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Principal's Blog - Riverside Reflections

Lest We Forget: Remembrance Day 2021

In Memory of Leslie Flavell

We come together to remember the fallen.  Those who gave their lives so that we might live in freedom and democracy.  In remembrance of the fallen, we should always treasure what they fought for - our freedoms, privileges, democratic processes, and peace.

Remembrance is often viewed as a chance to reflect on the events of four grim years over one hundred years ago.  1914-1918, the Great War, the war to end all wars.  Millions of men perished in the mud of northern Europe.

But remembrance is about more than that. Remembrance is about the fallen - in all wars across the world. Remembrance is about the forgotten wars. The ones that don’t appear in our textbooks or on TV, the battles fought briefly or sporadically over what seems like interminable passages of time.  

Remembrance is about wars that were lost, wars that were less than glorious, and wars opposed by many.  So we remember the fallen from wars in Vietnam, Korea, Aden, Angola, Somalia, the Balkans, countless conflicts over Afghanistan.  One hundred years ago this year, Russia invaded Georgia, and the Irish War of Independence raged, eventually turning into the euphemistically named ‘troubles’ of the 1970s and 1980s

These forgotten wars need to be remembered.  Each one in its own right is a lesson for history - a lesson about the greed of expansionism and nationalism. All are a lesson in the futile waste of human life, and a lesson in service to your country

One such man who lived to tell the tale of these forgotten wars and his service to his country is Mr Flavell’s father, Sergeant Leslie Flavell, who sadly died last week at the grand old age of 95.  

As a merchant seaman at 16, he witnessed conflicts in Southeast Asia and mainly in the Pacific as protection for the US pacific fleet against submarines. He joined the tank regiment in 1946 and went to Korea at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. He volunteered for a second tour in Korea and went back home to the UK when the war ended in 1953. 

In 1955 he served in Egypt before going home due to the Suez Crisis in 1956. He finally ended up in Nepal in 1963, with the Army pay Corps delivering pension money to the Gurkhas in the Himalayas, who fought alongside the British in the 2nd World War. 

His life and excellent service remind us of the need sometimes to place the ego, our pride, and our privilege to one side and fight for what we believe in as a community.

We fight for the right to an education. We stand shoulder to shoulder for each other to stay healthy in these extraordinary times, and within all this, we remember the forgotten soldiers in forgotten wars.
 

It Never Rains, But it Pours

 

The rainy season in Thailand is a time of intense humidity, brutal storms and stunning skylines.  The savagery of nature laid bare as lightning illuminates the evening vistas, and the angry rumble of thunder is never too far away.  Four years into my time here, I still am drawn to the complicated beauty of the season.

Beautiful it may be, but brutal it certainly is. This is especially true of 2021, which is rivalling 2011 for rainfall and potential floods.  Here we must look behind the compelling beauty of the power of nature.  While we shelter in our now freezing air-conditioned rooms or hide under a freely provided golfing umbrella, millions of people all over Thailand are dealing with infinitely more challenging situations.

Homes, businesses and crops flooded. Lives ruined and ultimately lost. The flood this year has claimed at least a dozen lives and possibly many more we are not aware of. The longer-term impact of these events is often ignored as most of us move back to our daily lives once the water recedes. For those impacted, their everyday life is altered forever.

It is therefore vital that schools such as ours understand their privilege. We are truly fortunate to have the resources, support and infrastructure to weather the storm. We may see water ingress in our new build, my brogues have been ruined, and my daily walks curtailed, but I am one of the lucky ones.  Understanding privilege shouldn’t breed guilt but should certainly drive a sense of responsibility and the need to use our privilege for good.

It is with this in mind that in 2019 I fought for a full-time Head of Outreach. A clearly defined job description is one thing, but more important is the total focus on what we can do from Shrewsbury to support others less privileged than ourselves. Teams of colleagues support Mr Greg Threlfall. Ms Rikke Ermgassen quietly collects cast-offs for Second Chance Bangkok. Mr Paul Williams inspires colleagues and students to build houses for others, and Ms Carol Simcox raises money for Operation Smile, among other charities. These are just three examples of what we do. There are many more.

In January, we will, at last, host a family golf day. Can you have a more explicit expression of privilege?  Hundreds of people enjoying a game millions do not have access to. The concept is that we should use our privilege (and some fun along the way) to deliver the serious business of raising large sums of money to support our outreach efforts.  

At Shrewsbury School, Headmaster Leo Winkley talks about the students having serious fun. You learn more and better when you are having fun, you should be committed to the rigour of the process, and often material you cover can be very serious indeed. 

