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Principal's Blog - Riverside Reflections

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: A FEW OF MY FAVOURITE THINGS

 

In recent weeks I’ve started writing again.  Writing to express a view, writing in reaction, and writing for enjoyment.  I’ve missed it.  So, in the weeks to come I will be writing more.  Welcome to the Riverside Reflections.

This week I write following a wonderful weekend in Hua Hin with our admin staff.  The term ‘admin’ does not do this particular group of people justice.  They are the blood that keeps this body alive, the spine that keeps us straight, the lungs that allow us to breathe.  We exercised all of those elements with team building games culminating in an ‘egg drop’ challenge.  Senior managers working with couriers, Principals working with PAs, marketing executives working with housekeepers.  The bond that draws us together is Shrewsbury.  A school, a collection of buildings but most importantly a community.

For years I worked in boarding schools in the UK, building and enjoying community.  The theory goes that if you live together, the closeness brings a bond that becomes unbreakable.  But this slightly misses the point, proximity is not the key reason for community.  In our case, our community is built on pride.  Long serving staff working in varied roles in support of the teaching that goes on, and in turn teaching us what loyalty and pride in our great school really look like.  The ‘admin’ weekend is one of my favourite Shrewsbury things.

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A more recent addition to the Shrewsbury community is Floreat.  This too is now a favourite.  The opportunity to take a break every Friday with high achievers is too good to be passed up, and most pleasingly the achievements are often outside the usual classisfications.  Tidying toys, overt and consistent kindness, and being the first to finish Gold IA are just some of the examples of our students flourishing and being great examples to others.  They’ve enjoyed meeting me (I think?) but have certainly enjoyed the incredible cakes provided by our developing catering team.  More pride taken and more learning has meant more doughnuts consumed in support of precious human contact celebrating all that is good in life.  Long may this continue.  


RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: GIVING, GAINING

 

"Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled" - Mark Twain

I am not a natural golfer.  With a frame more suited to colliding with other people or projecting missiles at pace, I am an uncomfortable sight on the tee.  There are tall golfers, Ernie Els known as ‘the big easy’, played with style and grace and of course, Tiger Woods is over six feet tall.  Sadly though, I make my way around the course finding areas hitherto unexplored vacillating between the sublime and the ridiculous.  But does it matter?

On Sunday, I played the first round of golf since back surgery in December 2018.  The titanium stayed in place, and I was accompanied by a colleague and two Shrewsbury students. The journeys we took to and around Suwan Golf and Country Club were different, the outcome broadly the same.  An experience that we all enjoyed and can reflect on with some pride.  We were all playing in the Riverside Charity Golf day and by simply being there were contributing to the 70,000 Baht raised on the day.

Charity takes many forms.  Financial donations matter and we were touched last week when a group of parents at the golf event came together and gave the school a further gift of 15,000 Baht, embodying all that is well at Shrewsbury - making a contribution to others who are less fortunate.  This week in school we will provide gifts for charities across Bangkok and have purchased Christmas cards designed beautifully by our students.

However, we also know that perhaps the most valuable thing we can offer is time.  This gift is why Habitat for Humanity, A4D and Operation Smile and other projects are coming to the fore at Shrewsbury.  The opportunity to build a house for another, to educate a diabetic in healthy eating, and even the chance to learn how to support families with children born with cleft lips or palates.

The beauty of charity is also the beauty of sport.  There is no right or wrong.  Cash donation and putting from off the edge of the green, or time offered and hitting a four-iron off every tee.  The point is that it doesn’t matter how you get there, it just matters that you do.

On Sunday, over 60 people gathered to give of themselves.  Time and money were offered for those who need it, and into the bargain, we had great fun and proved to ourselves once again that we aren’t going to earn a living from golf and crucially that this does not matter!

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: THE POWER OF PERFORMANCE

All the world’s a stage - William Shakespeare

Why do we perform?  This is a question that was rebounding around my head in the days after the conclusion to our wonderful Term 1.

Large numbers of staff across the school took to the stage to royally entertain the students in the return of the staff Christmas Pantomimes.  There is a prosaic ‘why’ to this development - the staff wanted to do it, and I felt we needed to change our end of term celebrations.  My part in this is easy, get out of the way - one of the key tenets of empowering others.  

What I struggled with a little over time is why the staff wanted this.  Their busy lives do not tail off as the end of the term approaches, indeed this is a chaotic, emotional and intense period could easily be considered the worst possible time to embark upon a production of this type.  And yet, the quality of the productions was extraordinary, some of the acting really quite good, the scripts well conceived and delivered resulting in palpable enjoyment of the students.  Bravo!

So what is behind this, and why do we feel compelled to perform?  Recently I read If I could Tell You Just One Thing an aggregation of advice from a range of successful people by entrepreneur Richard Reed.  James Corden the convener of the hugely successful Carpool Karoake offered this simple advice - ‘find what you are good at’.  In this might be the secret to performance.  When we perform as young people we gain affirmation, especially if we are good at it.  This affirmation encourages you to perform again, reinforcing the feeling of success, value and self-worth.  In turn, this breeds the confidence to keep performing and ultimately to excel in this domain.  

Witnessing this process is one of the great joys of working with young people, and also recognising our value as educators, parents, colleagues and friends in saying ‘well done’ and in delivering the affirmation that is so important to our self worth.  It is easy to underestimate the importance of those two words, but we witness the impact of them every day. 

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RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: FICTIONAL STORIES, REAL REWARDS

 

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

42 years ago as a very young boy I sat in a cinema theatre and my life changed.  Those words above, the blast of brass that introduced the John Williams soundtrack, the escaping starship followed by an Imperial Cruiser that filled the screen, made the speakers rumble and seemed to take minutes to enter the screen - Star Wars!  If you haven’t seen the opening moments of the first film of 1977, you must.  Great cinema is remembered and revered and I’m not the only one who has spent the last 42 years closely linked to this wonderful fiction.

In speaking about this in my assemblies recently, I enjoyed showing the students that opening few minutes, but hopefully they took the message that the wonderful world created by George Lucas over the course of 9 films is part of a genre that all students should explore - fiction.  In recent years, and as I get older, I have become a little distant from the Skywalker-led rebellion.  Equally middle age has put me further away from another favourite fiction involving Middle Earth - the Hobbit.  However, the return of the Jedi in the most recent outing Rise of Skywalker reminded me of my youth and the fascination for great stories that I developed then.  Looking back it was fantasy, sci-fi and heroic tales that hooked me on reading.

For this I will always be grateful.  Those stories drew me in, they let my imagination run wild, they inspired me to find more and perhaps most importantly develop a love for reading.  This love has stayed with me throughout those 42 years, through a degree in English Literature and the worthy classics that this involved and now in a fascination with politics, business and psychology.  In 2019, I promised myself that I would read more, and I did ok managing 27 books across flights, holidays and evenings when I vowed to put my phone down!  For 2020 I make the same commitment, but this time with a new edge - more fiction.  I can commend this to you all, and I hope our students take the bait and find their love of reading too. 

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: THE RECRUITMENT RUN

 

Hiring the right people takes time, the right questions and a good dose of curiosity (R.Branson)

I write from Suvarnabhumi Airport at the start of a two week trip to find the next group of Shrewsbury teachers.  In some ways this is a rather different trip to the norm.  

Firstly retention at Shrewsbury is up again, this time over 90% and moving steadily towards our aim of retaining 95% of teaching colleagues year on year. Secondly, I am travelling through Dubai to explore the growing number of applications to Shrewsbury from teachers in the Middle East.  High numbers of high quality professionals already thinking internationally and now looking for a more engaging and stimulating place to work has got me curious.  Thirdly, I’m looking for fewer teachers due to retention but also looking for additions in many cases rather than replacements.  Through support from EXCO we have not only created four new internal roles recently that will require staff to step outside of teaching, but we are also growing the Science, Mathematics and English departments - more of this on my return.

Upon arrival at Shrewsbury nearly a week from now, I will be met with a warm welcome to offset the cold weather.  Leo Winkley (Headmaster) and I have much to discuss around continuing efforts to link up our alumni, Maghin Tamilarasan (International Development Director) will have more fresh thinking around synergies especially in the IT domain and Anna Peak (Deputy Head Pastoral) has already assembled a formidable field of gap students for 2020/21.  The food will be good, and I look forward to my fish and chips with Riverside alumni studying at Shrewsbury on Friday, and subsequent alumni events in London, including our first 6th Form Exec alumni brunch.

The biting wind that reminds me of some of the reasons why teachers move to sunnier climes, may also feature in a speech I am giving to a group of senior leaders at the Boarding School’s Association in the time between Dubai and Shrewsbury.  The conference chairman has asked me to address the ‘challenges of international leadership’ but I’m sure I will find myself talking more positively of the reasons why international leadership is so engaging and enjoyable - especially at Shrewsbury.

With Riverside in such good health, there cannot be a better time to be recruiting new colleagues and my curiosity will be met with a range of fascinating characters in the coming days - bring it on.   

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: NO PLACE LIKE HOME

 

Absence makes the heart grow fonder (Various)

The Roman poet Sextus Propertius is credited with the origin of this phrase, and in Elegies the phrase is written very much from the standpoint of those left behind, who grow fond of those absent.  This is indeed true and at Shrewsbury we regularly speak of students, parents and staff who have left our community in glowing and favourable terms.  

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Sometimes it is human nature to embellish the deeds of the past and think of these absent colleagues and friends as even better than they were.  In sport, there is a similar phrase where players can be described as improving ‘whilst out of the team’ as the coach’s memory allows them to believe that the dropped or injured player was more influential than they actually were.  

However, often the memory is accurate and those you lose really are exceptional people.  At Shrewsbury we quite often have students return to us after a period in the UK, America or at other schools in Bangkok.  When they return they bring their new insight and skills to our community, and improve us all.  It is with delight then that yet again this year I interviewed former staff at Shrewsbury for teaching roles.  Not only does this make it easy to appoint staff from my perspective, but also brings new perspectives into the school as we all learn from their experiences over recent years.  More details to come on this year’s returning staff.

