Today we marked our Founder’s Day. This annual event presents us with a valuable moment in our busy school calendar to pause and reflect on our history.
In an institution where the day-to-day focus is to all intents and purposes on the future, it is easy to take our history for granted. The Perse has moved several times, and as I walk around the Upper campus, on Hills Road since the 60s, there are no cobbled courtyards to signal our four hundred year old foundations.
My meetings with other SAGE members, the group of leading world schools to which The Perse belongs, provide a good wake-up call. There was genuine admiration when I explained to fellow heads that we would be celebrating our 400th birthday in the academic year 2015-16. The general response was that the test of time is a rigorous one that few institutions pass. The SAGE heads have a point – a quick analysis of longevity reveals that, excluding Oxbridge colleges, many of today’s leading companies and institutions have, by Perse terms, relatively short histories. The pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline began life in 1908, whilst a year later British Petroleum (now BP) was founded. The Korean multinational Samsung first traded in 1938; Starbucks opened its first coffee shop in 1971; and Microsoft came into being in 1975 with Apple following a year later in 1976. Some of the companies most used by teenagers today have even shorter histories – Google started in 1998, Jack Wills in 1999 and Facebook in 2004.
We live in a world characterised by pockets of history and tradition surrounded by a sea of modernity and change. In Cambridge the pockets of history are a little larger, whereas in SAGE schools in Singapore, the United States and Australia 100 years of existence is a major achievement.
Pride is an uncomfortable word for many British people, and pride in your school is something that other countries often do much better than us. The SAGE heads remind me that our history merits proper pride, in the School itself and in the individuals who have made it great.
Our history does in fact shape the educational present more than might be evident at first glance. Pupils often equate education with exams, and government ministers frequently make the same mistake. It is an understandable error – pupils are very focused on achieving the grades to meet their university offers. Ministers struggling to quantify education so they can judge the performance of schools and teachers reduce the educational journey to a series of baseline and value added measures all linked to key stage tests and public exams. This approach to measuring education is very narrow and could easily lead to ministers knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
In contrast The Perse has generations of alumni who can reflect on the education they received with the benefit of hindsight. By talking to alumni about their adult lives it is possible to gauge the true value of a Perse education above and beyond grades achieved and degrees awarded. This perspective is important. Time and again Old Perseans tell me that long after they forgot what they had learned for public exams, other qualities of a Perse education underpinned their successful careers. These timeless skills and attributes include the ability to communicate clearly and concisely both orally and in writing; intellectual curiosity; confidence constructing and deconstructing arguments; an eye for detail but also an understanding of the bigger picture; the ability to work effectively as a part of team; resilience and resourcefulness; creativity; calmness under pressure….the list could go on. In short, an education for life.
Reflecting on the lives and careers of our alumni, and in particular the achievements of those who are now deceased, helps us consider the legacy that we ourselves will leave behind for the coming generations. Four hundred years ago academic, physician and philanthropist Dr Perse left a legacy to change lives through education. Today’s students share the earliest Perse scholars’ chance to improve their own and others’ lives, and the duty to make the most of that opportunity. The Perse must continue to be a force for good, be that in the local community or the field of education more broadly.
Four hundred years of history affords a perspective on what is important in education. It also assists us in perfecting the educational process. The attrition of time smooths the rough edges of school; cumulative experience informs improvements. Educational fads come and go but our understanding of what makes an excellent teacher and an outstanding lesson are shaped by years of experience.
Of course, there is a flip side. An over-reliance on experience can lead to arrogance and staleness, so it must be tempered with a commitment to continuous improvement and open reflection. In this way we develop the wisdom that yields considered improvements born out of thorough research and thoughtful discussion – real advancement.
Finally, surviving and thriving for 400 years creates a sense of institutional self-confidence. The Perse has seen off the English civil war, bubonic plague, various financial crises, multiple educational reforms, and some direct hits by the Luftwaffe. Our ability to cope with the trials and tribulations of time is proven, and this should give us confidence as we tackle the challenges of the twenty-first century. Our long track record of success should also give us the confidence to stand up in educational debates and articulate our belief in an independent, academically selective education, with an emphasis on all round development and strong pastoral care. The Perse has been in the educational business far longer than the Department of Education, its ministers, the various educational think tanks, and university education departments. We have stood the test of time – and that may be the greatest test of all.