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Matthew Burns

HEADMASTER’S SPEECH PRIZE-GIVING, 2017

It is a pleasure to welcome you all to Prize Giving as pupils, Old Sedberghians, parents, Governors, colleagues and guests. 

A warm welcome to Reverend (Wing Commander) Geoff Withers who preached this morning. Geoff grew up and studied in Belfast and has served as an RAF Chaplain since 2000. He undertook three tours to Afghanistan and is Senior Chaplain at RAF Halton where non-commissioned recruits begin their training.  So….. a boarding school Chaplain….in uniform.

Life is messy and full of mistakes, sometimes introductions go wrong. I escorted my elderly mother to a drinks party where another nonagenarian misheard her introduce me and promptly asked if I knew the Headmaster of Sedbergh. I explained that I was the Headmaster of Sedbergh to which he replied “And how long have you known him for?” Tricky question!

Today, is the 45th occasion I have attended Speech Day; as pupil or teacher.  I wonder how many you have attended and, more importantly, how many you can remember? Those that I recall best are the ones which went spectacularly wrong; the perfect Head of School who arrived on stage barefoot because, minutes before, his friends had stolen his shoes; the organist who played a different tune for the anthem to spite the choirmaster and the Guest of Honour who spoke for 50 minutes instead of 15.

Nigel Barden and Tim Bulmer first met in Powell House in 1972, five years later they left Sedbergh with a wealth of friendships and memories. Since then, Nigel has been a wine merchant, an actor, a rugby commentator, TV presenter and producer. Many of you will have heard his regular spot on BBC Drivetime. Tim progressed from Sedbergh to Wimbledon Art College and is an award-winning, satirical artist. It is a pleasure to welcome Nigel and Tim back to School. I look forward to their anecdotes with the same anticipation, but perhaps greater trepidation, than you. 

I calculated that staff teach 2.75 million minutes each year. An average class holds 16 pupils so this amounts to 44 million pupil/minutes per year. Mind-boggling nonsensical statistics. Last year, at A level 27 % of our exams were graded A and A* and at GCSE the figure was 41%. More useful figures reveal that our teaching adds, on average, one extra grade to a pupil’s performance in each GCSE and maintains that performance at A level.

This led to the first, and most important judgement made by the Independent Schools’ Inspectorate when they visited three weeks ago. They wrote that “the quality of pupils’ academic achievements is excellent and pupils of all abilities realise their potential”. But, nice though their plaudits and those statistics may be, nothing matches the immediate expression of delight, or disappointment, on receipt of results as the truest indicator of our work. 

Places at Britain’s top universities confirm that Sedberghians study alongside the world’s best, whilst scholarships to America and direct entry to PWC show that they are brave and imaginative in planning their career paths. We follow their successes and the vibrant activity of the younger members of the Old Sedberghian Club is a pleasure to support. 

On the pitch, our pupils’ collective and individual success is evident in the list of results and international honours that I have shared with you in writing throughout the year. Boys Northern Hockey Champions, Girls North-Western Champions in Hockey & Netball, National Rugby 10’s winners, finalists in the National Schools’ Golf Championship and the National Schools’ Equestrian Championship are just a few of the trophies I have had the privilege of presenting. These results testify to the breadth of our teams’ success. Eight international rugby players, 1 cricketer, 5 shooters and 1 golfer demonstrate the talent amongst our ranks. 

Yet much like our academic success, school-wide participation is the foundation for all our achievements. One Sunday, I was on my way to Chapel and met a boy walking in the opposite direction, heading up School Hill. As I approached he paused, 
“Hello Sir, I was just coming to check you were OK for Chapel,” he said as he fell in step beside me. 
“Really?” I replied.
He grinned……. I smiled and reflected that this quick-witted rogue would go far. 
“So, how’s your weekend?”
“Good, Sir”
“What have you done”
“I played against Warwick”
“How did it go.”
“Great, Sir. I scored my first try.”
A moment of bright-eyed excitement that told more than mere facts. A moment to treasure and celebrate. An explanation, if any were needed, for all our extra-curricular activities.

The competitive blood that flows through a Sedberghian’s veins is not confined to the pitch.  Our pupils have won places at the Oxford Mathematics Summer School and were runners-up in the National School’s Quiz and the National Debating Championship in the North, eleven pupils have gained Gold Duke of Edinburgh awards this year and more will follow in the weeks ahead. We offer special congratulations to Charlie Cowen and Cameron Dale who have been honoured with Awards by the Lord Lieutenant of Cumbria, the Queen’s representative.