Thomas Haynes Bayly popularised the phrase above in the 19th century and it is he who perhaps drove our more modern view that when someone is away they grow more fond of those they leave behind.  In my case this is certainly true.  I really enjoy travelling, but two weeks away, four flights, three countries, four hotels, 31 interviews and many miles covered in a hire car up and down the length of the UK really does make the heart grow fonder for life in Bangkok.

 

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Even more so are some of the answers I hear in interviews.  I now often ask ‘why Shrewsbury, why Bangkok and why now?’ to allow candidates to speak freely about their motivations.  Sometimes travel is mentioned, others claim to have always wanted to work overseas, but most start with Riverside.  The enthusiasm provoked by what we are doing in our community is genuine.  Candidates are reading and watching, researching and deliberating, enjoying and savouring the notion of working in our wonderful school.

Hearing candidates wax lyrical about the community, the students, the aspirations among parents and staff, the facilities, the location, the academic rigour, the co-curriculum and the vision of the school is humbling as it is reaffirming.  More than anything else, it just makes me want to come home.  I’m so pleased to be back - have a great half-term. 


RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: EVERY CLOUD HAS A SILVER LINING

 

What a week!  The events surrounding the potential spread of COVID19 have provided us all with a severe test of our resilience, resourcefulness and patience.  The long days drafting communication, thinking about the ‘what next’ and coordinating action across our community has meant that it is hard to believe that we are only a week into this issue.  A cloud very much evident in all our daily lives.

As I wrote in my letter of the 27th February, periods such as this show character.  Many examples of staff, students and parents moving well beyond their usual remit to support each other, are equally valuable and equally inspirational.  Being in the midst of this community,  seeing and feeling the efforts of those around me has been humbling but also inspired me to request a set of Shrewsbury PE kit and go to teach a badminton lesson.  A small act and certainly not the most important one of the week, but one that was inspired by my colleagues and for that I thank them.

The bi-product of dropping in to teach a lesson, as all of the senior team have done this week, is that we remind ourselves that the close interaction with young people is what inspired us into this line of work.  It is a role that offers so much satisfaction.  It makes us smile.  The sun behind the cloud.

My role as Principal makes me smile too, and I thoroughly enjoy the way in which I can support the whole school in improving its provision.  Weeks like this test your capacity to keep doing this, but even now we are looking to the future.  How can we provide top class online learning? How much better could our communication to parents be?  How can we maintain the co-curriculum during such difficulties?  How good can our house sport be in times without fixtures?  All of these questions have complex and wide ranging answers but by being placed in trying circumstances we are forced to answer them and Shrewsbury has risen to the occasion superbly this week.  Thank you all, you are the silver lining to a very large cloud. 

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: LEADING LIGHTS

 

Lamps are different, but light is the same (Rumi)

Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian poet, cannot have conceived of a beacon of education in Bangkok when he apparently uttered the words above. Yet, they are fitting in summing up Riverside’s position at this key moment in the history of the school.

At our most recent Governors Meeting we reflected on Stephen Holroyd’s impact over his fifteen year tenure firstly as Riverside Principal and latterly as Director of Schools SIA. Some may have thought that arriving here in Bangkok to have your predecessor as your boss would be difficult, but no. Stephen’s generosity, wisdom and openness have been a wonderful support and lesson for all in the art of leadership.

In the coming months the lamp will change as Tim Nuttall will be in Bangkok in June, but the light will remain the same. Tim is an experienced educationalist with a vision aligned to ours, and someone we all look forward to working with.

Over thirteen years Sally Weston has embodied many of the values of a Shrewsbury education. Enthusiasm, commitment, determination and resilience have been the hallmarks of her rise to Vice Principal over that time and now into headship at Kenton College, Nairobi, Kenya. Though the lamp is changing, Sally’s legacy is the light that remains following all her efforts on behalf of the students of our school.

This week we have seen ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, staff and students returning from quarantine - rare enthusiasm for teaching and learning after an enforced absence.  That light has sustained many in the past days. Light attracts us and offers hope. The light at Shrewsbury is what draws families, students and staff to this family of schools and I can assure you it will remain undimmed.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: RIVERSIDE READY

 

I’ve got a few bits in (C.Seal snr)

My mum is an organised lady.  The cupboards are never bare, toilet roll is in abundance and the fridge is like a carefully stacked game of jenga - you move yoghurts at your peril!  When she said recently that she had ‘got a few bits in’ I knew she hadn’t been panic buying, but instead just continuing to shop normally, and fully.

It is then reassuring and unsurprising to know that she has recently taken delivery of soil and gravel so that she can continue her gardening activities through 16 weeks of self-isolation which coincides with a crucial period for growth and development in the horticultural domain.

This need to be ‘ahead of the game’ came from a period of British history where ‘just in time supply’ would have been an anathema. The hallmarks of the period closely following World War 2 were uncertainty, limited travel and economic difficulty - recognise this?

So in recent weeks Shrewsbury has done well to draw upon the lessons from Mrs Seal snr.  Carefully building resource, planning for the worst and showing stoicism in hoping for the best. 

In the next few weeks things will be challenging, but we are ready.  The wonderful students of Riverside have been beavering away ‘ahead of the game’ for some weeks now.  

Mr Baxter, our amazing mathematician, who is even older than Mrs Seal snr has purchased a rather snazzy tablet to ‘stop doing what he likes and start doing what is needed’.  We all know that Mr Baxter likes doing things well, and we all know he is ready for the challenges ahead.  I bet he’s got a few bits in too.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: CLOSED DOORS, OPEN MINDS

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen. (Vladimir Lenin)

This quote is doing the rounds on social media at the moment, and it does capture the momentous events we are witnessing.  I’m not sure I want to hold one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution up as a role model or figure of admiration, but this quote attributed to him expresses the acceleration of change that comes in times like these.

Only thirteen school days ago, we were in session, in school, in close communication.  Now we are spread to the four corners of Bangkok, and some further afield.  Somehow we are making it work - there are areas we could improve upon of course, but on the whole the students, parents and staff at Shrewsbury have found a way to hold the community of learners together.

In times like these we all look for reassurance.  In times like these we revert to what we know.  Established schools like Shrewsbury are pillars of support and reassurance.  We’ve been through major events before, the floods of 2011 and periods of political unrest still form much of the crisis responses we rely upon.  Previous experiences in the UK have shaped many of us too, as we become experienced at dealing with challenges such as bereavement, school closures through infectious disease, media intrusions and financial crises.  The experience and wisdom that Shrewsbury has in abundance, is a major asset in times like these. 

However, this asset must not lead to ossification and allow the decades to pass without a murmur.  We must use this experience to guide and protect, but also as the firm foundation from which to pivot into this new world.  In the 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev brought glasnost (openness) to the Soviet Union.  Decades of communism began to unravel and in a few short weeks in Autumn of 1989 the world changed as the Berlin Wall collapsed and the edifice built by Lenin and Stalin crumbled.  It was a scary, and exciting time.

2020 will be remembered as a scary time, but what comes after the storm is the sunshine and we all must draw on our collective experience to know that in time, this will pass.  In that new landscape our current students will find a world open to them, open to adaptation, open to new thinking, open to new options and ways of doing things.  All of this born out of the adversity we are currently experiencing, but also born out of the Shrewsbury community coming close to ensure that our young people have the confidence and skills to navigate what comes next.

Many of our young people have these skills in abundance already, and we will continue to learn from them as we move through the next section of this year.  They don’t know it yet, but they have a world of opportunity ahead of them because of what we are experiencing now.  They did anyway, but once this crisis is over, they will find a new freedom and openness to explore at Shrewsbury and beyond.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: STEPPING UP, MOVING FORWARD

 

"One step at a time" (Norman Croucher)

Norman Croucher came from a strict Methodist family, and so by the time he reached the legal drinking age in the UK (18 years old) he had not touched a drop of alcohol.  As he reached manhood, he decided that he had deserved a night away from his strict upbringing and drank heavily.  He drank so much alcohol that he became incoherent.  That night he fell down a railway embankment and remained on the ground in perilous danger.

The train that next passed the spot where Norman had fallen, did so much damage to his legs that both were amputated in 1960.  As a young man the trauma must have been almost unbearable, and yet by 1969 Norman became the first person with artificial limbs to walk the 900 mile journey from the southern tip of the UK, Lands End to the most northerly, John O”Groats.

Six months later he conquered the highest point in Europe, the Jungfrau.  Then in 1972 he scaled the extremely difficult western flank of the Eiger.  In the early 1980s Norman spent time trying to get to the fabled 8000m mark and even after a broken leg he crawled to the top of one peak.  On the descent from Cho Oyo in Tibet (8020m) he survived a night without a tent or sleeping bag by taking his legs off and sliding inside a large rucksack.

Norman is keen to point out his advantages as a climber - ‘obviously, keeping your feet warm is a problem at high altitude - but only if you have feet’.  Croucher also added that he can cheerfully avoid any special precautions against leeches and short snakes.

Over twenty years ago I met Norman after a quite extraordinary lecture he gave.  In awe at all he had achieved, I asked him a convoluted question on how he kept going through all his hardships.  Norman fixed my gaze and said ‘what you have to remember in climbing, and especially in my position, is to move forward one step at a time’.  Those simple words have stayed with me ever since, and have been incredibly useful to me in times of difficulty.  They and Norman’s inspiration is useful to me now, and I hope to you too.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: UNIVERSAL ADAPTORS, POWERING PROGRESS

 

Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology

My current read Range by David Epstein is a fascinating study into how generalists may be increasingly important in an increasingly specialised world.  Once chapter of the book stood out for me, the story of Nintendo, a brand that has been visiting our household since my daughters were quite small.

Paraphrased from Range:  

For centuries Japan banned hanafuda (flower cards) or playing cards, due to a perceived western influence on the people.  When the ban was lifted in the late 19th century a small shop opened in Kyoto, Nintendo - ‘the company that is allowed to sell hanafuda’.

