when we engage in discussion and debate. Society and media now limit how well this is done. Therefore, if we want to prevent future Brexit type events and elections where fear wins, then we need to lead our society in conversation about hope, optimism and inclusion. We must do this free of anger, frustration and regret.
As a Headteacher, I have a number of targets I must deliver on and hoops to jump through, which include meeting national standards, being open to Ofsted scrutiny, providing a prescribed curriculum structure and ensuring I deliver positive academic progress for each of my students within the constraints of the new Progress 8 measure. I get that, I accept that and I work tirelessly to deliver on all of my responsibilities. However, as a profession, in these challenging times, I don’t think we can afford to lose sight of the fact that developing each child as a strong, tolerant, questioning and thirsty learner of and for life is the best thing we can do to move society away from hatred and ignorance, in the short, medium and long term.
Many of our children and large swathes of our society, no longer hear reasoned arguments. They see memes, posts and comments, they see the number of ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’, they look for quick answers and take easy wins. News now needs to be fast and condensed and news needs to generate advertising revenue, so it’s skewed and targeted specifically for this purpose. Our children live in social times where they are at ease with being selfish and are more confident at saying ‘no’, than I ever was as a teenager to those in (so called) positions of respectful authority. Moreover, the power of debate has been lost to the strength of the soundbite, which currently reigns supreme. After all, we live in a time when you can get away with suggesting a reasoned argument is ‘Britain has had enough of experts’. What does this say about our belief in the power of education?
Before I go on, I must say that I believe my own political opinions (which I’m fairly open about) and the future political outlook of my students are irrelevant to the points I raise in this blog. I really don’t care if my students grow as conservatives, socialists or liberals. I only hope that they care and actively participate in a journey of discovery.
Were I an American, this week I would have voted for Mrs Clinton, both on a matter of principle, and, as her message more closely aligned to my core values. However, this week, the people of the United States of America elected Donald Trump as their 45th President. The President-Elect ran on what many considered to be a divisive message and consequentially the reaction on social and traditional media, here in the UK and around the world, has been one of deep shock and dismay at the result. My interpretation of the outpouring of surprise and worry at his winning is that much of his message has been (and let’s call a spade a spade here) the language of hate. It has whipped up similar feelings that many of us had in the days after the UK voted for Brexit. A result that many in this country felt was based on disinformation, raw ignorance and racism. Indeed, I was so bewildered in the immediate aftermath of that result that I was one of four million people that signed an online petition for a second referendum.
However, I now believe that I was wrong to sign that petition and I think it is wrong for me to castigate the electorate of the USA that voted for Mr Trump or those that voted for Brexit. I consider myself to be a fairly well ‘educated’ person. Mr Trump would also probably label me as one of the ‘elite middle class’ or ‘liberals’ who think they know best. Whether I do know best or not is however, irrelevant. Because what is clear, is that I, most of my family, friends and colleagues have no idea about the feelings and perceptions of the majority of voters in the Brexit referendum or the USA presidential election. This is not their fault, it is mine and it is ours.
I don’t pretend to understand the arguments that convinced so many people to vote for Brexit. I don’t understand the arguments Mr Trump made that got him elected. In both instances I do believe there was something deeper and more fundamental at play, be that contrived or real worry, fear, frustration or indeed hatred. I do however now believe it is my job to learn how these people feel and I further believe it is incumbent on us all who seek to educate to do so. How else can we do our jobs as teachers and develop our children so they are ready for the modern world?
Those who have not been schooled in curiosity, those who do not need or want to see a bigger picture, those who just want what is best for them and their families (with little or no regard for others) need, now and more than ever, in a new and profound way, need our acceptance and our understanding. If we dare to say we know better, if we dare to patronise, if we dare to say ‘you are wrong’ – then we will fail as a society – for all we will do is alienate and deepen division and misunderstanding. History teaches us all too well where that can lead.
After the Brexit vote I felt as though I could cry – but if I had done so I would have been being disrespectful to those who have given their lives to ensure that I can live in our democracy. I feel both lucky and proud to live in our democratic society, even (and perhaps especially) when I dislike like the outcome. Defeat is a very humbling experience. I still maintain though, that in the long term, we stand to learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. This is a fundamental belief we must, as educators and leaders, strive to embed in the mindset of our children.
I am a teacher and my students need me to be strong, to look to the future for them and with them, to believe in each of them and their generation, to love every one of them and to educate them about the power of understanding, tolerance and of love.
Like most families, our Meridian High School family is imperfect and working hard to improve. But it is not a family lacking in respectful and grateful remembrance. It is not a family that lacks ambition, care and love. Today, it is my best hope that our children, staff and community will continue to talk about who we are and who we want to become and to spread our message by delivering success through love, of and for all.
We should cherish life and live it well, while we can. Rest in peace Dane.
Headteacher’s Blog No. 15
11th November 2016