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Thursday 3 August, 2017
In a number of ways, I am ill-qualified to write an Anzac Centenary Think Piece. I am British. I have had no military experience beyond being a volunteer reserve running cadet groups in my previous schools. No family member perished in the conflicts of this century or the last. I am in fact a humble French teacher turned school leader from a non-descript suburb in Manchester.
However, there are profound responsibilities that I must fulfil as a headmaster and now principal.
Taunton School, in Somerset in the UK, where I had my first school leadership role, has two remembrance ceremonies each year. One occurs after Sunday Chapel on the nearest Sunday to November 11th. The weather is cold and not a friend of brass instruments. Therefore, the poor soul responsible for playing the last post and the reveille has the hardest musical solo of the year.
The second takes place on the Old Tauntonian weekend, when former students – some as old as 90 – return for a reunion dinner on the Saturday, and a service and Act of Remembrance on the following Sunday morning. This takes place in the summer, and it usually rains. Both events involve the school community as well as guests and parents.
In a beautiful piece of symmetry, a similar rhythm occurs in my role as Principal of Scotch College. With students, we have the honour of decorating the graves of the fallen with flags in a moving ceremony each April near to Anzac Day. It is one of our most profound civic responsibilities as a school, and I am always touched by the number of students who turn out – smart in their uniforms – on an early evening in the holidays.
It is also my privilege to attend a Remembrance Service at Centennial Park in November – again flanked by students – to lay a wreath at the Epitaph. Our Caledonian Corps provides a superb accompaniment to this event. The pipes – as always – evoke deep feelings and thoughts.
So much is written about ‘training’ school leaders, but not enough on the values and personal qualities that come with that very peculiar and in many ways undefinable public role. On appointment to the top job, a person is elevated from a humble place in a leadership team to the big leather chair in the main building. Suddenly, in a prominent position, whole sections of a complex community look to that person for leadership and example, called upon not simply to be a CEO (although that is now de rigeur), but an academic, lover of the arts, supporter of sport and a believer in the broad skills (oratory, STEM, entrepreneurship, research etc.… etc.…) that a school should seek to provide to its charges. Also being required to gain at least a passing notion of planning permission processes, conflict resolution, risk management in kitchens, local politics, family law, and in one famous case, the critical attributes of a gang mower.
This is no less true of how a person values the history and culture, the feelings and priorities of all those thousands who have already passed through the portals of any given institution. A presence, advocacy and active support are essential for someone to be able to honour the sacrifice of those young men and women who have died in military conflict.
Older schools have the names of the fallen prominently displayed in their school buildings. School histories talk of the disruption to school life during the more cataclysmal conflicts. Former students write in asking for information from the archives about relatives who died or were involved in conflict. Conversations with older generations at dinners and lunches feature stories of food shortages, planting spuds on the 1st XI outfield, cadet training and the damaged individuals who returned from theatres of war.
And we have an enduring task with our current students. Nurturing attitudes of remembrance and appreciation in an era of fake news, superficial thinking, corrosive ideologies, the cant and nonsense of social media, and the breathtakingly thin gruel that is termed entertainment on our multi-channel TV sets is increasingly important and challenging.
Therefore, ill-qualified as I am to speak personally of military conflict, I and my colleagues who run schools carry an onerous responsibility to ensure that commemoration is properly done and our young do not lose sight of what has given them their freedoms and privileges.
As the blizzard of edicts, directives and compliance measures head our way, may we never forget the essentials, and honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of a better world.