By 1950, Nintendo had over one hundred workers but the company was struggling, and tried selling instant rice and noodles branded with cartoon characters, then tried and failed with its own taxi fleet, and also a disastrous and dubious hotel chain.  In 1965 Nintendo hired Gunpei Yokoi in the maintenance dept.  He was a tinkerer, a generalist.

Shortly afterwards Yokoi developed an extendable arm with grab capability.  Not afraid of diversifying, Nintendo entered the toy market with Ultra Hand, it sold 1.2m units.  Yokoi was swiftly moved to research where he produced Drive Game, a table top game way ahead of its time.  Drive Game was a total flop and a salutary lesson.

Nintendo was not a specialist toy company like Bandai, and could not compete at the cutting edge of the industry, so it returned to the success of Ultra Hand by employing the philosophy of ‘lateral thinking, withered technology’ reverting to cheap and simple tech.

In 1970 Nintendo introduced a remote controlled car that only turned left, the reduced radio channels making Lefty RX less than a tenth of the cost of the competition.  In 1977 Yokoi was riding a bullet train and watching a salaryman playing with a calculator, due to sheer boredom.  In 1980 Game and Watch was introduced, with Donkey Kong Game and Watch coming in 1982.  Over 11 years 43.4m cheap and simple units were sold.

When the Game Boy was launched the technology was laughable, but the user experience was excellent, it fitted into pocket, was virtually indestructible, and the game development simple and varied.  Game Boy sold 118.7m units.

Yokoi is clear, he needed specialists too and in the electronics domain he hired Satoru Okada who made everything work brilliantly, but they remained transparent that they were not producing ‘next gen’ games consoles.

The story of such success is a fascinating one, and evidence that not all success comes from the 10,000 hour rule, or the slavish attendance to specialisms.  In the current crisis we will need the specialists to find us a vaccine and move past this dreadful virus. However, we also need those who can join the dots, those who can see the connections, and those who are not afraid to pivot to something new, untried, or surprisingly simple.

For us at Shrewsbury Range reminds us that education is both broad and deep.  We need a thriving co-curriculum, we need laser focussed teaching on the toughest parts of every curriculum and we need young people with their minds open to both.  Interestingly, now might be a perfect opportunity to broaden learning, to try new things, to pivot, to specialise - all without the encumbrances of travelling to and from school.  Maybe something good may come of all this? 

Range - Epstein, David 2019.  Macmillan

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: AMNESIA LANE

 

I was reminded this week that twenty years ago I was involved in a cricket match where a very young James Anderson had his first professional success.  After taking his first wicket in this game, he went on to become England’s all time leading wicket taker and a world great.  

I realise many of you haven’t got a clue who he is, but that actually doesn't matter.  The point is that this discovery prompted many messages and chats over Whatsapp and Facebook trying to piece together the team from that day and their collective memories of what happened.  It really was, as a former colleague used to describe these conversations, a trip down ‘amnesia lane’.

A few weeks ago I also discovered it was the tenth anniversary of the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, resulting in the stoppage of air travel all over the Atlantic and Europe.  I was stranded with my family in Orlando, as we packed our bags for the airport after two indulgent weeks at Disneyland, we were abruptly told we were going nowhere.

Across the family we have different memories of that trip.  I can recall clearly the upset of one of my daughters at not being able to return to her teddy bears, she recalls vividly the scary rides we made her try, my other daughter remembers the free week in Universal Studios offered to all stranded travellers, and my wife recalls the vomit prevalent on the flight home as the turbulence played havoc with our economy seats at the back of the aircraft.  Happy days.

Memory is fickle, it does play tricks on you.  This is not surprising.  We each encode information in a unique way, then attend to this information in our working memory, and if this is constant enough the data hits the long term memory in a form that only you can retrieve.  

So we all remember things differently.  Sights, smells, experiences.  We were all there, yet it can sometimes appear that we attended different events.  My teammates instantly remembered that I top scored in the cricket game twenty years ago, I just remember losing the game and not much more.  My family all recall different pieces of information pertaining to events we all went to in America, and I reminded them in our conversation of the thickness of the dust on the car when we returned to the UK after three weeks away.

All this makes me wonder what our collective and individual memories of the last few months will be?  The quiet roads, the endless Zoom days, the blue skies, the cleaner air, constant letters and blogs, too much screen time, too little exercise, Netflix, worry, time with family?  The value of our community is that our collective memory will be varied and vibrant, as our individual memories combine to remind, reflect and relearn some of the events of the past few months.  

The trick then is how we learn from it, and how we use our memory as a force for good.  I look forward to all the reminiscences in coming months and again twenty more years from now.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: WHERE DOES OPTIMISM COME FROM?

 

I’m feeling optimistic.  I’m not entirely sure why.  Our school physically closed, disastrous news from the UK, the US and now Mexico where it seems the spread of COVID19 is being downplayed by the government.  Yet, there is something that is feeding my positivity, and I’m not entirely sure what it is.

With this in mind I did some digging through my library and Google.  I’ve long been interested in Positive Psychology and according to Prof Martin Seligman 60% of us are ‘somewhat optimistic’. In 2006 Suzanne Segerstrom claimed this number could be more like 80%.  I’m unclear which definition of optimism these studies used, but Google tells us that optimism is ‘hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something’.

I am certainly hopeful.  Hopeful of a return to school, and a visit to the barbers in the coming weeks.  I’m also confident.  There is little I can do about the infection rate in Bangkok but at Riverside the team will prepare methodically and with skill to ensure that any protocol we devise can be successfully delivered.  If we open in the coming weeks, we will be ready. 

So, am I a born optimist?  In 2007 Reuters reported a study from NYU that showed the rostral anterior cingulate and the amygdala lit up in brain scans when scenarios filled with optimism were played out on subjects.  Interestingly, Elizabeth Phelps the NYU Professor of Psychology said these are also the parts of the brain that are also affected in depression.  

This would seem to support Seligman’s long held and much debated theory that optimism can be learned, and that we are all on a continuum between depression and optimism. 
The last few months have felt less like a continuum and more like a rollercoaster and in my experience the best thing about a rollercoaster is getting off.   

So maybe this explains my optimism now - it's time to get off (or back)?  I’m broadly positive anyhow (one of the 60-80%?), signs that Bangkok is coming back to life are encouraging (and yes, a little scary), the chances of opening our school seem closer and I’m surrounded by wonderful people who can help us all do this safely.

Trait and state, nature and nurture.  You decide.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: HUMAN AFTER ALL?

 

The COVID19 pandemic has had some benefits.  I’ve spent more time with my children in the last three months than I could have ever hoped for, as they were both due to make their assault on the public examinations that never were.  In the evenings, we have spent time together chatting, cooking, eating and watching.  

Netflix’s Last Dance was one of the most recent binge watches, and the presentation of Michael Jordan’s incredible career has been compelling.  Compelling because of his extraordinary athleticism, shown in sometimes ‘less than HD’ footage from the 80s.  Compelling because despite what we all saw on court, he is human.  Compelling, because in his human frailty he could be domineering, obsessive, brilliant, compulsive, and abusive.  Compelling, because he (and others) in the series aren’t entirely likeable.

This reminds me of a brief conversation in 2005.  I stood in the press box at Trent Bridge watching Kevin Pieterson play cricket for England.  A friend to my left muttered under his breath with some prior experience, ‘he’s a ****!’  In an instant and without contradiction, a colleague to my right who knew sport very well replied ‘he’ll score 20 test hundreds for England’.  At that point Pieterson hadn’t scored any, but later that year he would memorably flog the Aussies for his first century, and he would go on to score 23 more of them.  My friend and colleague were both right and in one conversation the frailties of some of the most driven athletes are exposed.

There were parts of the Last Dance that I really didn’t enjoy.  I had spent time as a young man playing and enjoying basketball, I liked it and thought Jordan to be the ultimate expression of it.  I suppose I always thought he was a lovely guy too, why would I not?  Last Dance exposed my folly -  he wasn’t particularly, but he is human.  
For this we should applaud him.  Now as the waistline has expanded and the eyes slightly less sparkly, he can see his own frailties as they existed in his playing days.  His emotional pieces to camera are some of the most compelling pieces of television you are likely to see - a hero unmasked, the ego laid bare.

I recommend Last Dance to you all, and although the language is a little choice here and there, there is much to enjoy.  In these strange long evenings, a bit of humanity might be just what you need.  

This pandemic reminds us all that we are all human, even our heroes.  The most powerful, and the most humble can be equally affected by the virus and indeed by any of life’s travails.  I suppose our role in life is to educate young people to ensure that in their generation the most powerful and the most humble can also access all of life’s successes too? 

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: WAITING

 

Waiting rooms, waiting lists, the waiting game.  Our current predicament reminds me of a play I studied at university - Waiting for Godot.

Unsure if they are waiting at the right place for a person who may never turn up, Estragon and Vladimir debate the most profound question - what should we do?

The English language offers some options, kicking heels, twiddling thumbs, holding back or indeed your horses.

The theatre of the absurd, a movement born out of the desperation of World War 2 after which artists struggled to find meaning in devastation and uncertainty.  The absurdists found a way to blend this possibly grim and paired back approach with humour.  

Estragon and Vladimir seem not to have a sense of purpose, yet waiting is  Estragon and Vladimir’s purpose.  Samuel Beckett refused to be drawn on what the play means, saying famously that the only thing he could be sure of was that ‘Estragon and Vladimir were wearing bowler hats’. 

Scholar Iseult Gillespie said ‘Beckett reminds us that the world doesn’t always make sense and although a tidy narrative appeals, the best theatre keeps us thinking’.

Our purpose is not waiting, nor does it define us.  Thinking, planning and sharing have defined recent weeks and although the outcome hasn’t always been what is expected, the process and some humour along the way, is worthwhile nonetheless.

We don’t know if our ‘Godot’ will arrive, but if it does we’ll be ready.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: FUEL, OXYGEN AND A SPARK

 

There is much I have forgotten of my time as a ‘scout’ in the mid 1980s.  A rite of passage for thousands of young men in the UK, I do recall that we camped, we cooked, and we played (football mostly I think).  One lesson stood out for me, how to build and start a fire.  

