No time like the present

By | 12 April 2011

Victoria Station has been undergoing a re-fit for – oh, it seems like forever, possibly even longer than I have been habitually walking through it en route to work.  My scoot through its thronged halls and teeming platforms has been impeded not just by the scurrying hordes, mostly clad in a working uniform of black or navy as comprehensive as the clothes at any funeral, but also by the scaffolding and defensive cladding – ‘We are working to improve the environment of your station!’ say the placards. Yeah, right, says the cynic, trudging past.
But every now and then, the regular passer-by encounters change: a little less cladding, a brighter notice board, new signs. Recently, the sky has been more visible, glass where there used to be steel – maybe? – light where there has been previously gloom.  Is it just Spring?   No, it seems they really are making progress.  And even the sign is worth remarking.
It says, ‘Preserving the past, building for the future.’  I may be partisan, but I do not think any teacher could pass by such a sign and not think, ’Yess! That’s what schools do every day!’
Of course, it’s a delicate balance, adopting a Janus role and looking both backwards and forwards at the same time, with a perhaps justifiable anxiety about who might or might not be looking after the present but that’s really the name of the game.  In all fairness, schools today are very much a product of their history, in the same way that Wordsworth wrote of ‘the child being father to the man’, and at the same time they are filled with the young people who belong rightly to tomorrow’s world.
Indeed, in many independent schools, prospective parents are drawn to what they know of a school’s past, which may be very long and illustrious indeed.  The school in its turn looks to its incoming pupils to ensure its future, not just in the sense of paying its fees for the next few years, but also in terms of building the school’s reputation so that it continues to be attractive to others for years to come. At the moment, academic prowess might well guarantee you a scholarship or bursary at any good school, and a fine musician has long been welcome anywhere, but increasingly talented students in sport, art, drama and technology are also being sought.  What school’s reputation would not be enhanced by producing an Olympic medallist, or a Colin Firth, or the next James Dyson?
Many of our internationally renowned great schools have a past which goes back a very long way and which is well worth preserving.  In the nature of the history of education, this is particularly true of boarding schools.  At the very least there will be the simple accumulated history of the years, and all the stories thereof, which a school will be fortunate to have collected, appropriately archived, retrievable and accessible – and none of those verbs is free of effort  or cost.  At most, there will be quasi-museums full of what a young friend of mine would call ‘stuff’ and the owners thereof would probably call ‘precious artefacts’.  And collecting, curating, displaying and guarding , and presumably insuring, those items is probably a full time job for a properly qualified specialist and therefore very expensive indeed.
At least one boarding school, Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, has taken up the challenge of bringing its rich and distinguished religious past  into the present, the better to inform the future it will build with its current parents and pupils. Key items from its  collection of religious artefacts and relics have travelled for instance to the Liverpool exhibition when that city was the European Capital of Culture in 2008.  At the College’s Annual Dinner, held in London, an exhibition displayed the development of the College’s buildings and collections since its arrival in Lancashire in 1794.  A school with the religious history of Stonyhurst has much to treasure in relics and the personal items belonging to those prepared to die for their faith.   In all fairness, few schools will have  pieces as valuable in their own way as the book of Hours belonging to Mary, Queen of Scots, or the Easter Missal of James II.  Sustaining their stories as well as the items themselves is very much in the tradition of preserving the past, the precious inheritance of every future pupil.
And actually, a more modest and domestic item might well create a greater thrill for today’s amateur historian  – Conan Doyle’s desk, complete with his name inscribed.  You just have to wonder, did his English teacher spot and nurture that long-lasting talent?  ‘Not another ‘Who dunnit?’ Doyle?   Not what the examiners want, you know. . .’
Increasingly visible and celebrated in many boarding schools are the past pupils who fought, and probably died, in the First World War, a very different and more immediately accessible history for present day pupils.  There are Remembrance Day services which do not generalise about the enormous loss of life in those years and in those trenches, but speak instead of a particular football team – the team picture is on the wall – and of the grim fate of perhaps every one of those pupils, one moment in school uniform, one moment playing football, the next dead in a foreign field, wearing a different uniform.
But what of the future, and the building thereof?  In recent years, independent schools have spent in the region of £100 million a year on refurbishing and  building anew their boarding accommodation, apart from other dramatic expenditure on classrooms and labs and Astroturf playing fields and theatres and sports halls.  Whatever the achievements of past pupils, modern schools recognise well that modern parents would run a mile from the relatively recent physical realities of some of the schools with the longest illustrious histories.
A tender-hearted Mum with a nervous 11 year old at her side wants a warm and comfortable ‘home from home’ for her beloved child, not a barrack of a dormitory for forty children, or a freezing open air pool, no matter how bracing.  And jolly good for her.  And she wants a trained housemaster, not a well-meaning amateur, and a methodical, thoughtful, considerate system of pastoral care which will catch her child if he stumbles and help him to achieve his own great things in whatever field his talents lie.  No parent would expect less.
So boarding has reached the twenty first century, with single study bedrooms with en suite facilities for older pupils – bedrooms usually larger than those in student accommodation at university – and comfortable, personalised, homely bedrooms for 3 or 4 younger pupils because the younger you are, the more friends matter more than swotting.
So our great schools do indeed have an eye on the future as well as an eye on the past, and in between, those in charge of the present are managing that too.  The very children in front of them are entrusted with the legacy of the past – buildings, traditions, stories and histories, ethics and principles – and encouraged to go forward with pride to forge the future links and become part of the story themselves.  What an amazing adventure in which schools and all their members are involved.
Whether this is quite what is happening to Victoria Station remains to be seen, but it certainly looks better than it did.

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