The importance of facing challenges together

Approaching the end of sixteen years of headship and - I shudder to think - thirty nine years as a teacher, I think it is fair to say that the current circumstances are without parallel in my experience. Writing about them is risky: the dangers of superficiality, of sensationalism, of cliché, of ill-considered bonhomie or alternatively of a po-faced sobriety lie around every corner, yet to say nothing seems equally invalid. 

What follows are nothing more than personal reflections on the impact of a crisis which, it seems, has shaken our assumptions that we are masters of our own destiny. 

Of course, there are many people in the UK as well as the developing world for whom such assumptions ring hollow, but our purpose as educators is surely to equip our charges to seize their opportunities and make the most of their destinies whilst - in the true spirit of our Founder - recognising that those destinies should not be purely selfish and ought to consider the wider good too. COVID-19 has challenged the idea that we alone can shape our own destinies and has also shaken the idea that science has the answer to all our problems. That is not to undermine the excellent work done already in understanding and treating this disease; rather, to show the truth that even our experts cannot know all the answers. We face worrying uncertainties on a scale previously unknown to us. 

My first thought, though, is that we are by no means the first Allanians to face apparently daunting challenges. During the hastily put together final assemblies for Years 11 and 13 last term, Mrs Fiddaman, Head of the Girls’ School, made the excellent point that other pupils of the Schools have lived through difficult times. 

Ten years after the Schools were founded, the Jacobite rising of 1715 ‘caused widespread panic in the city’ according to contemporary sources; just over two hundred years later a similar threat to Newcastle’s safety saw Allanians evacuated to the Lake District to avoid the threat of German bombs. More topically, perhaps, at least 22% of Newcastle’s population contracted ‘Spanish Flu’ during the pandemic of 1918-1919, which itself caused more fatalities than the previous four years of conflict. None of this is to make light of the current situation. It does, however, show that it is possible to look beyond the immediate circumstances of any crisis to the future which lies ahead. 

The Dame Allan’s family has survived over 300 years of change and disruption: we have a history and tradition which will see us through our own challenges. And challenging situations do bring out imaginative responses. We have certainly learned much about distance learning since the Schools closed and aspects of this will be important to future development. 

Alex Beard’s recent Radio 4 series ‘The Learning Revolution’ posits a very different world of teaching from that which I entered back in 1981, but I was pleased to hear that even his brave new world does not see education as solely run by online tutorials and administrative algorithms but rather still has space for the teacher as coach to pupils. Our recent addition of video conferencing tools to our own online provision has shown just how important face to face contact (albeit delivered virtually) remains for both pupils and their teachers, so I think the profession remains viable in the future. However the current crisis has certainly made us all think about how best we can employ technology in our teaching and I am confident this will add value to our work once lockdown is lifted.

The crisis also brings out that quality of resilience in us all. We have talked about this often in school and it is clear from their responses to our pupil surveys that our pupils have been engaging well with distance learning. They do face challenges - a day spent in front of a screen is not the same as a day in school - but they have adapted to a new set of circumstances: a true mark of their resilience. The work of our pastoral teams - form teachers and their managers, our counsellors, psychological therapist and chaplain - remains vital in buttressing that quality. 

Teaching staff too have responded with equal enthusiasm and commitment. I have to say that the online training sessions held over the Easter holiday on the introduction of video conferencing conducted by our Head of Digital Strategy were amongst the most challenging classes I can remember teaching or observing - imagine trying to control over 50 colleagues who hadn’t seen each other for a month - but the levels of engagement and the willingness to learn even during a school holiday shone through and exemplify the qualities shown by all our staff. 

And it is once again that sense of family, community and joint enterprise that marks our response to this crisis. There will be difficult times ahead for many of the members of the Dame Allan’s family. First and foremost for those who have lost or will lose loved ones as a result of the pandemic: they will remain in our thoughts and prayers and will, I hope, gain some strength from membership of our family. 

Even for those not directly impacted in the same way, times are challenging and it is incumbent on us as Schools to do all we can to maintain a sense of normality in these strangest of times, whether that be through our online learning provision, through our in school provision for children of key workers, or through the fund we have already established to support families whose income has been adversely affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic and lockdown and who otherwise may face the difficult prospect of withdrawing their children from school. As an institution the Schools will face business challenges too, though I am confident that the excellence of our bursary staff and the diligence of our governors will enable us to manage these and to ensure that our parents are treated fairly. 

Above all, the sense of a family rooted both in its educational goals and in its witness to God’s love and support will see us through. I had never imagined my career would be drawing to a close as it has: I cannot think of a better environment in which to face our current challenges.