Letter from the UK

Dear All,

Greetings from the UK.

It’s half term and so it’s a good time to bring you up-to-date with the headlines from schools in the UK.

Marcus Rashford, England and Manchester United football player, has once again led a campaign for children from poor backgrounds to be supplied with free meals (i.e. lunches at the government’s expense) during their break from school – his on-line petition has attracted more than a million signatures of support. So far the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has resisted the onslaught in spite of considerable pressure from MPs on his own side of the House of Commons. You may be interested to know, incidentally, that in England free school meals are available to children from households earning a maximum income of £7,400 a year after tax, not including any benefits – i.e. 1.4 million pupils or 17.3% of the primary/secondary school population.

After encouraging figures early in the term, the rate of school attendance has fallen across England’s schools as a result of the pandemic. The % of pupils attending primary and secondary schools fell to 86% in the week before the half term break with attendance rates worse in the north than the south. This has led to calls for next year’s public exams to be cancelled on the basis of a “post-code” lottery i.e. because pupils in the north have missed more curriculum time than their counterparts in the south. So far, once again, the government is resisting the pressure on the basis that exams are the best way of objectively assessing the ability of pupils and we don’t need a repetition of this year’s post Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) chaos.

Meanwhile Rugby School, one of England’s great and glorious public schools has hit the headlines raising nearly £15million by selling a large selection of its mostly-forgotten artwork. Apparently, bidders from 33 countries battled it out for the various pieces, including a rare Lucas van Leyden drawing, which sold for about £11million. The money raised will largely be used to support the fees of pupils at the school from modest backgrounds – Rugby School, like all independent schools has to justify its charitable status and there is no better way of doing so than to have a generous bursary scheme.

All good schools emphasise the importance of academic achievement, breadth of opportunity, and the welfare of their pupils; they also emphasise the acquisition of key competencies – critical thinking, creativity, communication, character, collaboration and cross-cultural skills. Above all else, however, good schools are underpinned by a core set of values – loyalty, decency, honesty, humility, service, self- sacrifice and respect – often, though not always, based upon the Christian faith. And, as if that’s not enough, schools also emphasise the importance of a healthy level of decorum and good old-fashioned manners. There is no doubt that in all these respects schools in Zimbabwe do a wonderful job and, frankly, shame many a school in the UK. Like many others, I have spent a great deal of time trying to persuade boys and girls, particularly at the top end, that they should serve and put others before themselves; in short to understand the importance of humility and civility. So, as I have watched the race for the White House heat up, I have wondered whether all these years I have been barking up the wrong tree – where were those important values during the first presidential debate and where are they, more routinely, when the candidates are on the podium berating their opponent? So much more could be written on this subject and I recognise that there is a naivety in my sentiments but you probably get where I’m coming from. Whatever the result of the election in the USA I hope that the vanquished will be magnanimous in defeat and that the winner will be humble in victory……..and I think I’ve just seen a pig fly past the window!       

Howard Blackett (Rector, Peterhouse 2013 – 2019)

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