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1922 Charoen Krung Road, Wat Prayakrai, Bang Kholame, Bangkok 10120, Thailand

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Principal's Blog - Riverside Reflections

Riverside Reflections: The November Paradox

 

It may have come to your attention that due to the way term dates fall, November is often the only month in a calendar year where there is not a school holiday.

In the UK this is a testing time, cold and damp with little light at the end of the metaphorical or physical tunnel.  At Shrewsbury Riverside we don’t have the elements to contend with so much, but instead we are well past the halfway mark of what is always the longest and most gruelling term for students and teachers alike.

The paradox is that with a full month in school and as fatigue becomes a consideration, we become our busiest.  It is therefore a joy to write about the fact that ‘post COVID’ Riverside is in the middle of a period of intense activity that reminds us what ‘normal’ education should look like and what November can feel like.

The richness of the variety of events is quite remarkable.  Sport has always been central to November as so many teams contest their BISAC finals (successfully!).  Legions of Bronze IA students are marching round Bangkok, School of Rock is coming to an overdue but hotly anticipated crescendo and the music department are embarking on a series of high profile events and performances including staff recitals, remembrance, and the scholars concert - imagine if we hadn’t moved Last Night of the Proms!

However, the co-curricular activities are only one part of the story.  The Extended Project Qualification served up a smorgasbord of wonderful presentations and artefacts, Dr Clarke’s colloquia are quickly becoming a part of what we do, and the applications to higher education and examinations rumble on in the background for so many students.  Across the Junior School, work continues at a furious pace in developing class assemblies, wonderful project work and a series of themed moments that bring a joy of learning to all.

All of this brings a continued strength to our community and the more shared success we have, the closer those bonds grow.  These are so important when times are tough and are reflected so clearly in how members of our community support each other in those difficult moments.

So, as difficult as a month without holidays can be - it's not so hard is it?
 

Riverside Reflections: We will remember them

On Wednesday 11th November 2020, we come together on Remembrance Day.

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

Remembrance can be viewed as a rather Euro-centric affair.  The cessation of hostilities at the end of World War 1, the ending of four years of horror, prompted a determination to remember the cost of war.  With over 1.7 million people dying from what was then known as the British Commonwealth, a decision was taken in the immediate aftermath that the bodies of the dead would not be repatriated, or taken home.

War graves were built in northern Europe and at the end of World War 2, here in Thailand too - especially in Kanchanaburi.  These graves are supported by the war graves commission and some amazing work continues in supplying families with information about their descendants - the fallen. 

But in hundreds of thousands of cases, there were no bodies to bury.  Many were never found, left on battlefields across the world.  The pain of this knowledge needed a solution and in 1920 Westminster Abbey recognised the campaign of Reverend David Railton, a chaplain who had served in World War 1.  A plan was devised to bring one of the unknown fallen back from France, and bury him in Westminster Abbey with full military honours.

So on the 11th November 100 years ago today (in the grips of a flu pandemic), the unknown warrior was buried in London.  The tomb of the unknown warrior stands as a reminder.  

It reminds us of the fallen, but more particularly the self sacrifice of the soldiers and the families.  

They fought not for recognition or reward.  

They fought not for ego or power.  

They fought for something greater than themselves.  

They fought for something abstract and yet shared by their community. 

As Euro-centric as remembrance might be, it is a reminder to us all of the need sometimes to place the ego, our pride and our privilege to one side and fight for -what we believe in and what our community believes in.

We fight for a right to an education, we fight for each other, we fight to stay healthy in these extraordinary times and within all this we take the example of the unknown soldier in our self sacrifice and selflessness.

And so we say

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

 

Riverside Reflections: Speech Day!

 

This week we held Speech Day for Y3-6 from the 2019/20 academic year.  Now in Y4-7, they enjoyed an excellent event celebrating all that is good at Shrewsbury.  

Here is my address:

We gather today rather later than planned, and rather fewer in number than we’d like to celebrate.  To celebrate 

  • Academic excellence
  • Effort and improvement
  • Diligence
  • Language
  • Citizenship
  • Leadership

And we celebrate all students who have made a significant contribution to our community.  A community that has been tested through the course of last academic year in a way that none of us could have predicted or expected.  