It is one of the few elements of practical life I can deploy, all because I remember the golden rules of fire - you need dry fuel (or liquid accelerant if you are in a hurry), a good supply of oxygen and a spark.

Fires are raging across the world following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, and it struck me that the news reports from a variety of channels all used this analogy over recent days.  The metaphoric fires have good fuel - centuries of inequality and the specifics of police violence in the US that stretch way back well before the Rodney King riots of the early 1990s or the civil rights clashes of the 1960s.  

Oxygen has been introduced too, Social media platforms that breath life into these cases in a way that rightly allows appalling abuses to be called out.  A divided country under a divisive President, who chose to fan the flames and introduce more oxygen instead of dousing the fire with the cold water of arrests, legislation and reform.  The spark is the truly awful video we have all seen.

In some places, real fires burn.  History tells us that this will happen when there is a widely held sense of injustice.  Fuel, oxygen and the spark.  Some seek to condemn, others to support but I hope most seek to understand.  

Each and every one of us will have a different and nuanced reaction to this fire (metaphorical or  physical) and criticisms of each other's reactions now common on social media misses the point entirely.  The point is what will we do with this fire and especially what must we do once it burns out.

For this we need tangible results.  Leadership through the legislative processes to ensure that George Floyd is not just another statistic.  We’ll need argument, debate and discourse but most of all we’ll need to understand the pain and passion this issue brings forward before we set about preventing such fires in the future.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: A CHANGE IS AS GOOD AS A REST

 


As we come ever closer to reopening Riverside, change is in the air.  As I write, the chatter of a busy school is returning to the corridors close by.  Training plans and resources in place, teachers returning to campus in taxis or with sodden feet as the rainy season confirms its presence.  

Change, and in some ways, a return to things we know and love.  Change that offers us all some respite from the long days of online learning and the chance to refresh ourselves with the long overdue social interaction we all need.  Change, as good as a rest?  

‘A change is as good as a rest’ is one of those English phrases which seems accepted wisdom and yet we don’t often pause to think too much about.  Often delivered in rather sarcastic tone with perhaps a raise of the eyebrow (or two), it can be part of the peculiarly British combination of ‘stiff upper lip’, humour and well meaning optimism.

In recent weeks we have been challenged to reconsider the darker parts of British history as statues of slave masters and wartime leaders have been attacked as symbols of racism.  The acts of vandalism are in themselves difficult to support, but they signal a change.  A change in the way Empire will be seen, and a change in focus to the victims of Empire rather than the ‘heroes’ of it.  This change is welcome, as anyone who has studied History will know Empire to be a tawdry business leaving an uncomfortable legacy, will confirm.

That change may not bring a rest in the short term, but the goal should be that all parts of society can rest knowing that inequality is being challenged.  

For us all at Riverside, in a much less important way, change brings more work and some challenges but it does bring the refreshment that we need.  Life without a thriving and busy school has been difficult on many levels, and as this phase now comes to a close, we can rest knowing that we supported each other through a truly testing period.

So no sarcasm here, this week change really is as good as a rest.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: TIME FOR RECREATION

 

A little like most of our smartphones, I always feel the word ‘recreation’ is one of those in the English language where we use only a fraction of its real functionality.  We often talk about recreation as an activity.  We walk, we run, we cycle, we might even term shopping or doing nothing as recreation.

This is of course a perfectly accurate way to use the word, but for me it means so much more.  Recreation offers something much deeper and more permanent.  Look again at definitions of the word and you’ll find ‘refreshment of strengths and spirits after work’ or more broadly to ‘create again’.

This is the recreation we should all seek after the recent period of uncertainty and challenge.  We should seek to refresh both body and mind after a period of intense work.  This should be done in the knowledge that the school year is deliberately designed to have these points of refreshment and recreation.

As Academic Year 2020/21 approaches we will be creating a new Shrewsbury.  A Shrewsbury of growth,  A physically bigger Shrewsbury - more students, more teachers, and better facilities.  However, perhaps more importantly the period of refreshment we now enter allows us to pause, reflect and grow as people and professionals.  

With a deliberate period of refreshment and recreation, we will come back wiser, better equipped to deal with extreme challenges such as COVID19 and  more skilful in navigating our technologies.

I look forward to seeing you all, and engaging with our new Shrewsbury in August, until then stay safe and get refreshed! 

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: AN UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITY

 

This week has been an absolute joy.  Students on campus and finally an opportunity to wish our graduating students a farewell.  Not the one they deserved but an unexpected opportunity nonetheless.  Here are my words to them as we said goodbye.

Welcome back, and goodbye.  Another bitter sweet moment for us all.  The moment we had in this hall just before closure, will I think, remain one of my abiding memories of this period.  Given all that I had heard and read at that time, I never expected us to return this year, and genuinely thought that was goodbye.  How pleased we all are then that I was wrong again! 

In having you all on campus over the last few days, there are some thank yous.  To Mr Cornforth and Mr Millar who led the way with the arrangements, to the incredible academic team who organised us all so well.  To the 6th form exec for driving the consultation with you and the thinking behind our events and the event next year.  To you, for enjoying all that we could do.  To your parents who tolerated our dithering.  Thank you all.
To be able to say goodbye, offers us all the closure we had never expected to need.  The period we have experienced has robbed you of so much, and yet we hope has provided you with opportunities and experiences that will never be forgotten.  
Bitter, sweet.  Rough and smooth.  Dark and light

You have in three months experienced what those of us with grey hair know to be true about life in general.  Some of it is easy, some of it enjoyable, some of it dark and disturbing.  But in all things, life is varied, abundant and filled with moments to satisfy your curiosity.  We could be lulled into thinking that these past months are the hardest ever, so many new and unprecedented things.  Zoom, teams, meets?

But many of you were born in 2001. On September the 11th 2001, planes were crashed into the twin towers.  War in Afghanistan the month after and that same October the iPod was launched.  In December 2001 China joined the World Trade Organisation and January 2002 saw the Euro born as a currency.  The winter olympics held in February and the football world cup in May.  And 2002 was designated the international year of ecotourism.
A rather random collection of happenings from history, large events and small.  Significant and not so.  Rough with smooth.  Light and dark.  Life will throw these things at you, and does so without asking for your permission or response.

What you choose to do is down to you and how you react is a personal and variable response.  But one thing I do know is that life will be more interesting if you can share your choices and responses with others.

You’ll meet fascinating people.  Some horrible, some lovely.  Rough and smooth.  Significant and not so.  But one constant is that you will have your classmates.  The Class of 2020.  The COVID class.

The moments you have spent here in the last 48 hours we hope reinforce the togetherness you have, reestablish the friendships and lasting bonds. Give you closure and offer you hope.

 

  • You are an extraordinary group.  I’m a little bit biased as you know, but I’m very fond of this year group. 
  • You have been welcoming, friendly and supportive
  • You are able, fiercely loyal and yet independent
  • You made a difference, and worked as one
  • You have potential and have yet achieved so much
  • You will be missed and have already been so

I wasn't sure what and how much to say today.  If I've bored you again, then I’m sorry.  I just wanted to reflect how one dad, and one teacher feels about this year group and grasp the opportunity to wish you well.  Unusually for me I want to end with poetry

 

Goodbye, My Dearest Friend (adapted)
Leilani Hermosa Peterson

The hardest part of any friendship
is when it is time to say goodbye,
and even though we wished we could make you stay,
we know we have to let you spread your wings and fly.

For life is a journey that needs to be traveled,
and we are certain you'll make it through,
we just want you to know and never forget
that we will surely miss you.

So follow your heart and never give up,
as dreams and wishes do come true,
we know that someday we'll meet again,
so never forget we will be praying for you.


RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: BACK TO BUSINESS

 

Yesterday I met with Shrewsbury Parents and then took to making a video to address some concerns about our return to Riverside this term.  As ever, I was disappointed to hear there were areas of our operation that hadn't quite reached everyone's expectations. Yet, I was strangely pleased to be dealing with issues about parking, the shop and the boat. Not once was the 'C' word mentioned….

These conversations are the meat and drink of being Principal. Ever seeking to improve what we do - the feedback of parents, students and staff forms a critical part in ensuring we are always moving forward. In the past, I would then respond with a carefully constructed letter, but times have changed. Blessed with a face for radio, I am no media superstar, but these past few months have shown us that we can and should do things differently. Therefore, there will be more videos to come this year!

Increased agility is a focus for our leadership group this year. More meetings, more often but of much shorter duration. Listen to the feedback, assess and consider, devise a response, and move on. A swifter, more agile set of actions and reactions. In doing this, we hope you see the school change - not in a reactive and scattergun way, but in a carefully considered and positive fashion that brings incremental improvements as we move through a year.

Some things don't change—the professionalism of our staff, both teaching and non-teaching. Preparing a school for opening is always a colossal effort and Mr Pinks' team once again stepped up. The design department looks incredible, and the new admissions, marketing, reception and shop areas all a significant improvement. In the classroom, our teaching staff have responded to the challenges around masks and distancing superbly. In exercising their agility, they have found ways to adapt their outstanding teaching to the new term.

As I write a rather odd case of local transmission has been found in Thailand. The nation will hold its breath, the economists again turning into pessimists, and we all hope and pray that this can be contained. In the weeks ahead, we must continue to enjoy what we have. Face to face lessons, sport returning, music beginning to emit from the fourth floor and grumbles about the traffic are all part of being back together as a community. These moments can be good, bad or indifferent, but all are moments to savour in a way we might not have done before.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: WELCOME BACK!

 

It has been truly wonderful to complete this week at Shrewsbury.  A week where the co-curriculum roared back into life, a week where lessons and home learning picked up pace and intensity, a week where the leadership teams moved the school forward again.  

This was a week where we held the first joint Heads of School lunch.  Junior and Senior Heads of School, joined by Senior Prefects, Sports Captains, Deputy Heads of School, Music Captains and the staff involved in their selection.  It was a wonderful moment to bring together students across the school who have asked for the responsibility of representing a growing and diverse culture.  The noodles were good, the ice creams enjoyed and the conversations urgent and tinged with excitement.

