Royal Grammar School


Beacons of hope

Beacons of hope

It was just over a year ago that Education Secretary Michael Gove tactlessly misquoted Andrew (Lord) Adonis in talking about the “smell of defeatism” in East Durham. I don’t think many of us lucky enough to live in the North East recognise any such aroma: but there are areas where life is tough and economic/employment prospects still bleak. Such areas can certainly do with the odd ray of hope being shone their way.

Take Ashington, like East Durham a community whose economic focus and major centres of employment have simply fallen away one after another over recent decades. For many years hope has been in short supply there.

But now there is a beacon of hope, one I was privileged to visit today. I was invited to the Commemoration of Founders and Benefactors at the Northumberland Church of England Academy. It’s a brand new building, no more than two years old, and beautifully designed: it is light, airy and (as architecture so often does) speaks volumes to the teachers and support staff who work there and the boys and girls who go there to learn. It breaths aspiration, a true valuing of the people there, and a determination to be the best.

As a guest, I was given a tour of the school: truly the best new build I’ve seen. But the people were more impressive even than the fine building. There is certainly hope for Ashington and its future: one major contributor to that hope is that landmark school, a statement of belief in its people, right in the heart of the community. I felt honoured and inspired to be there.

Beacons of hope: we all need them. Last night I went to the Theatre Royal and saw the new play by Owen Sheers, The Two Worlds of Charlie F. The play has been constructed from the statements and memories of servicemen and women injured in Afghanistan. The cast consists of, you guessed it, servicemen and women injured in Afghanistan. You wouldn’t know it: they are great actors, and absolutely credible in their assumed characters: perhaps one reason is that they have actually been there, and their own experiences mirror those of the stories they are telling.

Is that a beacon of hope, too? Certainly. The disabled actors speak with absolutely conviction as they iterate the determination of the disabled characters they are playing: they have come through the terrible time of injury and rehabilitation, and found a reason for living and a way of doing it. It was just a shame the theatre was only half full: the play is not an established masterpiece, nor a smash hit West End success. But it’s a powerful piece and more should see it.

What’s this got to do with us at the RGS? In our much more privileged Jesmond setting, we’re largely unaffected by economic blight and certainly not affected by war. Only this. When we have something great to celebrate, we need to do it loudly. When we have gifts, expertise and talents, we need to share them. And we’ve done that magnificently this week.

On Wednesday I spent a few hours at Gateshead International Stadium watching the North HMC Senior Schools Athletics Competition: 21 independent schools in the North took part, a fantastic day of the keenest competition in the best spirit. A fellow head who came along remarked to me that athletics is one of the purest sorts of sport. In the end, the race, the jump, the throw and your success in the competition are down to you. You don’t suffer perplexing or demoralising referees’ decisions, nor cynical hidden fouls: you just have to get your head straight and your body working right.

It’s much more complex than that, of course, or else I might be an athlete instead of an overweight middle-aged man failing to run effectively! But it was wonderful to see some of the best young athletes in the North (and, my goodness, some were very good indeed) in such a fine competition. Don’t let anyone understate the contribution of independent schools to national sport and athletics, when you see a display of that quality and depth!

I’m writing this towards the end of the school day on Friday, and just before we lift off into a celebration of another sort. Very shortly I’ll go to the start of our Art Private View, that extraordinary annual exhibition of our students’ work, mainly but not exclusively exam pieces, in a bewildering range of styles and media. That will be, as ever, a joy, an inspiration and, at its very best, also a challenge.

That will be followed by one of our biggest concerts in the year. We shall enjoy hearing the award-winning Blue Blazer Choir (and a guest choir joining them from St Thomas More School): the orchestra will play in full and as a string group; and finally the community choir (our senior choir with local guests) will perform Haydn’s exquisite small masterpiece, The Little Organ Mass (also known as Missa brevis de Sancti Joannis).

How does that fit with my idea of “beacons of hope”. Well, in a sense it’s the old adage that, if you’ve got it, you should flaunt it! But we are not merely flaunting or boasting. We have great things to offer. It’s not enough for our art candidates to get good exam results: they should show their work. Art is to be seen. In the same way, music is not written merely to be rehearsed but to be performed, to be shared to the delight of all. That’s what we do: and we do it very well.

It’s about excellence, and putting it out there for all to see, for all to enjoy, and for all to take pride in. That, too is a beacon.

Frankly, it’s been a good week: and I hope we all have a good Bank Holiday weekend!

Bernard Trafford