This week’s blog is an adapted version of my Speech Day address.
I have given this refection the title, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’, and there is a very simple reason for this. It is almost a year ago to the day that I accepted the job as Head of Brighton Girls. It was on the 5th July that I faced the final panel interview and was asked to set out my vision for the school. As befitting an English teacher, I chose to deliver my vision through the medium of a story, and my story was all about a girl called Alice, who possessed a sharp intelligence but who lacked the confidence to be truly creative, and who had some growing up to do. My Alice was of course based on the character from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – a girl who claims that “one can’t believe impossible things”, only to be told by the Queen of Hearts that believing impossible things simply takes “practice”.
“When I was younger”, the Queen tells Alice, “I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”.
Well, I was reflecting on this the other day, having participated in an early-morning Zoom meeting, delivered a staff meeting, and taught two remote lessons, all before my morning coffee… and my mind wandered back to the 20th March – the day that schools closed – and I thought, “Surely that was the day that we all disappeared down the rabbit hole”.
And we did enter a kind of wonderland. Time has become elastic – ask anyone, and they will tell you that each day has felt like a week, and each week a month… I know I’m not the only one who has been constantly pressed for time, like our friend the White Rabbit.
We’ve had those daily 5pm briefings from Tweedledee and TweedleDum.
So many things have made no sense!
We have been forced to see things differently and, like Alice, we have been tempted to try new things, we have experimented – and I’m not just referring to the staff virtual cocktail bar that sprung up during week one. Very quickly, strange things started to happen. At the beginning, we experienced a form of shrinking. Our world suddenly reduced in size. A community of over 600 people, all sociable individuals, all used to a hundred interactions a day, in corridors, next to photocopiers, over lunch just disappeared, overnight. I looked around to find everyone had gone – the only people left were Mrs Ashdown and Miss Fox, fighting over the jammy dodgers and Party Rings, which seemed to be saying something. I think was it “Eat me”?
But of course, I exaggerate, because that initial feeling of shrinking was an illusion – we hadn’t shrunk at all. Right from the start, we remained open for business. Our amazing colleagues in the Prep joined us in the Vicarage to offer childcare to key workers. The school kitchen was closed, but a mud kitchen appeared in its place; Joe Wicks became a daily feature. Elsewhere, Prep and Senior staff began delivering lessons online and, for the first time, a kind of magic, parents started to contact the school to report how much they were enjoying the lessons. Mr Sherwood dissecting a poem, brought joy to one parent, while another marvelled at Mr Higgins delivering a lesson from his car. Teachers became more and more inventive and, I don’t know what was in those jammy dodgers, but the shrinking made way for a period of rapid growth. By the start of the summer term, our metaphorical limbs were protruding beyond the school walls, thanks to a new imperative to think outside the box, and our new found ability to believe impossible things.
I want to mention today some of the ways in which the school has not simply survived over the last few months, but has positively thrived. In terms of growing and expanding horizons, look what we achieved. We led the way in the GDST family of schools with our virtual trips. In the past few weeks, we’ve been to Pompeii, Kew Gardens, The British Museum, to name but a few. And we’ve shared these resources with sister schools, allowing the creativity to be multiplied. Our friendship group has grown too. Some colourful characters appeared at our virtual tea party: Paul Barber, CEO of Brighton & Hove Albion, delivered a session on organisational values; a soprano singer, last seen performing at Harry and Megan’s wedding, joined us for a Year 10 assembly; and an adventurer who trekked to the South Pole joined Year 8 on Miss Pearson’s brilliant trip to Antarctica. I want to thank all the parents who attended virtual events – our weekly coffee mornings, our Music in the Air concert, the Future Skills Forum, the evening Q&As – attendance has been excellent, and I have thoroughly enjoyed these interactions.
Speaking of the city of Brighton & Hove, a veritable wonderland in itself, I am very proud of the contributions our teachers and students have made to the wider community over the last few months. We have been reaching out to boys and girls across the city – with online creative writing lessons and science sessions. During lockdown, the 26 iPads we donated to Whytemead Primary School have been loaned to the most vulnerable students at the school so they continue to learn at home and complete the tasks teachers had set them. Throughout the term, members of the Brighton Girls community have donated food to the city mission food bank and, more recently, we have been working the Martlets Hospice on the ‘You are Never Alone’ project to connect schools and care homes cross the city. We should pause here to remember that whatever hardships and challenges we have faced as a school, there are people out there who have lost loved ones, who have had their lives irrevocably altered, people who have suffered unthinkable loneliness – as a school we will continue to give support to the community by supporting projects over the summer and beyond.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ is essentially story about coming of age, a move from childhood to adulthood, a metamorphosis. Like Alice, we will emerge changed, but changed for the better. In September, when we return to the real world, the emotional and physical wellbeing of our students and staff will be our top priority – we will explore what we have learnt, and help each other make sense of all this. We will continue the discussions we have started around equality and diversity – it is important that we seize this opportunity to reflect and review – and important that we do what we can to bring about change,
So, what did the Queen of Hearts mean when she spoke to Alice about believing “impossible things”? Well, there is a message in there about the importance of imagination – it is only through believing the impossible that we can make progress, that we can innovate, and bring about real change.
So I think we should feel proud and optimistic as we come to the end of this academic year.
Because, I would like to think that, this year, as a school, and as a community, we have demonstrated that VIRTUALLY anything is possible.