Heads-of-School-2020.jpg

Coming together over a meal we reaffirmed our relationships.  We are working together to make this school greater, and this was echoed by a meeting held earlier in the day with two of our most respected students.  They came to offer flowers as part of the Wai Kru celebration.  As we completed the celebration, and I received the flowers on behalf of all the teaching staff we connected over the meaning of Wai Kru.  The cultural tradition so valued in schools is important and respected, but increasingly important is the communication between student and teacher in gaining a shared understanding of what this moment means.  

For staff at Shrewsbury it does not mean deference. We neither expect it nor demand it.  We want young people to challenge themselves and others throughout their education within the vital framework of mutual respect.  We learn much from our students, and only do so in collaborating and offering freedoms that build confidence and courage.

Courage comes in many guises, and this week we also welcomed the new EY1 parents to come together and learn more about how we will support their children in the years to come.  Holding their nerve in recent months required courage, and this show of faith in Shrewsbury will be repaid by the hard work, skill and brilliance of our teachers.  Mutual respect will foster open, honest and courageous communication in good times and more difficult ones.

Great schools are built on great communities, which in turn come from strong relationships.  A new term, many new relationships, but the same commitment to build these in a positive and respectful way.  Welcome to Shrewsbury!

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: OUT WITH THE OLD, AND IN WITH THE NEW?

 

You can’t beat something new.  The smell of a new car, the crispness of a new bank note, the thrilling early stages of a new relationship.  

Every school year brings this sense of newness.  Some new facilities to explore and enjoy, new students to settle and nurture, and new parents to welcome into our wonderful community.  The new staff offer the opportunity to reflect on the complexity and excitement of Shrewsbury Riverside.  

Their slightly bewildered faces as they exited quarantine some weeks ago now are memorable, and not so different from the ones we see most years in my apartment for a post flight coffee.  This bewilderment lingers for a while as they get to grips with a school of nearly 1,800 students in a relatively small corner of Bangkok.  It reminds us that our community is complex, diverse and vibrant.

Now that the term is in full swing, the bewilderment has changed to purpose and enjoyment.  Strings Festivals organised, trips out with artists, sports teams being managed, lessons delivered confidently and with the skill we expected from recruitment processes.  New staff becoming current staff.

For a while we will be talking about Philip Stewart as the new Vice Principal (Head of Junior).  When he joins in 2021 he will bewildered by the variety and quality of what we do.  It will take him time to transition from the new VP, to our current VP.  This process is normal and far from new, but along the way we will also gain from the newness that we welcome.  

We hope he doesn’t smell like a new car, and in the Bangkok heat his shirts won’t stay as crisp as a bank note for long, but the excitement of a new relationship will benefit us all.  He will learn what Shrewsbury is, and we will learn much from him.  His experience is considerable, his intellect strong, and his enthusiasm for providing the best environment for young learners is fierce.

But finally, new is only one piece of the complicated jigsaw puzzle that we call education.  

Shrewsbury is rightly proud of our wonderful community and all the sections within.  We celebrate those who have worked here for 15 years or more, the students who stay here longer do better - old is good!  So it can’t be out with the old and in with the new.  Instead we look forward to the new complimenting the old, as Bertold Brecht once said ‘mixing one’s wines may be a mistake, but old and new wisdom mix admirably’.

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.

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: 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: 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: 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: IN THE BAND

 

My last blog post, ‘The November paradox’ was nearly two weeks ago, and then I detailed the challenges of a full calendar as we come towards the end of the term.

Today I write after a rather late night celebrating the success of the cast and crew of School of Rock.  The small gathering I had in my apartment displayed the exhaustion, exhilaration, camaraderie and commitment that is necessary to deliver excellence.

School of Rock was an absolute triumph.  Eighteen months of hard labour, a changing cast, changing body shapes and voices, students learning instruments from scratch and staff brilliantly led by Ms Sanders willfully giving time to a project that we could barely believe was actually being delivered.

The story of Dewey Finn, a fraudulent no hoper who cons a class and school into forming a band, eschewing the traditional curriculum in the process, might not seem the obvious choice for the leading academic school in Thailand.  Yet the story of School of Rock is so important to us.  It reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.  It reminds us that life is about balance.  It reminds us that music has real value in all our lives, and it reminds us how music makes us feel.

An anonymous member of the leadership team and I both confessed to a consistent struggle during the performance last night, to keep control of our emotions.  The visceral performances, the context of the near abandonment of this show and the extraordinary talents and skills of cast and crew brought joy and happiness to so many over three nights.  Wow!

This show comes during that intense period I alluded to a few weeks ago.  The Music Scholars played quite beautifully at The Peninsula hotel seven days ago - a calming and soothing experience made all the more enjoyable by the wonderful venue.  The New Staff Recital showcased the effortless power of Mr Archibald, the stunning intensity of Mr Watkins and Ms Calvert and the quiet brilliance of Mr Jay.  

On each occasion, the power of music has spoken to us.  It has filled us with pride as we are personally connected with all involved, and in our own private ways has allowed us to think positively about all that is to come. Music lifts the spirits, a tonic for the harder times and an expression of joy and emotion that moves us and inspires us.  

Music at Shrewsbury is in good health.  Talent abounds and in a recent review we have settled upon ‘inspiring young musicians’ as the clear yet ambiguous mission statement.  We intend to inspire them, and we intend to surround ourselves with inspiring people and sounds, and as well as climbing ‘Mount Rock’ we intend to scale the heights of all types of performance by delivering an outstanding music curriculum.  As we move forward, you’ll want to ‘be in the band’.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: HAPPY NEW YEAR (TWICE)

Happy New Year (twice)

It is a curious feeling to be heading towards 2021 in Thailand and wishing all a Happy New Year knowing that Songkran is still four months away.  

The throwing of water in April is always deeply symbolic in marking a new year as well as great fun, and a way of restarting things for many.  We could all do with a restart.  An opportunity to put 2020 and COVID19 behind us.  We are then uniquely blessed at Shrewsbury to celebrate the start of two years - the Gregorian calendar restarting in January, and the Thai celebration in April.

So, we get two chances to wash away the memory of a most difficult time.  We get two chances to step forward in our new lives.  We get two chances to bless each other with good will and wishes of good fortune.  

In recent weeks I have shared much with the community about 2021, and the excitement that we will all experience at the completion of this phase of our building works.  Similarly we are excited about how our academic programmes continue to build in breadth and depth, our sport continues to push new boundaries, and music developing fresh thinking and ideas opening up a world of opportunities.  2021 has the capacity to make us all forget 2020.

However, we should not forget 2020 completely.  This community has been tested in a way that all communities were.  We are still standing, no, we are still flourishing.  To flourish is to grow in a vigorous and healthy way.  Remarkably 2020 saw this happen at Shrewsbury.  

In numbers yes, but more importantly in those programmes already described and also in the delivery of a top class musical in School of Rock.  Equally in response to the challenges of February, March and April we grew as a community.  Tackling adversity and understanding the challenges set and the solutions required.  It has been a joy to see students and staff grow and flourish.  My weekly donut eating contest is a measure of all that is well in our community, and the varied and persistent membership of the Floreat club has been humbling to witness.

2020 may not have been kind to everyone, but ironically then for Shrewsbury it is a year we should recall with some fondness.  We came through, we flourished, we grew closer and stronger and we find ourselves in a great position to enjoy 2021.

I wish you all a very happy festive period, and also look forward to a new calendar year but the continuation of what is already an enormously successful academic year.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: ADVERSITY'S UNEXPECTED GIFTS?

 

It has taken me a while to come up with a response to my positive and enthusiastic blog post from mid December. I was looking forward to another thrilling and exhilarating term of excellence and creativity in our marvellous school - then COVID returned!

So here we are studying from home, with teachers responding swiftly to a return to online or distance learning, and parents supporting us all with patience and strength.  Quite a turn around, and one that we could be quite disheartened by.

However, there are some positives to this situation and the last twelve months in general.  It is an unfashionable thought, and one that I make with a clear and profound understanding of all the challenges of recent times. 

Firstly, the swift return to online learning was exactly that - swift.  The clarity provided meant we were better prepared, better supported and working with a group of young people who were more prepared for all that is to come.  A group of young people who may be more resilient now than twelve months ago? 

Our provision is not perfect, but much better.  We are improving, and more open about what we are trying to achieve.  Over the course of the last few months there has been more communication between school and home about pedagogy, how students learn, how we examine, why we do certain things in education, and what evidence base we have for them.  These conversations and the democratisation of teaching and learning can only be a good thing.

The Shrewsbury community is clear that seeking the very best teachers is a priority for me.  This is a challenge I relish, and those highly qualified and experienced professionals guide and support you all through the labyrinthine world of education.  The best ones of course do this with a sense of reflection and renewal, and the openness to new thinking and opportunities to challenge long held but unsubstantiated beliefs.  These are the teachers who always catch my eye - the ones who reflect on the lesson you just watched and say ‘well it could have been better’, even if it was already outstanding.

So we have the experts at Shrewsbury, but those experts are growing and learning too.  In recent months we have appointed more of these outstanding teachers.  An Historian with a first class honours degree from Oxford, another Mathematician from the same institution, an outstanding EY practitioner from one of our best feeder schools and scientists with PhDs.  All keen to move to a school and country that values high quality teaching and learning.

Usually at this time of year we are advertising around twenty teaching positions - this is normal for a large school and a 8-10% turnover is a healthy one for any school.  However, this year we retain 96% of staff as a result of the current situations in Thailand and the UK and as such look forward to finding only a few more exceptional people to join a community that reflects, grows and develops together in a resilient manner.  COVID is something none of us wanted, but something that has shaped us, and in some ways shaped us positively.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: HAPPY NEW YEAR (AGAIN)

 

With our campus swathed in red, and lanterns swinging in the welcome breeze Riverside celebrated the start of the year of the ox this week.

With gifts from the Shrewsbury Parents’ volunteers, and a myriad of wonderful outfits the campus was noisy, colorful and filled with joy.  It is hard to believe that only two weeks ago this all seemed very distant again.

