Little did I imagine on returning to the UK after visiting OMs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, that within just two months the world would change so dramatically. Relieved that, in my absence, the School had passed its unannounced ISI Inspection with flying colours, and having mastered the art of communicating with colleagues, Governors and Inspectors remotely during this critical period, I was not anticipating finding myself, soon afterwards, leading a school once again from a distance. The evacuation to St Bees School has been cited as the closest analogy, with remoteness taking the form of Google Classroom rather than West Cumbria. We were, in many ways, entering uncharted waters.
Whilst the practical challenges thrown up by the physical closure of the School, required of us by law for the latter part of the Spring Term and the majority of the Summer Term, tested the resilience and resourcefulness of all involved, they also brought us even more closely together as a community and sparked new ideas and approaches which may well inform our educational delivery in the more familiar Mill Hill School which we look forward to re-opening in September. What was particularly striking was the sense in which pupils, parents, teachers, support staff and school managers were united in their learning – to master this new world of the virtual classroom and the wider aspects of co-curricular and pastoral provision during lockdown.
The first challenge to face up to was the unprecedented cancellation of public examinations; the GCSEs and A Levels, in the preparation for which so much time, energy and emotion had been invested, were suddenly no longer taking place, to be replaced by Centre Assessment Grades. Planning meetings moved from the boardroom table of the Crick Room to Google Meets, and over the weeks we became unexpectedly familiar with our respective casual clothes, wayward hairstyles and well-stocked bookshelves (always a popular backdrop); more importantly, we rose to the challenges and managed to steer a steady course through a certain amount of inevitable turbulence. Our Fourth Form pupils made an early start to their GCSE courses, and the Fifth Form and Upper Sixth pupils benefitted from bridging courses to A Levels and Sixth Form life and to Careers and university life respectively.
Surveys were conducted as the weeks went by to gain feedback from pupils, teachers and parents; regular communications went out as Head’s letters and through our social media channels; as far as reasonably possible, we kept up morale, continued our educational provision and looked after the wellbeing and best interests of all stakeholders. We also remained open throughout lockdown to cater for the needs of the children of key workers and vulnerable children, and engaged in numerous charitable activities to support local and national causes.
The Summer Term culminated with the partial reopening of the School constrained by the government’s directives: only for the Remove and Lower Sixth and no more than 25% of each year-group in school at any one time. It was with great pleasure that we welcomed back 119 pupils from the Remove, around 35 each day, and 93 from the Lower Sixth, around 30 each day. It is hard to express the happiness felt by me and my colleagues on greeting our returning pupils, as they sanitised their hands and had their temperatures taken, and on seeing this feeling reciprocated in their smiles and friendly words, ‘I never thought I would be so delighted to be coming back to School’, said one pupil, with a mischievous smile.
Looking ahead to the Autumn Term, we are ready to ‘embrace normality’ but are also prepared for whichever scenario may face us as we get closer to September, including for Foundation Day, a highlight of the school calendar, our Guest of Honour being Usha Raman, Head of Sri Jayendra School in Tamil Nadu, India. Usha’s contribution will be particularly special as this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the founding of our partnership with Sri Jayendra. Countless Mill Hill pupils have participated, gaining experience leading conversation classes in English and supporting the school and its 3,000 pupils in their many activities. I was delighted to lead the group twice in recent years and also to welcome staff from Sri Jayendra to Mill Hill.
Of all the tributes over the years from pupils who have participated in this, or our other partnerships in Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Zambia, the one that comes up most often is ‘life-changing’, and our privilege as educators is, indeed, to change lives – whether through intense experiences such as those offered by our partnerships, or the organic process in which our pupils each navigate their unique journey from childhood, through adolescence to become adults. Just days before lockdown I was pleased to receive a detailed review of Mill Hill School by the Good Schools Guide, based on a recent visit, which I think captures our ethos well, and suggests that preparation for life, which is every school’s mission, is one of our great strengths: ‘A vibrant, buzzing school, with a solid academic underpinning and an outstanding extra-curricular programme producing confident, articulate, mature young people, who start adult life solidly grounded, positive and well informed. ‘A very happy place to be,’ is the consensus of parents and pupils.’
Of all the qualities required by our pupils as they leave us to play their part in, and contribute to, the rapidly evolving wider world, resilience, tolerance and altruism should be at the top of any list. And those who educate must, themselves, listen and learn; often from their pupils and alumni. I fervently believe that, whilst we will continue to listen and learn, we serve our pupils well when it comes to instilling values, and have done so for many years; non-conformist not only in the history of our Foundation, but in our determination to reject complacency or unquestioning acceptance of the status quo.
If I were to reach for an example of an archetypal Old Millihillian, I would look no further than the Guest of Honour at our last Foundation Day, Leanne Armitage. Leanne’s journey has been a model of resilience, striving against the odds to achieve her goal of being a medic, which crystalised in her mind as she saw yet another victim of knife crime being air-lifted to hospital from the South London estate where she grew up. With the support of a full bursary, Leanne joined our Sixth Form, achieved excellent A Level results and we congratulate her on recently qualifying as a doctor. Through the famously demanding years of medical training, Leanne was not only focusing on making her future contribution as a doctor, but has been selflessly creating a pathway into medical careers for other teenagers from socio-economic backgrounds which would not normally facilitate this, winning a Queen’s Young Leaders award along with many other accolades and founding The Armitage Foundation.
I hope very much in my next Blog to be reporting on a school reopening very similar to that which happens every September, but with an extra spring in everyone’s step. The ‘back to school’ posters which traditionally adorn the windows of stationers and school outfitters in August, will this year sound much more like a promise than a threat!