None of us should shy away from the fickle nature of the rainy season. We should dance in the rain, marvel at the sunsets and wonder at the evening light show. We should also remember that we are the lucky ones to enjoy nature in this way without suffering at its hands and recognise we should help those who are suffering -  for I fear there are more than we realise.  


 

The Power of Youth

 

You don't have to be a tennis fan to know the name Emma Raducanu - the first British woman to win a major tennis tournament in 44 years and achieve the extraordinary feat at 18 years of age without losing a set in the tournament.

Sadly, I have already heard it suggested that she is only deemed British because of her success this week.  Even more unfortunate was that the character who said this was unaware that she had moved to the UK at the age of two, attended UK state schools and holds full citizenship of both the UK and Canada. He would have been equally unaware that her Romanian grandmother taught her how to cook. Emma can speak Mandarin and holds a couple of As at A Level. Ignorance overlooks the talented young global citizen and instead asks, 'where are you really from?' Much work remains around some Jurassic attitudes, I'm afraid.

The concept of countries taking reflected glory in the endeavours of individual sportsmen and women is a debate for another time, but what all should celebrate is the power of youth. The capacity of an 18-year-old to step on a court, undoubtedly nervous inside but totally fearless in her tennis and in her aspect, is incredible to witness. As age and anxiety kick in, things will only get harder - as I'm sure some sage pundit will be quick to warn her.

In 1985 Boris Becker beat Kevin Curren to win Wimbledon at 17 years and 227 days old. A year later, he demolished the world number 1, Ivan Lendl, to retain his crown. A powerful, all-action player with a booming serve, he became the darling of the media and the sporting world.  Fame and fortune followed before the almost inevitable fall from grace. Throughout his career, few people asked the German lad with boyish good looks where he was 'really from'.

Tennis has a habit of producing these wunderkinder. In 1989 Michael Chang beat Becker's record by winning the French Open at 17 years and 110 days. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, you can bet a few asked him where he was 'really from'. His mother was born in India, and his father in China before moving to Taiwan. Michael Chang was a global citizen, US citizen, devout Christian, a trailblazer for Asian Americans, and a tennis player from the US. He made a difference in the same way Emma Radacanu has just done - this is what we should celebrate.  

Tennis drives individuals to obsessive practice, and often parents confidently describe themselves as Tiger mums or the male equivalent. Then again, there isn't a male equivalent, is there? Is it somehow ok for fathers to obsessively drive their children to greatness (read Earl Woods and Emmanuel Agassi, who admitted to experimenting with his other children before getting it right with Andre) but not mothers? Another blog right there, perhaps?

I saw this drive in some young athletes I taught years ago. In understanding Radacanu's success, we should know that outrageous talent often falters unless the foundations of each skill are laboriously and slavishly learnt. With skills embedded in a maturing frame, it is truly extraordinary what can be achieved through the late teens and early twenties. You think you are indestructible, and that confidence reinforced with skill is what allows you to transcend your sport for a time.

Long term success is the goal of professional athletes, and it requires serious repetition. We crave that now for Emma - repeat, repeat, repeat.  We hope she learns and develops into an all-around great, not because it is good for Britain but because she dreams of what she has striven for. We also crave that those ignorant enough to ask 'where are you really from' learn something about and from this wonderful young athlete.  

Riverside Reflections: The Salt Path

 

I am truly blessed to have rather ignorantly purchased a house in the South Hams in Devon in 2014. This corner of South Devon was completely unknown to me then, but over seven years, we have come to love the rolling hills, views of Dartmoor and access to the sea as we are only two miles from the nearest section of the South West Coast Path.

That coast path is held together by associations through Somerset, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.  A national trail that enables visitors or residents to walk non-stop around the entirety of the southwest of England.  This unique treasure is 630 miles of joy and pain.  Joy from the stunning scenery, pain because you would effectively summit Everest four times over the course of the walk.

It was then, with some enthusiasm, that I began reading The Salt Path on the flight back to Bangkok in early August.  Raynor Winn and her husband Moth were evicted from their farm in Wales after a series of bad business decisions, a toxic investment and the trickery of a former friend.  Left homeless and with nothing to do, Raynor persuaded Moth to walk the southwest coast path, having read about it as a child and again as they were packing up their home.  Just as they were preparing to do so, Moth was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease with a prognosis of only two more years of life.

The book is a marvel; beautifully written, true to the coast's beauty and the pain as feet were blistered and Moth's illness delayed progress.  The book is also a marvel as the themes resonate so well with the tough times we have all experienced in recent years (hard to believe we now write of the pandemic as impacting years, but it does).  

A key reflection is that having become homeless, Raynor and Moth were subject to prejudice and scorn.  The message is clear. They are not bad people - they are farmers and proud providers.  However, without a home, they became nameless and worthless.  Maybe we should reflect on the ease with which any of us could end up in this state and treat people a little more kindly as a result?

