Finding ways to go beyond the gloom is admirable

Well, (or, ‘So…’, as we all start off these days) congratulations to the successful Cambridge applicants who join their Oxford peers in this year’s excellent group, thirteen with last year’s 2021 joiner, and with three more from our partner state school who ran the course alongside ours. It’s not everything, of course, to have succeeded in Oxbridge entry, but anything highly competitive is a challenge worth competing for, and I do also congratulate those who tried and did not succeed, this time at least.   

Some might think spreading academic wings is both impossible and irrelevant at this time – I couldn’t disagree more. Some boys in all years are discovering subjects and passions they had never been able to, and that drive – finding ways to go beyond the gloom – is admirable. Not just admirable – it sets an example. Like most, I too have had times of deep frustration, even anger, but we can all surely find intellectual, sporting, cultural purposes.

Meeting Third Formers last week, we exchanged ‘top tips’, which for me (I’ve said it before) has become ‘don’t read the news too often’. I can’t be alone in finding the daily, hourly analysis of Covid pointless and depressing, so it was a revelation when someone told me about a radio programme which investigates what would be in the news if we only got a report once a century. What in other words really is important? Brexit? Covid? Or the environment? Or famines or wars? Or the ingenuity of the internet and globalisation?

I certainly think I know some of what matters most for us at the moment: resilience of course, critical thinking and creative solutions, all in lamentably short supply in current public life. If we want things to be better in the future, if we want leaders who can weigh evidence critically, who can work collaboratively, who can be courageous, then those who are our school pupils now will have to lead the way. Coincidentally, ‘What Matters Most’ is a collection of essays by Chris Woodhead, in his time a notoriously controversial commentator on education. And a prodigious scourge of successive Education Secretaries of all colours. He spoke a couple of times at my previous school, and signed a copy of his autobiography for me ‘to the only Head who ever invited me back’. Selsdon-born, educated at Wallington Grammar, he loved cycling, mountaineering, prodigious walks … and died after a long battle with Motor Neurone disease, so he knew what it was to be angrily, bitterly knocked by life. He writes ‘The fact remains that life is not fair. Fate will kick us all in the face at some time … would it not be better if we tried to restore the traditional virtues of courage, fortitude and resilience?’ We need his kind now.

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