Dr Ripley has also been honoured by the Lord Lieutenant of Cumbria for his selfless commitment to the School, the lives of others and many charities. It is a privilege to be able to acknowledge these achievements in the presence of the Lord Lieutenant, Mrs Claire Hensman, Governor of the School. And this is an appropriate moment to offer my thanks to the Chairman, Hugh Blair, and all the Governing body who serve the School and its pupils.

The Chairman is too modest to quote the Inspectors who described the Governors as taking, “a highly effective strategic role in the development of the school and well informed about the academic, pastoral and co-curricular aspects of school life.” 

The Chairman has already mentioned the development of the Hirst Centre and we look forward to future developments in our Estate, managed under the careful eye of the Bursar, Peter Marshall. Alongside the physical development of the School come developments in careers teaching which will ensure that from September, all pupils will receive guidance, assessment of their capabilities and individual counselling about choices they may make.

Saturday activities have been expanded by Mr Lewis this year and next year we will see a major change to our programme on Thursday; all our Year 9 pupils will undertake the Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award, may gain Life-Saving and First Aid qualifications.  And the manner in which we teach life skills – those essential and constantly changing requirements for our pupils’ futures has gone through a rigorous revision to ensure our curriculum is right up-to- date and relevant.

These are further investments in our pupils’ personal development and personal awareness, already described as “exceptional” by inspectors who identified in our pupils, “an outstanding sense of teamwork, loyalty and resilience; and the self-confidence to challenge themselves to achieve what they previously thought was not possible.”

This year we have enjoyed seventy-five musical and dramatic performances including solos, choral anthems, concerts and two major plays, culminating in The Little Shop of Horrors this week. Fine Art jostles with graphic design and  experimental pieces in the Art gallery whilst precise and complex works of construction demonstrate the effort that goes into Design and Technology.

The School of Athens and Keynes Hayak Societies discuss philosophy and Economics to name just two. This is a Renaissance education in its breadth and culture. Of all the plaudits made by inspectors, one short comment stood out, “Pupils appreciate the unique setting of their School and the transformative effect of living and working amongst such natural beauty.”

This is a school which never stops and in such a busy school rest is important. Olympian, Helen Glover, used Sainsbury’s Direct to avoid unnecessary exercise, allowing her to focus her energy on her performance and 7 ¾ hours sleep per night is the minimum required to maintain maximum brain function.

Our Housemasters and Housemistresses survive on less than that as they are on the frontline every day, managing staff, teenagers and parents. They are the ultimate role model of service to our pupils as they take on the parenting responsibility to “be the adult you want your children to become.” Yet we also acknowledge that their role is the most privileged of all as they enjoy the greatest opportunity to influence the lives of the pupils in their care. 

Pupils provide the brightest spots in our lives. Midway through the Lent term a misplaced foot during one of the Epic runs left me with an earful of mud and a sprained ankle. Two days later I sat down to lunch in School House,
“How’s your ankle, Sir?
“Very sore.” I replied, “Why do you ask?”
“I was with you Sir. I was very frightened when you fell over.”
“Were you, why were you frightened?”
“You swore very badly, Sir and I didn’t know what to do.”
“What did you do?”
“Oh, I just ran off and left you on the ground.”

Five, ten and twenty years from now, I look forward to reliving, sharing and laughing about that moment just as those who ran in the footsteps of Joe Bird and Maria Page will relive the agony and the elation of the Wilson Run. As our rivers run dry, it’s hard to imagine that this year’s race nearly didn’t happen at all as the becks became impassable torrents just twenty-four hours before race-day.

This breadth of opportunity equips pupils to manage life’s uncertainties. We rent more, own less and store our memories in a cloud. Neat, suburban society is an illusion; real life is messy, filled with mistakes. Teenagers are messy; whether it be the use of the floordrobe, or in their relationships and decision-making. Our adult response is inconsistent. Compare – when a toddler takes her first steps in the upright world and falls, we pick her up. When teenagers take their first steps in the grown-up world, and make bad decisions, they are criticised for their imperfection.

Which is why boarding School is important. 

Boarding School is not a service; it is a community of pupils, parents, staff, governors, alumni and many more. Boarding school is a social mosaic where the pieces are unique in shape, size and colour and where every piece is flawed.  Individually, we must find our places alongside other, equally flawed individuals; so, like the mosaic, the irregularities in our own character are accommodated by those of our neighbours. Only when we embrace that variety can we find our own place in the full picture. If a single piece fails to take their place, the picture is broken. This, above all, is the lesson that we learn at Sedbergh, and take into the wider world.

