It began to become obvious that something serious was up when, almost simultaneously, I received an email from my Head’s association offering suggestions about how schools might want to mark the passing of the Queen whenever it happened, and a tweet stating that the BBC was suspending normal programming due to her deteriorating health.
My immediate reaction was to put aside what I was doing and begin to consider how we would respond if the worst happened in the next few hours and days: what words to choose; who to say them to and in what form; how to formally mark such an event sensitively and helpfully within the school community; what parts of our routine we might have to change. Headteachers and senior leaders all over the country will no doubt have been doing exactly the same: trying to judge the right words and actions for the needs of their communities.
At a Quaker school, those judgements are especially nuanced. While many Quakers have a real problem with monarchy and the inequality that this represents to them, the vast majority of our community -myself included- are not Quaker and many will hold pro-monarchy (or at least pro-Queen Elizabeth II) sympathies. Finding the right words -those that honour our values and the range and variety of beliefs within our community as well as the service of a remarkable human to our nation and the world- has proved particularly tricky!
All of this has reminded me, more forcibly than ever, of the burden on schools and school leaders as they try to get right the making sense -and mediation- of massive events to their pupils, be those events national, global or within a school’s often tight-knit community. I’m not sure there are any other institutions in public life, other than perhaps those of faith groups, that have to carry such an expectation; one which is, naturally, willingly borne.
In my time as a Head I have had to deal with the deaths of three students and two colleagues. We’ve had to prepare students for, guide them through and pick them up from a global pandemic. In recent times, we’ve had to make some sense of the complexities and sensitivities of Black Lives Matter, Everyone’s Invited/Me Too and the outbreak of a war in Europe. We’ve also had to address things that have gone badly wrong within our walls. And now our communities need helping to navigate the death of a much loved and long standing monarch. It’s part of the job, but I don’t think most people will know the thought, care and sometime agonising that goes into getting it right.
But the thing that has struck me for the first time in recent days about this really important and often unacknowledged role of schools, is how the words we choose so carefully, the actions we take so thoughtfully and examples we try to set so consciously are providing our children with a really important frame of reference that they will take into life with them. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are setting a vital example about how to grieve well, how to support one another in crisis, how to face fear, how to make sense of societal injustice, how to put things back together within a community when they have gone wrong, how to live with life’s contradictions and paradoxes. Of course, home and many aspects of the culture and cultures they are immersed in will influence them too; but schools’ role is vital. It’s a huge privilege to be entrusted with that task, but also a great responsibility.
Undoubtedly the most challenging times I have experienced have been around the deaths of students. One both occasions (involving two students at my previous school, and one at my current one) the school became the refuge and the safe place for the friends and, to an extent, the families of the students who died. They were looking to us to guide them, comfort them and given them both space and permission to grieve…and show them ways of doing it healthily.
I will never forget the Sunday, nearly two years ago, when we opened up our Hall to welcome in the friends of our Head Boy, whose sudden passing we had heard about that same morning. Rustling up hot chocolate and homemade cakes in short order and providing a space for those shattered young people and their teachers to be together to cry, laugh, sing and just ‘be’ in comfortable, Quakerly silence was vital in how they coped with something so awful. It might also prove to be seminal in how they manage next time they encounter loss, and even how they might in turn help others to cope.
As a leader, knowing when to speak and when not to, what to say and what to leave unsaid, when to lead and when to leave alone, and when to move on whilst still keeping the flame of memory alive are all huge calls. Nothing in any leadership training can prepare you for this.
So, please spare a thought for those who are leading our schools in various roles at this time. We’re all trying to do a really important and difficult thing as well as we can.