Perhaps more predictably, the experience of camping wild each night provided immersion in nature and a reinforcement of the notion that the environment works in perfect balance, constantly upset by our presence.  In Raynor's words, the environment is not a 'separate thing'. It is something we are 'in' and should respect it more - humbling terms from a former farmer.

The tale of determination to see the project through is like many others in this genre, though the physical impact on Moth was astounding.  The walk was undertaken in 2013, and he is still alive today.  More profound was the sense of purpose they gained from having this task complete.  This purpose was the foundation for completion, continuance and enjoyment.  It gave them hope and a destination. It saved them.


This story has been the focus of my assemblies to Junior and Senior year groups this week as we reflect on starting the new school year online.  We need purpose, determination, understanding of our environment and strong collaboration to make this work well. The Salt Path is an inspiration for us all to find a way forward in challenging times.  Stories like this are also reminders that perhaps we are the lucky ones?

Riverside Reflections: When to Forgive and Forget?

 

This week sport has offered us another wonderful life lesson.  Although many of our students know little about cricket, the game that consumed me for 30 years, they may be aware now of the name Ollie Robinson.  After making a very promising start to an international sporting career, he is suspended from the team after the discovery of racist and sexist tweets from a decade ago.

There has been much debate in the UK about the tweets and the sanction.  Politicians and the media arguing about when it is that teenagers should be forgiven for their past misdemeanours.  This is the perfect fuel for programmes like our own Learning for Life, or Personal Social and Health Economic Education as it is often referred to in the UK.

Excellent professionals like Karl Hopwood have been delivering the same message consistently and entertainingly since then, and I can sense his ‘eye rolling’ at another prime case for his updated powerpoint display.  It was with a strong sense of deja vu that I watched a middle aged man laboriously mansplain on one news channel yesterday, that social media posts are a permanent record and should be treated with care.  This was the mantra of all those involved in the support of young people a decade ago and more, with Facebook on the scene by 2005, it felt baffling to me and I’m sure younger members of the audience to be patronised on this again. 

Being smug about it doesn’t help though.  Teenagers get it wrong.  Jackie Cox did an amazing job for decades through her work in the UK boarding sector in explaining why this happens and she was one of the first speakers to interpret scientific finds about brain function into sound advice for staff and parents.  The brain’s recalibration, and fluctuations in chemistry through the teenage years suggests that there will be mistakes, mishaps, misunderstandings and literally mindless behaviour.

This is why social media is such a challenge.  All of my teenage moments were played out in the mid 1980s when the closest I got to transmission of my views were the odd outbursts aimed at my parents when I was especially disgruntled with a perfectly reasonable decision of theirs.  Now reactions to events are swift, public and permanent.  We have been advising, cajoling, reminding and supporting for over a decade now, and nothing has really changed for our young people - or has it?

In my view, students have got better at regulating themselves in this space.  Maybe not much better, but better.  This came through more widespread and higher quality education, a creep similar to the inexorable increase in grades as we got better at teaching towards the outcomes desired.  The Ollie Robinson case will serve as a reminder and schools should use it as such.  

Schools are better at this too, they pounce on such posts and deal with it swiftly, trying not to stigmatize but educate instead.  That is the easy bit, the next part becomes much more challenging - when should these posts become ‘in the past’ in the way that the points ‘earned’ from your erratic and over zealous driving in your 20s disappears from the license?

This is the nub of the Robinson debate.  On one hand, these posts are a decade old, but if I cast my mind back to life in schools in 2010 this would have raised alarm bells then as it does now.  I worked in a school which had a very clear and enthusiastically enforced lack of tolerance for racism.  It is possible that the media is more sensitised to this issue now due to the events of the last few years and George Floyd’s grisly demise, but good schools were working hard to stamp racism out 10 years ago and well before.

The key to dealing with issues such as this then is the key now.  Is he contrite?  Has he learned from his mistake?  Will he refrain from this in the future and what support does he need to ensure he doesn’t slip back?  However, in focussing on Robinson, we miss a crucial point that colleagues at Riverside seized upon immediately - the damage done to others.  Whatever Robinson did or didn’t mean, whatever his intent, whatever his background - those tweets cause offence, hurt and despair now, as they would have done at the time.  Maybe we should think more about how we tackle that, rather than when he next plays cricket for England?  

It is perfectly possible that Robinson is a flawed character, and if so he will feel the wrath of the media and the governing bodies again - rightly so.  It is also possible he posted without thought about the damage he would cause and without malice, in which case he should be offered another chance after a meaningful and appropriate sanction - mistakes are how you learn, and if we live in a world where teenagers cannot make any mistakes then I fear for what is ahead of us.