Tested not in an academic sense, but in a physical and mental sense.  Tested by the unknown.  Our patience, resilience and friendships have been tested.  Our adaptability, flexibility and capacity to deliver on our traditions has been tested.  Yet here we are on Speech Day, celebrating your incredible success, preserving a tradition, but in a new way.

As a historian I love to look to the past, and enjoy the way that Shrewsbury has already in 17 years established traditions and histories. I hear these when I meet the alumni, see them in events we hold and ways of working that have become embedded across our school.

Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg wins the prize for the first result when you google ‘quotes on tradition’ and I rather like his take that ‘cultures grow on the vines of tradition’.  It works well for Shrewsbury, our culture of academic success, sporting engagement, musical creativity and much more besides growing on the vines of excellent teaching, youthful enthusiasm and wide ranging opportunity. 

Poet TS Eliot explained that tradition is how the vitality of the past enriches the present, and in thinking of this I say a huge thank you to Miss Weston, and all the junior staff who left us last year and could not be part of this day.  Those people do enrich the present and their contribution is both profound and appreciated.  

The staff of the present are ones we appreciate too.  Diligent preparation, skilful delivery of lessons, enthusiasm and engagement characterise a group of staff we are indebted to have.  They make your lives richer, as you do theirs and they inspire you to go on to achieve the success you already have and may do yet in the future.  They value the traditions and history of the school, and yet much like Mrs O’Brien and the junior leadership team, they look resolutely forward.

Over recent months, this approach has been vital.  Schools based in traditional ways, with leadership hamstrung by the pressure of what came before, have found this period profoundly challenging.  Shrewsbury has found this period challenging too, but we are not hampered by the past.  Instead we are liberated by fresh thinking and agile minds.

You are a model to us in this, as we see your adaptability and flexibility in all you do.  From the Y3 science fair, to the Y5 balloon debate and the Fairbairn Exhibition we have plenty of evidence and support for a tradition of critical thinking able to challenge the status quo in thoughtful and intelligent ways.

This should not surprise anyone, as we are careful to ensure that students at Shrewsbury have true understanding of what they are learning, and all of you will know that the real value of history (or tradition) is that you learn from it and are able to move forward with success.

In doing so we find ourselves at the intersection of history and the future, almost every day.  This is of course true of any point in time, and yet has never felt so prescient in education as it does now.

At a recent Floreat (my Friday breaktime excuse to eat doughnuts) a student asked me ‘Mr Seal, what do you do?’  This question had me flummoxed.  Ever looking for a relatively amusing response I persuaded my young questioner that I did absolutely nothing.  Just wandered around observing what is going on, without making any real input, and then invited various groups into my office to eat doughnuts.

On reflection this is only partly untrue.  I don’t teach, coach a sport, serve lunch, check ID at the gates or any number of other worthy roles.  Instead I observe, think, and guide.  But perhaps most importantly I learn.  In recent months I've felt like I’ve had to relearn all that I know about leadership and education.  But along the way I might have forgotten my history for a time.  

In 2019 at speech day I spoke about failure, something we’ve seen a fair bit of recently.  Then I suggested that the key lesson was not how to deal with it, but instead what we might learn.

  • What will we learn about ourselves? 
  • what will we learn about each other? 
  • and how will it help me moving forward?

 For failure now read adversity or COVID.  My conclusion then was that it is the strength of community that is primarily what binds us all together, and sustains us through difficulty.  We come together in times of difficulty (zoom crucial in this now) and celebrate when times are good.  Traditions and history help us with this, but are not the reasons for doing so.   

Expat or Thai, we come together as one for the purpose of education for all.  An education that should include stretch, challenge, critical thought, compassion, adaptability and flexibility.  An education that can manage the intersection of the past and the future, and possibly even suggest a future as we might through our groundbreaking work in so many fields.  It was a noble purpose in 1552 when Shrewsbury UK was founded, it is a noble purpose now.