The opportunity to celebrate three different new year celebrations is a sign of our diverse and inclusive culture and also our capacity to enjoy the opportunity to restart and refresh.  The theme of refreshment is key to many new year celebrations.  Washing or sweeping away poor luck feels cathartic, and although never easy to stick to, making resolutions for new projects or behaviours allow focus.

In reopening the school for the third time after periods of closure, we are hopeful once again that we can again begin to sweep away some of the restrictions on our lives.  This is easier said than done and we all know this will be a long process, but to have the school full with enthusiastic learners and teachers delighted to be back doing what they love, we have a glimpse of what is ahead.

Learning is the thread that binds us all in the Shrewsbury community.  Over the past twelve months we have learned much.  How to deliver a school online, how to reopen after closure, how to manage students safely and successfully in a pandemic, how to keep aspirations high in all areas of school and how to continually work in an environment that offers few certainties or security.  

As we all know learning is not a linear or easy process, but one where progress can plateau or accelerate swiftly.  Schools experience institutional learning as an aggregation of the people within. Over these twelve months Shrewsbury has built on the wealth of prior experience held to adapt to challenging circumstances.  It can do this well as the average stay for staff at Shrewsbury is over 6 years (3 contracts!).  In 2020 (pre COVID) we retained 93% of our fully qualified teaching staff, in 2021 we will retain 96% of them. Exceptional people drawn to stay at an exceptional school.

The more we stay together the more knowledge and experience builds, all of which benefits the students especially as the Shrewsbury community navigates uncharted waters.

So as another new year dawns, Shrewsbury embraces all that is ahead with the benefit of all that has come before.  If you search ‘the character of the ox’ on google, Wikipedia tells you that ‘strong, reliable and fair’ are the keywords that describe that year.  

These words are perfect for describing Shrewsbury’s journey in recent months.  The strength of the experience and intellect of the exceptional people we already have, the reliability of knowing that the institution retains almost all of the community year on year, and fairness links so strongly to our ethical and valued governance from the UK and Thailand.  

Not a bad way to move forward - happy new year 新年快乐

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: A LIFE WELL LIVED

 

Think not how they die, but how did they live

Last week we said goodbye to a much loved colleague - this is my address to the school on Friday 5th March.

We come together here through a school year for  a variety of different reasons.  Some joyous, some less so.  Some in celebration, sometimes to remember. We come together today to remember one of our own. 

Mr Holes came to Riverside in 2016, after an excellent UK career where like many of your teachers, he had been a leader.  As Head of Faculty he had successfully managed a large team of teachers across 5 subject specialisms.  As brother in law to Riverside Physical Education teacher at the time, Mr Baldwin, he was welcomed with open arms. 

One of his supporting references from 2016 simply stated:

‘Mr Holes is a valued colleague who I recommend to you without reservation for this position.  He is enthusiastic and passionate about his subject enabling students to have high quality experiences within this area.’

Amen to that.

Mr Holes died on Thursday 18th February aged 40.  Too young, for a man of such rich talent.  Too young for a much loved colleague Too young for a loving husband and devoted father

Mr Holes was a keen sportsman and fitness fanatic, further compounding the challenge in processing this news and the shock felt by the community over the last two weeks.

Mr Holes was a much loved teacher here with a vibrant and vital character.  He was an important part of our community, as indeed his wife Ami and two daughters are still.

I can recall early meetings with Mr Holes when I arrived in 2017.  He always walked straight towards me with a broad grin and an outstretched hand.  
His firm handshake was not an attempt to ingratiate, just an expression of this genuine and welcoming character.  You remember people like Mr Holes, they make an impression on everyone.

Over the years I got to know a committed professional with a real passion for doing things well.  Mr Holes lived life to the full, gave his all when in school and gave just as much to life outside of lessons.

In his own time he designed and built his own products, bringing his subject to life.  Many staff own something Mr Holes designed and made whether it be a chopping board, a bar stool, a wedding present or a gift for a family member.  Mr Holes also built bespoke camping vehicles and was in the process of renovating a property in France.

He loved his rugby, and his motorbike.  In days gone past we might have referred to Mr Holes as a ‘man's man’, as he liked traditionally male pursuits.  
But this overlooks the kind and sensitive individual who always asked ‘how are you’ like he really meant it.  

Beneath what seemed to be a granite like exterior which could intimidate the untrained, was a gentle and caring man - his friendships were deep and warm and will be sorely missed.

Grief can impact people in a variety of ways, and as such there is no right or wrong way to deal with this tragic event.  
Mr Holes had seen his fair share of grief too, losing both mother and father in recent years.  Mr Holes dealt with it stoically, but not in a silly or old fashioned way.  

The emotions he was feeling through those difficult times were close enough to the surface for us all to see. So my guess is that Mr Holes would be fine with our show of emotion today. I reckon he’d be fine with stopping lessons to say a few words about him too. I reckon he’d even be fine with us all reflecting on his impact on us all.

Mr Holes showed us that life should be lived.  Enjoy each day, and get as much from it as you can. These statements seem obvious and yet we find ourselves procrastinating and delaying things all too often. Today is our opportunity to stop and remember but also begin the process of moving forward.

I’ll finish then with what might have been a Mr Holes team talk on the rugby field; work hard, commit everything you have, don’t waste a moment
but most of all, stick together.

It is us who need to stick together now as we move forward without Mr Holes. Thank you for everything you did for us.  We will miss you, and try to do you proud.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: BUILDINGS THAT BUILD US

 

(published in Independent School Leaders Magazine in the UK)

Project 2021 seemed a good idea at the time.  In 2016 the plan was hatched to grow capacity from 1600 students to 2300, at our 16 acre central Bangkok Riverside campus.  

The first part went remarkably smoothly despite a few hiccups.  In order to free up space we moved all parking underground.   On Christmas Day December 2017 we started the onerous task of breaking up existing roads to build a three storey underground car park.   The complaints from a nearby hotel as the piling loosened fillings and other medical installations was also compounded by the heartbreaking moment when a much loved sports field disappeared.  

Building work is not easy.  The noise, the vibrations, the complexity and the danger all combine to set challenges like no other and the opportunity to reflect on how we rose to them.  The swampy underpinnings of Bangkok provided us with a few grey hairs as my desk would regular vibrate to the tune of the machines some 400 metres away, and also the ever present water seeping in from the River of Kings (or Chao Phraya) meant that large cracks appeared in concrete all over the site.

However our contractor RITTA proved from an early stage to be trustworthy and hugely safety conscious.  In advance of the build we met with a director of the company to get across our concerns and issues.  Safety, safety and safety were the items on the agenda as we laboured  over fine details about crane jib length and access to site.  This laser focus on H&S and the  follow up work from school was an early success and something that has worked for us since those early stages.  The relationship built with RITTA has meant they have earned new contracts and we have faith in all they do, especially when they have delivered the car park on time and on budget.

I attempted feebly to get the marketing team to press the claim that we are the only school in the world with a three storey underground car park, but they weren't impressed.  Even when I suggested the “Holroyd Hole’ (after my brilliant predecessor and boss at the time) as the name for the completed project, nobody bit - but they did laugh, and this was key as the complexity of the projects increased over time and the decisions became more challenging, humour became a key part of our approach. 

Not swallowed by the car park, we set off on the next stage - a delightful interlude where we developed a new shop, reception, medical centre, staff room in one summer (only twelve months after completely redesigning a two storey library).  By this time (through 2019) I was spending more time with architects than my wife.  This is probably the reason why our marriage survives, but my relationship with DWP Architects has developed into a mutually supportive understanding.  First drafts of plans are close to the eventual outcome with increasing regularity - proof absence might make the heart grow fonder, but being together more often than not is the recipe for the success of any relationship.

With the interlude closing, we embarked on the main build.  7 storeys of dining, science, mathematics, computing, 6th form space, and innovation (whatever that meant?).  This question of what innovation means took me round the world on a quest to find the perfect piece of architecture.  However, visits to Babson, Caltech, premium schools in the UK, Cambridge and Choate Rosemary Hall in Massachusetts delivered a consistent answer.  The innovation we all seek is in the minds of young people, and could easily be ‘over-engineered’.  The simplicity of those spaces in top class establishments and some forward thinking by our Head of 6th Form drove the concept of ‘Space to Think’.  Adaptable and flexible spaces that offer everyone an environment free from distraction and replete with opportunity.

During the lengthy 2020 lockdown we employed these principles and accelerated a refurbishment of our Design department.  With no students on site we gambled on not returning for the remainder of the academic year and went for it - we were right all bar 13 days in June where the DT department moved to its junior school facility.  We’ve built new open plan spaces allowing circulation, great light and access to all manner of facilities and materials  - an environment fit for innovation.

In the new 6th Form space we now are building Darwin Rooms.  Small break out rooms that could be timetabled for smaller classes in MFL or such like, but also freely available to the students and staff for their own thinking.  In science the laboratoires are 120sqm, larger than most.  Space to move, and space to think in abundance.  My world tour of architecture over three years also took me to Manchester, initially not a promising destination but there we found S+B Labs, a world leading design and build company offering premium fit and finish and willing to deliver bespoke units in our oversized facility.

Size has become a key discussion in recent years at Riverside as we look to move past the 2000 mark for total roll.  The enrollment of new students could have been a challenge in a pandemic, but has been met with enthusiasm and innovation by a wonderful admissions team conjoined perfectly with the senior management team (that's another article right there).   With numbers looking good, size matters.  18 labs, 16 Maths classrooms, 140spm of makerspace, 140sqm of robotics lab and 340sqm of strength and conditioning to accompany the two new basketball courts bringing our total to five.

If you started playing serious sport in the early 90s as I did, strength and conditioning was having a cup of tea in the pavilion and a slow lap of the outfield, but now sports science reaches all levels of abilities in schools like ours.  The new facility is based on the Powerbase concept at Loughborough, another clear indication of our ambition in Project 2021.

