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
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.