Special teachers thrive in this environment where pretence is stripped away under the magnifying glass of teenage scrutiny. The men and women who dedicate their lives to boarding education are special teachers.

We say farewell to some at the end of this term:

Nick Hinde joined us in September. He has been tutor in Powell and lacrosse coach and moves to Sherborne Girls’ School to coach lacrosse. Timothy Bolderstone has trained our most successful football team, taught French and Spanish and tutored in Winder. We thank them both.  

Appointing a teacher mid-year is difficult and in November, Mr Harrison and I were so gloomy about finding a suitable candidate that we considered teaching Biology ourselves. To our relief, Mick Walker came forward with a CV that demonstrated his skills as a teacher in the most successful Schools in the country. Those skills have been warmly appreciated by his classes and we have enjoyed his company as a colleague.  

It has been a pleasure to welcome Tom Sinclair back to the RS department where he studied. He has tutored in Powell, contributed to our music and running. We feel confident that the Army will recognise his talent as he goes forward to the final stages of officer selection. 

Naomi Lidiard has taught Classics in Sedbergh Junior School and at A level. She has inspired a love of the subject in some and has nurtured other pupils to success. She has produced plays, sung in our choir and continues to play a central role in Evans House. Nonetheless, we shall miss the quality of her teaching from our classrooms.

Kate Wright first arrived in 2003, left in 2006, and returned in 2008. She has been endlessly adaptable; teaching French and Spanish, tutoring in Lupton and Robertson and never averse to offering her help where it is needed. Now she moves to our marketing department.

Andrew Loughe has run our Modern Language Department for three years, promoting overseas visits and the beauty of language. He has been a key figure in the resurgence of drama in the School and a welcome sight on the fells during the running term. Pupils in Winder will miss his tutoring as he heads south to become Housemaster to 40 girls at Headington School in Oxford. 

Kate Sarginson has championed the cause of pupils with specific learning difficulties. Alongside providing patient, individual assistance, she has secured extra time in exams, taught us how to teach better and insisted that those pupils get the very best opportunities. We wish her well as she joins her husband, Ian, who moves to undertake ordination training in Durham. 

Andrew Hollingbury’s creative talents were wasted in the copyright enforcement industry in which he worked before joining Sedbergh. We know him as a skilled classicist, an enthusiastic tutor in School House, a choclatier and gifted musician in our choir or on the stage. We are delighted that he has enjoyed joining the profession and wish him well at Cheltenham College.

On arrival, we quickly began to appreciate David’s Nuthall’s depth of character and capacity for hard work. He has qualified as a teacher and been an outstanding tutor in Evans House. On the shooting range, he has coached our team to 4th in the National Championships and 10 shooters have represented their country under his guidance. It is no surprise that he was poached by Epsom College under the guise of a post in the Geography department. We wish him well as he returns to the hinterlands of Bisley, the centre of world-class target shooting.

Lastly, it is farewell, on behalf of the Senior School, to Scott and Kate Carnochan. In 2010, Scott became Headmaster of Sedbergh Junior School when it comprised of some quickly converted Fives courts and two portacabins. Kate became Housemistress of the junior girls’ House in Marshall.

Under their leadership the School doubled in size, moved to Casterton and reached the milestone of 200 pupils earlier this term. Sedbergh School would not be what it is today without Scott’s leadership and success in Sedbergh Prep School. Many of our families started their Sedbergh journey in Sedbergh Prep, or Junior School. Scott and Kate have transformed the fortunes of both Schools and it is right that all of us in the Senior School offer them our thanks, congratulations and best wishes as they move to Kent where Scott will lead Holmewood House Prep School.

Goodbye to the Upper Sixth – well, nearly goodbye! This is the last major School event you will attend and marks the beginning of the end of your school education. Since you have been with us you have impressed, infuriated, and delighted us. We have despaired and been inspired by you. We have learned as much from you, as you from us.

Take with you a set of values and a store of friendships that will last your whole life. Beware, schooldays are not the best days of your lives, they inform those days which lie ahead of you. Stay involved, stay active, stay interested because George Bernard Shaw was right in saying;

We don’t stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing.

Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen for the pleasure of your company today and for your trust and support….every day.

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