Today we celebrate our prize winners, who have in their own way dealt with challenge, but now sit here at a point of success.  It might be fleeting, it might be the start of something great, but know that your entire school supports you and celebrates what you do.  

Well done everyone.
 

Riverside Reflections: If you build it, he will come

 

The 1989 film Field of Dreams tells the story of Ray Kinsella, a fictional character who builds a baseball diamond on a farm in the middle of nowhere.

Late in the film all-star players from yesteryear arrive to play in a dreamlike sequence wrapped in sentimentality.  

The film is often remembered for a misquoted line, when earlier in the film Ray hears a voice telling him ‘if you build it, he will come’.  As often with movies, the line turns into what you want to hear, in this case - build it and they’ll come.

The combination of lines has been on my mind for a while.  It applies to schools.  If you build great schools, students and parents will come.  This is what we are doing with our new facilities.  Build world class science labs, classrooms and computing spaces.  Offer students at the top of the school space to think.  Allow all to dine comfortably, and then exercise vigorously in sector leading spaces.  All this on the foundations laid over the last 17 years in purpose built spaces.  A great school becoming greater.  

The ‘build’ part of this doesn’t always have to be physical either.  Building capacity in particular areas such as particular languages, courses such as Economics or Psychology and in roles such as Head of Outreach.  Build it and they’ll come.

Nobody was quite sure what Head of Outreach would be doing when I announced it last year, but this weekend we saw the launch of Equity Partnership Season 2.  Shrewsbury students partnering children from Thai schools all over the country in innovating and pitching products to JD central.  Mutual benefit, outreach, leadership and collaboration.  It started with just Shrewsbury students last year and now more international schools come together to refine, support and grow this event.  Build it, and they’ll come.

At Shrewsbury numbers in engaging subjects with outstanding teachers are up.  More families are accessing our playgroups in the new EY garden and the British Club.  Sports teams are bulging, and charitable efforts blessed with increasing numbers of volunteers.  Build it and they’ll come.
 

Riverside Reflections: The Pull of the Old School

I didn’t think I’d be one of those dads, but as the possibility of my eldest studying at my alma mater became real, an unexpected tide of emotion guided my actions in the months leading up to her first term away from home.  

I never wanted to live my life vicariously through her.  Loughborough University from 1991 to 1995 was a different time, and we do different things.  However, what I realised is that what I wanted for her was a sense of happiness and challenge from one of the world’s best institutions for her subject.  This is what I had experienced, and so as with many ill informed conversations about Higher Education, it was my only reference point for many years.

The Higher Education team at Shrewsbury is far from ill-informed.  Ms Dunnham’s arrival offers the students an additional US counsellor to compliment the legendary Ms Overton and the extraordinary Ms Fretwell, Ms Walker and Mr Markes.  The knowing looks I’ve had from them all tell me they understand the ‘legacy’ concept as much as any parent.  

Recently Mr Markes and I met some Shrewsbury alumni mums.  Extraordinary people from a time when Shrewsbury was in its infancy, with clear and cherished memories of a very special time.  They are curious and forensic in looking to understand what has changed at Shrewsbury over time, and especially keen to hear where Shrewsbury is going in the future.  In them I saw myself, loving parents looking to provide the best possible life chances for their children.

I met my wife at Loughborough, and Shrewsbury has also had its first Shrewsbury wedding.  Selection of Alumni of the Year for 2020 (soon to be announced) took a very short time this year as incredible achievements now litter this widening and ever growing family.  Each year it will get easier to celebrate the achievements of our incredible alumni, and we will be filled with pride in all that they do.

In turn alumni can often underestimate their impact on current students.  The role modelling is obvious, but sometimes self deprecation can miss the inspiration our alumni offer.  Knowing and understanding what our alumni are doing shapes our strategic planning, it informs us about how to prepare young people better, and bring joy and pride to all those connected.  

Mature schools with well organised and passionate alumni associations offer certainty, diversity and inspiration. The pull of the old school becomes stronger as we get older, broader and better. Our alumni association, SISBAA, is a key part of who we are, and will be a key part of where we are going.  I look forward to meeting many more alumni mums and dads in the future.