Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Calling to mind

Calling to mind

Politicians are always in a hurry: that’s a given, in their world. So it was a surprise to me to read that education ministers David Laws and Liz Truss (the latter having returned from China full of zeal and a plan to import Chinese maths teachers) are on the point of suggesting that schools need to build in time for “mindfulness”. Influenced by the highly influential Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, whose pupils have a couple of minutes’ quiet for mindfulness every day, and a 15-minute “stillness” session every week, they reckon we should all pause and be quiet, allowing children to take stock, think of the challenges and the reserves of energy they need to tackle them, and ground themselves.

As with motherhood and apple pie, it’s hard to argue against that. I’m always conscious that a city-centre day school like the RGS is a phenomenally busy place: really, we operate at a sprint all the time. Funnily enough, one reason why I cling to the principle of holding two Assemblies a week is that there is a coming-together and pause for thought in that slot. Being together in one room (admittedly, in the Senior School we sadly cannot get everyone all into a single room) is not exactly silence: indeed, there’s always someone like me standing up talking to our students. But it is intended to be a time for reflection, and a break from all that rush.

For many years I’ve thought I should have the courage to build some silence into Assembly. Quaker schools manage it, because at the back of the Quaker philosophy is a powerful emphasis on listening, to oneself and to others. The introduction of philosophy into the Senior School curriculum is an important addition at the RGS, I believe. It doesn’t have enough timetable-space yet, and that’s something we’ll need to adjust over time: but we’ve made a start.

So, yes, some quiet, a pause for reflection and taking stock, even some stillness and/or mindfulness is a good addition, and something of which we need to be mindful(!) in schools in general and at the RGS in particular. But I can’t help being amused that ministers in a government driving schools relentlessly and mercilessly then demand that another thing (I should say, another of the myriad things) schools should do is to build in mindfulness. I suppose if we followed Mr Gove’s plan for longer days, weeks and years, we could squeeze any number of things in. But the irony remains. I reckon a bit of mindfulness in the Department for Education wouldn’t be a bad thing: a break from initiatives, targets, inspections, threats, openings, closures, sackings, disputes, for example.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

I’m not going to comment here on the good fortune of the Gove family in finding that their daughter has won a place in that very politically correct state school, the Grey Coat Hospital in Westminster. It’s good to see how right-on that family is: no privileged private school for them! The fact that some 1000 children apply for 150 places in that school, creating a ratio that, I suspect, even the most selective independent school in the land could only dream of is not worthy of mention. Oops! Only I did. Sorry.

I’m running out of ways of even pretending to weave things together seamlessly. Nonetheless we’ve lost a great parliamentarian in Tony Benn. I don’t really remember his days as a government minister: I was very young. I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with him on many topics: even his love of tea, which I share, was based on teabags (which I deplore) rather than loose tea.

But that was the nature of the man: to challenge and infuriate. I’m not sure I’d have wanted him to be in a position of power in my adult life. But I always had to admire one thing, a feature all too rare in politics and politicians. He was a man of unbending principle who never wavered, made it clear what he stood for, and stood by it.

Of course, in many ways that made him a thorn in the flesh of his own party - and also unelectable. Politicians have to bend with the wind to some extent. But you knew where you stood with Tony Benn, and no one ever accused him of duplicity, double standards or abandoning his principles.

When people die, stories tend to leak out and tarnish their reputation. As Shakespeare said, “The evil men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”. But I truly hope that Benn’s memory will remain unsullied. Stiff-necked people of principle are frequently maddening – but, my goodness, how we need them!

Bernard Trafford

Headmaster