As I write the glaziers are on site, the carpets being selected and furniture being ordered.  Since we started we’ve seen one pandemic, two lockdowns, one Thai election, Brexit, three Christmas breaks on deserted beaches, two UK elections and endured most of the Trump era.  2021 is upon us, Facebook live sessions espousing the virtues of the new build and applications are coming - who said building in a pandemic was impossible?

A quick Google search reveals two quotes about building that resonate with Shrewsbury’s recent exploits in the world of construction.  Winston Churchill is apparently responsible for ‘we shape our buildings: thereafter, our buildings shape us’ and entrepreneur Jim Rohn rather more vaguely stated that 'whatever good things we build, end up building us’.

These projects have indeed shaped us, and will continue to build this community long into the future.  Floreat Salopia.

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: HERE WE GO AGAIN

 

As I sat in my office chair at home on Sunday to review paperwork ready for the start of the final week of term, I was in a cheerful mood.  I’d made myself a strong cup of tea and an early round of golf that morning produced a back 9 score of 45.  Not my best, but some nice pars and my 9 iron is ‘dialled in’ at the moment.  Then I looked at my phone.

Three schools to be closed on Monday after links established with COVID cases.  We had come close ourselves the previous week when City Campus closed after a parent tested positive.  We had spent much of the remainder of that week cauterising all known links with our colleagues across town.  A brutal but necessary exercise to preserve the safety of the Riverside campus.

The SHR Executive Whatsapp group roared into life.  Close and trusted colleagues exchanging thoughts and guidance.   Google docs followed swiftly after with a well thought through and collaboratively written letter to the school community acknowledging the concerns that all will have and detailing our actions to come - a major review of the week ahead!

The Leadership Meeting on the following morning scrutinised all the events of the week to come through a new yet familiar lens.  What should we do?  What reduces risk?  What must we cancel?  Clarity of thought and another carefully crafted letter written.  We hadn’t done much to advance the educational mission of the school in that hour, but another crisis averted - so we thought.

The remainder of the day was lost in hypothetical conversations about all the ‘what ifs’ of that week and the Marketing team established plans ‘a’ to ‘f’ for two major concerts and a speech day.  So far so good.

In the closing stages of an interview with a UK based and very promising prospective colleague that evening, my phone started it’s usual attention seeking activities.  A case in one of the towers of a local condo.  I looked out of the window of the apartment across at the Watermark where four colleagues and their families reside along with a number of Shrewsbury students and their parents.  Oh no, that’s all we need.  More cuartertising, and a couple of hours later we were confident with an opening on Tuesday.  To sleep.

On Tuesday morning I exited a perfectly lovely shower to find my nemesis, the iPhone 11 doing its thing.  We have a case!  A father of a Y12 and a Y4 student is positive.  Half damp from the shower and the other half damp from the exertion from getting to school as quickly as I could, I slumped in my chair in the Riverside Principal’s office.  Surrounded by those erstwhile and brilliant colleagues already mentioned, we set to work.  The school closed within the hour, wonderfully supportive parents taking home brilliantly compliant children.  Letters posted.  Done.

This week has been a flashback to March 2020.  I still recall being halfway through my groceries in a rather plush food court when my phone disrupted my choice of tea bag.  Phone call after phone call about cases involving famous actresses, school closures and the prospect of the MOE stepping in.  The relentless build up of pressure a little like the creaking that occurs in submarines at extreme depth - when will it break?  A parent I worked with some years ago described fathering his youngest son as  ‘death by a thousand cuts’.  He retracted his comment quickly as he knew it wasn’t the right way to describe a much loved son, but I knew what he meant.  All schools in this pandemic have either been the submarine on the bottom or the victim of those thousand cuts - it just keeps coming.

Now that we are closed there is a terrible mixture of emotion.  Deep sadness at sitting in an empty school.  Enormous relief that thankfully the infections across our community seem to be very limited indeed.  Huge frustration that a series of brilliantly conceived events are cancelled or postponed.  Closure may bring operational clarity but it brings an emotional turmoil.

We hope sincerely that we will be open again after the Songkran break, and we also hope this cycle of events will stop soon.  I used to like my iPhone...

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: OUT OF ADVERSITY COMES OPPORTUNITY

        
'Out of adversity comes opportunity' - Benjamin Franklin

In this blog before I have written about the potential benefits of the pandemic. I realise this sounds strange - nobody wants COVID to run their lives, and we would all prefer to have the freedoms we felt we had prior to 2020.,

However, there are benefits.  Despite a number of ill-informed comments from politicians in the UK, students across the world have learned new and valuable skills - not least the resilience to deal with the vacillations of examination protocols and government policy. The way in which content is delivered and contact has been achieved, has altered education fundamentally and particularly offers us more options moving forward.

Families, especially in Thailand have spent more time together, as a result of the ‘work from home’ directive. Not all of this time is easy due to the rigours of online learning, but I sense that we might look back in years to come on this time as a chance to build stronger and more powerful relationships with our closest contacts.

In a wider sense, the innovation clear across a range of sectors has been humbling to witness. The speed of vaccination production, the technological developments, and solutions to fiendish problems have been truly groundbreaking. 

Benjamin Franklin should know. A key part of US history, scientist, politician, diplomat, author, and inventor he had a huge impact on the history of the US in the late 18th century. His famous quote has proved to be right in a legion of ways, none more so now.  A recent tweet by a Bangkok expat exposed another of these opportunities, ‘my kid doing swimming lessons online, this is nuts!’; adversity bringing hitherto unexplored opportunity.

In the absence of my attendance at HMC Conferences and the like, I shifted my expenditure on professional development this year and invested it in coaching.  No stranger to the idea of being coached, I have enjoyed the transition into trusting an external provider with my inner thinking.  The experience has been revelatory.  Rather than the acquisition of knowledge (hugely important of course), I have been challenged to think and through the form of questioning my coach has challenged me in a way I thought impossible.

Recently too, I’ve rediscovered my love of reading.  2020 tried to blow me off course, and away from a set of eclectic and interesting texts rarely anything to do with education, but always with messages that can be applied.  I’ve been able to replace long flights and UK trips with, ‘happy hour’ on the balcony (yes drinks are provided) and short breaks in paradise when Thai travel has been allowed.

My current read is a recommendation from a colleague.  Limits to Growth is an update to a project started in the 1970s to understand the impact Man was having on the world and whether economic growth was sustainable.  Not without controversy, the researchers asserted that there were serious limits to growth as the title suggests and that man should alter course to ensure sustainability in the long term.  Now fifty years on from the original assertion, the challenge remains a significant one as our impact on the environment continues to be profound.

In reading this text now, I am catching up on previous thinking but also finding optimism in thinking about my engagements with students over recent years.  More awareness of environmental issues, more determination to find sustainable economic solutions, and more appreciation of the need to alter course.  To me, this positivity can only be exacerbated by recent events, and innovation in the management of globalisation should be open and inclusive in the hands of the generation we are currently teaching.  

So, kids, we are all counting on you!  After you’ve revised for exams that aren’t exams, have a look at what a polymath in times of adversity and challenge looks like.   In 1737 Franklin argued that ‘well done is better than well said’, a great call to action and he also knew what the Shrewsbury Bangkok community knows - that as our motto says ‘if the heart is right all will be well’.

‘A right Heart exceeds all’ Benjamin Franklin - Poor Richard’s Almanack 1739

RIVERSIDE REFLECTIONS: THE BIGGER PICTURE

Can’t see the wood from the trees?

This lovely English saying neatly describes a feeling that comes to many in education rather often.  Immersed in the detail of a timetabled day, the minutiae of each lesson, meeting or interaction, it can be a common experience to have heads in the weeds finding little time to take the view of the overall growth of the wood or forest.

It happens to us all, even those of us charged with setting the vision and direction of schools.  In recent months the third wave of infections in Thailand, the return to online learning, umpteen layers of communication through a range of platforms and the critical phase of Project 2021 has meant that the senior team at Shrewsbury has been somewhat preoccupied with the weeds and the trees.

The level of detail in Project 2021 is mind boggling.  The spaces are vast, and numerous.  The requirements of each classroom or laboratory are complex and require accuracy.  The spreadsheet begun recently to detail the moves through August is already fiendishly complicated.  

Then this week, we returned to the site.  Because of all mentioned so far, it had been a while.  The changes have been momentous, and the outcomes astounding.  Space and light is abundant as cathedral-like ceilings offer us the headroom for young people to grow physically and metaphorically.  The Stephen Holroyd Sixth Form Commons is a space to be enormously proud of, as we are of him and his legacy.  The Sir David Lees Innovation Centre is a building to lead education from in the coming years, just as he has led with distinction for so long.

‘A lion chased me up a tree, and I greatly enjoyed the view from the top’ - Confucius.  Anything attributed to Confucius requires interpretation, but this phrase is so apt this week.  The lion is the need to continue pressing on with the building, a number of details needing to be finalised, and once chased the view was spectacular.  In a wider context it reminds us that in any wood or forest, we only see it’s majesty from above - the canopy of the rainforest, or a flight high enough to see how the landscape works in the ‘bigger picture’.

As we move towards our next Governor’s Meeting we will continue to search for the bigger picture.  The senior team have been considering this for some time now, and recognise that Riverside will need some profound changes alongside the physical alterations being made right now.  More enrichment for all, more opportunity for all, better support of all and the infrastructure to deliver significant change.

I’m sometimes asked where the ‘bigger picture’ comes from.  In previous years flying has helped, long trips to the UK and US offer distance from Riverside and the challenges and benefits of this.  Perspective is key, and sometimes you have to be away from something, or above it, to gain a renewed perspective.  Literature is also a ‘go to’ for me.   

A fairly eclectic mix or reading has helped with this.  Books about the history of mankind can ensure that you draw out from your current place and time.  Sapiens, Homo Deus, and The Silk Roads have been key in this.  The first two are reasonably well known - a humanist view of the development of the world offering the capacity to draw conclusions about how we can move forward in life along what is a far greater continuum than we might usually think.  

Silk Roads is interesting because it offers the profound lesson that the world is seen from so many different angles, and a large section of our modern world is neither western or eastern - perspective being everything.

