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Matthew Burns

HEADMASTER’S SPEECH PRIZE GIVING 2018

Chairman, parents, pupils, colleagues, Old Sedberghians.  Thank you for your company.  It’s a pleasure to welcome Christopher and Sara Hirst, George Biggar and Dicky Taylor back to Sedbergh. 

And a pleasure to welcome you to the Hirst Centre – a magnificent new facility with excellent thermal properties allowing us to sit in comfort.  The weather, of course, has been a rich vein of conversation and my mother tells me that it’s the hottest summer since 1976.  I remember 1976.  I was in the Third Form, the sunshine was endless and I met my first girlfriend who sent me perfumed letters with SWALK written on the back – which I had to explain to my bachelor Housemaster.

Visiting parents often ask me, “What type of pupil do you have at Sedbergh?”  And often, the hoped-for answer is that they are academic high-achievers, athletes, musicians, personable, articulate, smart and future-focused. 

I explain that some are brilliant whilst most of us are not; that pupils are more often mud-spattered than gilded, that we are united in enthusiasm for singing but have little regard for the key.  Winder reminds us that we “see a vaster prospect, we breathe a larger air.”  I explain that Sedberghians are tribal, competitive and loyal; most of all I stress that they are their very own young men and women.  How proud I am of their independent spirit. 

In 1977, Paul Willis wrote the influential study, “Learning to Labour” which argued that the purpose of school was to prepare children for factory work through repetitive tasks; later, he was my University Tutor.  We clashed, and each thought the other intransigent.  Sedbergh would be as confusing to Paul as I was disappointing, just as I must be to visitors seeking an ISO 9000 production line of oven-ready adolescents for the maw of employment. 

So, I hope that this occasion will be as much a celebration of the beautiful imperfections which give character, colour and life to Sedbergh, as it is of excellence. 

Where to start?  Examination success, record numbers of pupils, sporting glory?

One achievement has given me delight all year long.  At the end of last year, independent analysis of our exam results showed that Sedbergh was placed just outside the top 10% of Independent Schools for the progress that its pupils made in their studies.  The statistic embraces the most and least academic.  It gives equal weight to those who receive Learning Support and EAL teaching alongside those who study Physics, Art and Agriculture.  It touches everyone equally.  It is everyone’s success.

This achievement is surely the product of our pupils’ determination and discipline, our Teachers’ skill and knowledge and the support in Houses and elsewhere.  Study after study reveal the links between academic success and sporting excellence.  There are plenty.

At the end of last Summer Term our Cricketers won the National T20 championship and Daisy Armstrong lifted the Alexandra Trophy at Bisley to claim the National Championship at 600 yards.  Our Cricketers returned to the semi-finals at Arundel last week and two weeks ago Daisy won the Coronation Trophy at 200 yards at the Yorkshire Open. Our success is no flash-in-the-pan.

Cameron Redpath has led our 1st XV to an unbeaten season and unprecedented success in winning the Daily Mail Trophy, Rosslyn Park National Sevens and the National Tens Championships.  We acknowledge his place in the England Under 18 and Under 20 teams and his call-up to the England Tour to South Africa.  The misfortune of injury deprived Cameron of a cap and me the opportunity to advise Eddie Jones about his invigilation responsibilities.

Eleven other players graced the International stage for England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Canada, Hong Kong and Kenya.  And there are surely more to follow as the Under 16 team recorded a strong win at Rosslyn Park. 

Respect is found in the furnace of competition:

We are at the Gareth Edwards Rugby pitch.  B1 are locked in a desperate battle and with three minutes to play the teams are level.  A brown shirt goes down and leaves the field. Millfield advance.  Another defender puts his body on the line and Millfield are awarded a match-winning kick at goal.  The home crowd is poised to celebrate.  Then, John Mallet steps out.  He speaks quietly to the referee and to the Millfield skipper.  The referee blows for time and the game is over.  This was a game which was so fierce, so well played that the Millfield Director of Rugby chose a draw in acknowledgement of its quality.

Our Hockey team played 43 matches, won 38 and scored 186 goals.  They fought their way through playoffs to fourth place in the Independent Schools’ Cup and 6th place in the National Championships.  This was the year when Girls’ Sport came of age as our Netball team reached the National Finals and placed 12th in the country.

