Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Or what's a heaven for?

Or what's a heaven for?

I had an interesting start to this week. Tuesday morning started with assembly (which would have been on Monday but for the Bank Holiday) and then set off to London where HMC, the UK’s leading association of independent schools, was having a summer day conference. A lot of it was about the new pattern of GCSEs and A levels. The sheer pace of change, lack of realism, inadequate consultation and governmental arrogance combine to be breath-taking. We’ll make the changes work, of course: schools always do. But a colossal amount of work will be needed.

Having had my blood pressure raised in London, I moved on to Norwich, a much calmer and, this week at least, more beautiful city.

On Wednesday I was booked to address the annual conference of the Choir Schools Association, those 45 or so institutions which house and educate the boys and girls who sing in our glorious cathedrals, plus such places as St George’s, Windsor, and the choral foundations in Oxford and Cambridge.

No, I’m not sure why I was asked, either: it’s a very long time ago that I was a music student or even a music teacher. But it was a pleasure to find myself in the magnificent mediaeval close of Norwich, hosted by Norwich School (a lovely place that has to operate around obstacle of a massive Norman edifice in the middle of the school site, necessitating a distance for students to cover between some lessons that RGS students on our inner-urban site can only imagine!).

The life of a cathedral chorister is not without pressures. Even aged 9 or so, choristers will have a rehearsal before school: do a normal school day; rehearse immediately after school; sing Evensong; then go home and do their homework. And don’t forget all those services on Saturdays and Sundays, too.

I sat in on a session with a panel of choristers, past and present. They described a very demanding life. Adult demands are made of choristers. Cathedral choirs operate, in effect, on professional lines: child choristers do an adult, professional job - day in, day out. It is tough: but for those who make the most of it, it’s a fantastic education, and not just in musical terms. To cope with it all, choristers learn to organise their lives, to maximise the use of time, not to waste it – and they still manage to be children.

I was powerfully struck by how closely that description chimed with what I’m so often saying here at the RGS. The highest-achieving of our students are those who really organise their lives, are busily involved in a host of activities outside the classroom as well as in it, and manage their time admirably. 

When educationists get together from different kinds of institutions, we invariably find that we have far more in common than we identify differences. And so it was in Norwich. Mine was the closing session of their conference, so I felt I should leave delegates with something uplifting. In that attempt I finished by drawing on a newly published book, The Restless School by Roy Blatchford (one of our foremost educationists: HMI; former headteacher; current Director of the National Education Trust). While he was writing it he flattered me by asking whether his concept of “the habit of excellence” (he was quoting Aristotle, as it happens) was something we could recognise at the RGS.

I passed the chapter round my senior staff. All were energised and challenged by what he said. I replied to him: “Yes,” I said, “We can recognise it at the RGS. If only we could truly live up to its lofty ideals, however, every single day that we are at work!”

That should be our aim, however. We should, above all, be ambitious: in the title of my talk (and of this blog), I quoted Robert Browning’s poem, Andrea del Sarto: 

“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?” 

What indeed?

To close this blog I’ll use the two quotes that I finished with in Norwich on Wednesday. They’re certainly challenging and idealistic: nonetheless I believe that, at the RGS, we (and above all our students) live up to them most of the time, nearly all of it, indeed.

“Schools are a people business. The inner belief and commitment to realising excellence by those who lead schools is the starting point. At its beating heart the excellent school is a place where people care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.” 

Finally, Michelangelo’s testimonial to the Pope:

“The bearer of these presents is Michelangelo, the Sculptor.  His nature is such that he has to be drawn out by kindness and encouragement, but if he be treated well, and love be shown to him, he will accomplish things that will make the whole world wonder.”

Bernard Trafford 

Headmaster