So in closing I urge our students, especially those coming to the end of a tough time with assessments.  Get to the top of the tree, have a look at what is beneath you and gain the bigger picture.  Read, explore, get lost in diversions.  Witness the forest in all its majesty, and enjoy it too. 

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.

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?

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.

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. 

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.

TRUE REFLECTION

Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching

These extraordinary times have challenged many things we held sacred in schools over decades.  Schools have changed their method of delivery, the places they operate in, the style of operation, leadership structures, staffing and operations.  It is difficult to consider something that hasn’t changed since the end of 2019.

How about our integrity?  It is something all good schools fight for.  Are we, as CS Lewis suggested, doing the right things all the time without an audience?  Are we doing what we say we do?  Have we stayed true to our values?

Shrewsbury’s values are neatly summarised by our motto, ‘if the heart is right, all will be well’.  We work hard to ensure that our people are considered and nurtured.  The process comes first, the outcome later.  This has been a core tenet of the last few years, and has remained so through the pandemic.

We try to be authentic about who we are.  Our human frailty sometimes shows through, we make mistakes and in doing so we learn more.  It is easy to put up artifice and pretend everything is perfect, much harder to actually improve provision and develop excellence that is sustainable - but we try, because we know it benefits the students more. 

As we now have all students back to school, they can see that much has changed but also that much remains the same.  We have extraordinary new facilities, and new sports pitches.  The sports pitches are emerald green, the Canterbury Field possibly the best playing field in Bangkok.  Laid next to a turbulent river and on top of an impossibly high water table, it shouldn't work - maybe we should just lay an artificial surface?  We have never considered it, we wanted a real grass surface - get the drainage right and build from the bottom with diligence and skill.  

Concentrate on the process and the rewards will come.

Through the course of this week we are holding a series of open days.  The days are designed for prospective parents to see what our current parents already know.  We produce strong academic outcomes, have breadth and depth in the co-curriculum, a strong sporting pedigree, marvellous music and incredible art (currently on show at the Four Seasons Hotel next door).

People know us for the exceptional academic results and university placements and some will tell you that this is all we can do.  However, a Shrewsbury education is much more than academic results.  We do those brilliantly of course, but we also build the confidence of students, we nurture their wellbeing, we develop self-esteem and stretch and challenge students at age appropriate stages to build the resilience they will need to flourish not only in the world's best universities but also beyond.

These are authentic claims, not ambitious ones.  They are based on what actually happens at Riverside.  They are based on our track record in Bangkok.  They are based on integrity not artifice.

If you are in any doubt yourself, come and see.


PASSING THE BATON

A leader’s lasting value is measured by succession

I am a big fan of Succession.  The HBO TV series is massively a current hit across streaming services.  A collection of truly awful individuals playing out the drama of the potential succession to lead the family media firm loosely based on real media monoliths.

It is strangely enjoyable in that the characters are all so genuinely unpleasant that it allows dark humour to surface regularly, the acting is superb, and the writing sharp and current.  It is also an object lesson in how not to deliver succession in the corporate world, as the ‘big beast’ at the top of the organisation holds on to power despite the various attacks of his avaricious children.  

It couldn’t be further from our experience at Shrewsbury.

Last week Sir David Lees gave us all an object lesson in how succession should be delivered, in a kind and generous way with the needs of the school and the wider Shrewsbury community very much at heart.  His legacy is immense and his legacy is the succession he leaves behind.

Sir David’s career in the UK is an illustrious one.  Turning GKN, an automotive business, into a profitable venture and then becoming Chair at huge textile firm Courtaulds in 1996.  His appointment to the Chair of the Court of the Bank of England was richly deserved and signaled significant reform in the governance structure at the 350 year old institution.

This section of an article written about Sir David by the Evening Standard in 2014 speaks of Sir David’s approach.  “The chairman of the Court is not first fiddle, he’s second fiddle,” says Lees, pouring the tea in his simple office on the Bank’s ground floor.  

The simple office, on the ground floor, a cup of tea and playing ‘second fiddle’ are hallmarks of this extraordinary leader who is both humble and driven.

I can recall vividly the first time I met Sir David.  As I walked into the interview room at Odgers Berndtson in London, the June sun lit up an extraordinary view of St Paul’s Cathedral.  Momentarily distracted by the incredible view I was quickly brought to order by the ‘sharpest man in the room’ as I have often described him.  His questions were probing and precise, his responses warm and curious.

Since 2017, Sir David has nudged and encouraged long range thinking.  Succession planning at senior and middle leadership levels.  Rob Millar’s ascension to Principal an excellent example of his influence as are internal appointments made to the senior team.  Now he has produced the ultimate example of succession planning.  He quietly supported the appointment of Sarah Canning-Jones as Vice Chair not long ago, in the knowledge that not only is she an outstanding governor but also has the capacity to be a wonderful Chair. 

The quote at the top of this article is from a divisive figure in evangelical churches in the US, but he was right in what he said.  Sir David’s legacy is clear in what he has built.  

Former Chair of Xerox, Anne M Mulcahy said ‘one of the things we often miss in succession planning is that it should be gradual and thoughtful, with lots of sharing of information and knowledge and perspective, so that it's almost a non-event when it happens’.

Sarah Canning-Jones being appointed Chair of the Advisory Board of Governors is not a non-event!  It is a hugely important moment for the school, but it is also a logical and seamless step forward by an organisation built to last by an exceptional group of people.  Floreat Salopia!


SPACE TO THINK

In the middle of the maelstrom that is running a school through a pandemic, I found an oasis of calm the other day.  Covering Year 8 Mathematics was an unexpected opportunity to pause and reflect on all that is happening around us.  With their brilliant teacher delivering superbly through Google Meets, the students were all beautifully engaged in their favourite subject.  With ‘crowd control’ my superfluous role, just for a moment, I just sat in silence.

These moments are precious, and they come all too rarely in this role and especially in recent months.  However, their importance can be profound.  Pre-COVID, finding time to reflect was more possible, and almost a structured part of being an international Head.  

Flying may not please the environmentalists but was an ‘essential’ part of what we did and offered peace and quiet in abundance.  Staring at towering cloud formations or burying myself in a good book offered the opportunity to find new places and perspectives.  Space.  Away from the day job, but thinking deeply about what the day job requires and how things can be improved.  Space to think.

In 2017, our Head of Sixth Form first used the phrase Space to Think at Shrewsbury.  It encouraged a line of investigation about how we build an environment that fosters creativity, through offering physical spaces for collaboration, solitude and exploration.  Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is the lifeblood of top level academic success.

The years since, and the passage of time, was well spent.  Thinking, collaborating and arguing with architects about how to deliver an abstract concept into a real building.  They listened and between meetings found the space to think for themselves.  The result is a world class Sixth Form Centre within an incredible innovation facility, with a variety of spaces and options. An environment to breathe, to rest, to refresh and reinvigorate.  An environment to work together or alone, to challenge and to succeed.

The next challenge is to design the wider environment to scaffold those opportunities to be creative.  Every school has this challenge.  How does the timetable offer space for students to be curious?  How does a co-curricular programme offer a breadth of opportunities for all to explore their interests?  How do you build pathways for academic stretch and curiosity?  Not easy and in itself a series of challenges that require creativity and courage.

What is clear though is that this is as necessary now as it was when long standing boarding schools such as Shrewsbury were evolving their programmes over decades and centuries.  The pandemic has been a curious mix of inaction and intense work.  We have had some chances for reflection, but uncertainty often prevails and the thinking can become ‘what if’ rather than ‘we should’.

As we move forward with or without COVID, the generation in schools now need us more than ever to find the time and space to deliver an education that serves them.  They will need to be creative and collaborative to resolve the challenges of the world we leave them, for there are many such challenges now and there will be plenty more to come.


MAKING MEMORIES

Last night Shrewsbury delivered something few have thought barely possible in recent months or years.  A large-scale musical event, inside and outside.  Garden Party Proms was a triumph and the Riverside magic returned for a night at the end of another long term.

As I wallowed a little in my own isolation, frustrated not to witness the musical excellence on show, a wicker hamper arrived from the event supremo Ms Randall.  The beautifully curated contents not only filled the belly but also the soul.

Feeling disconnected from others has been the key challenge of the last two years.  The inevitable isolations, quarantines and periods of stasis have taken their toll on us all, and it takes real effort to avoid isolation in a much more profound sense than the perfunctory 7 or 10 days issued as a close contact with COVID.  Humans need to engage with other humans

Ms Randall took the effort to engage.  She engaged a community in an event that seemed bonkers on many levels.  Mr Place, who fought his own battle with COVID through this period, made it work.  Students coming together with the awesome skills of our teachers such as Ms Calvert, Mr Archibald and Miss Mary to connect and make music worth paying for.

The payment is gladly made by all, a treat to witness a spectacle such as the Shrewsbury proms.  It’s been a while!  November 2019 saw the last ‘true proms’.  November 2020 came too quickly for us after the first lockdown, and then as we pivoted to American Promenade it was cruelly cancelled just days before it was due.  When we settled on April the 7th for this event back in August 2021, I don’t think many of us really believed it would happen.  In fact, even a few weeks ago we weren’t sure about it all!  

Thank goodness we persisted, and mainly on behalf of the students.  Many schools talk about being ‘student centred’ but few actually deliver.  This concert needed to happen, it was right to defy the odds.  Our musicians have been resiliently and diligently honing their skills and they needed their moment just as our athletes are now expressing themselves so freely on our emerald surfaces and air conditioned spaces. 

These moments matter, because they live long and create life chances.  A Year 7 parent wrote to me that her son ‘is on a total high after tonight and can’t wait to play with the orchestra again soon’.  Amen.  This is what an outstanding co-curriculum provides, the opportunities to make memories that we learn from and we hold dear into later life.

Not many of our musicians will end up playing at Carnegie Hall (though some already have!) but this matters not.  Through excellent design and wilful stubbornness, the students have been exposed to the work required for excellence, and to the adrenaline needed for top class performance.  They have and will learn from it, but I hope they enjoy the ‘total high’ that these kinds of events present and stay addicted for life.