Welcome back to school after the Christmas holiday, and a very happy and peaceful new year to all Bennett families and students.
Sadly the new year has not started very peacefully for the people of France, and as I write this blog I am watching on the television the extraordinary display of support for the values of free expression and condemnation of violence in Paris. It seems to be really important that whatever our background or beliefs we are not bullied by people of violence into marginalizing or scapegoating any section of the population. All western European countries are now diverse societies, and there is no turning the clock back on this.
We are also all still trying to find the best ways of making our very diverse societies work right across Europe, and there are no simple answers to this challenge. There will certainly be those who will argue that a proper response to atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion is to exclude further all matters of faith from the ‘public square’, and increasingly make religion exclusively a private matter. This may be especially the case in France, where the principle of ‘laïcité’ or separation of Church and state is already established. However there are also risks in this approach. If we drive religion completely away from the ‘public square’, for example by ending the role of the major faiths in education, or in politics, we lose any chance at all of influencing and shaping people’s responses to the call and teachings of their faith. We also potentially lose important opportunities to persuade young people that there is a way of leading a life of faith which builds up and contributes positively to society, rather than rejecting it and seeking to destroy it. Expecting the faith communities to contribute to play a role in society is in my view a stronger way to secure this.
The year 2015 is a year of many anniversaries. We have heard much about the planned commemoration of Magna Carta, originally signed in 1215, and one of the early steps in the evolution of the free and law-governed society we enjoy today. It is also the anniversary of several important battles: 1815 saw the battle of Waterloo, where the expansionist ambitions of Napoleon were finally ended, and 1415 was the date of the battle of Agincourt, when the English King Henry V famously defeated a far stronger French army (Henry was in France, incidentally, as part of a long struggle to assert and keep English control over the northern part of France!).
Memorably, Shakespeare immortalized Agincourt in his play Henry V which contains one of his great speeches, the St Crispin’s Day speech. It starts with King Henry reprimanding one of his colleagues who had bemoaned the small number of troops on the English side and implicitly criticized the failure of the English to mobilise in sufficient numbers to support their king. Henry is clear that he intends to win the battle even with small numbers, and inspires his supporters with a vision of how success will feel to them and be remembered by posterity. It is indeed a mark of good leadership not to rely on excuses for possible failure associated with lack of resources or having the ‘wrong people’ with you, but rather resolve to achieve the unimaginable with the people and resources you do actually have. We would do well to recall that lesson in many areas of public life today.
And right at the end of the speech, commenting on the English preparedness for the battle ahead, Henry notes that “all things are ready if our minds be so”. With every challenge, there is no substitute for a well placed belief in one’s ability to win, and to avoid a defeatist mindset. As our students at school now face the challenges of important and in some ways ever more demanding public examinations which play a big part in determining their future, the importance of them believing in themselves cannot be underestimated.
To be clear, that is not to say that they should have a false belief in their ability to success without hard work and real application to study. Quite the opposite: achievement at all levels is gained precisely by absolute dedication and very hard work. But it is a belief in the effectiveness of hard work in bringing about high achievement which both teachers and students, and indeed parents, need in order to incentivize and give purpose to those efforts. Propagating that belief, that assurance, that confidence, is the starting point of everything in education: “all things are ready if our minds be so”.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge some of the superb achievements of Bennett students before Christmas. The production of Macbeth earlier in the autumn term has already been commented on, but the Christmas concert and the traditional carol service were both events which showcased the outstanding musical achievement of our students, and spoke eloquently of the school’s ethos. Our students continue to participate and achieve highly in a range of sports and in public speaking, debating and poetry retical. Congratulations to all involved, and many, many thanks to our dedicated teachers and other staff who make all this possible.
I wish all Bennett students a successful and hard working term ahead.