These achievements, and many more in all age groups, were won in the darkness of winter mornings, through one-on-one training and practice under floodlights borrowed from a building site.  Our pupils’ skill and commitment is honed by the extraordinary talent of our coaches.  Simon Mulholland, Lucia Sdao, Martin Speight and Mark Shopland transcend the highest levels of tactical and technical expertise.  They speak to deeper emotions and cultivate a level of commitment that is exceptional in School Sport.  

I note that our Sport is changing – a new word is widely used.  “Athlete.”  Where once pupils were Rugby and Hockey players, Runners or Netballers; now they are Athletes.  It seems to be an important change that speaks of unity, universal respect and a collective identity. 

Athletes have stepped beyond traditional School events to compete indoors in Manchester, creating foundations to dominate School competition in the Summer Term.  Archie Davies follows in the footsteps of Rory McIlroy, winning the Irish Boys’ Amateur Championship; Fraser Sproul won the English Schools Fell Running championship and gained selection to run for England and James Griffin becomes the first Sedberghian to qualify for Wimbledon.  Four pupils became National Tae Kwando gold medallists.  Brown and gold riding livery is widely respected.

As you entered this Centre you walked past five sculptures embracing the Olympic ideal, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”  It seems apt, as this summer 20 Sedberghians will attempt to climb Stok Kangri at 6,153 metres in Ladakh.  We see similar fortitude more locally as pupils have taken on the forty mile Ten Trigs fell run and Tabitha Holdsworth completed the Boddy Challenge by swimming 10 kilometres in Lake Windermere, running the Windermere marathon and cycling 30 miles to Sedbergh.  53 pupils undertook the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award Scheme this year.

A part of that Scheme is community service and in the past week we have extended it to include 80 more pupils who undertook eight Community Projects, including rebuilding a playground and laying a Geology Trail.  In the same week 18 pupils undertook the National Three Peaks challenge, 40 walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall and if those statistics aren’t sufficiently impressive, 80 more pupils rowed, ran and cycled 49,500 km in three days in an Indoor Endurance event.  Thank you to our dancers who perform later and who created their piece in between everything else since Tuesday.

Actors are not always athletes, but their bravery matches that of any sportsman.  Night after night they present their characters and skills to their audiences and peers.  Sedbergh Drama has taken a new direction this year by embracing challenging pieces, to provoke thought rather than merely entertain.  In December we enjoyed Fiddler on the Roof and a few weeks ago Agave, written by Naomi Lidiard.  A Level pieces have tackled freedom, justice, power and love in the post #MeToo world.  Cathy Want, Alec Lyon and Andrew Allan craft magic in the modest surroundings of the Arden Theatre, Powell Hall and for the first time today, in the Hirst Centre.

Magic comes in many forms:

It’s early February and we are high on the saddle between Arant Haw and Calders.  Hail threatens to strip flesh from a line of raw-faced runners.  There is little to enjoy.  Then, above the noise of elemental hostility a voice booms, “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!”  Dr Downes’ rallying cry is Stephen Daedalus’ profane affirmation of the modernist aesthetics of error.  None of us know what it means but his joyful acclamation inspires us to double our efforts and the storm becomes a passing inconvenience. 

We move to the 20th March.  Traffic stops, the race begins.  News filters back from the course as runners pass familiar landmarks.  Eventually, the roar as Jamie MacMillan rounds Library corner to claim a well-planned, well fought win.  Shortly after, Ben van Dijk canters down Loftus Hill and in his joyful applause of the crowds we enjoy a moment when sportsmanship transcends results.  Georgina Boyd-Moss etches her name in School history making the brave decision to forgo the National Hockey Finals to race.  We celebrate our sporting heroes but must never forget the icons of loyalty and sportsmanship. 

Teenagers are energetic, funny, frustrating and endlessly surprising.  Sometimes their modesty catches us unawares, and so it was when Maila Rolker said that she “played the piano a bit”.  We thank her for her performance of Prelude No 5 in G Minor by Rachmaninov just now. 

At the start of the year we enjoyed meeting new talent at the Scholars’ and Headmaster’s Concerts, they were complemented by a Night at the Movies, St Cecilia’s & St Hilda’s Concerts.  The Christmas Concert heralds the end of that Term and the Wilson Run the Lent Term.  We have enjoyed Escala, the Jazz & Swing Evening, a Charity Concert, an Operetta and a Rock Concert – both created entirely this week.  And every week we enjoy high quality Choral work in Chapel.  We congratulate Hester Churchouse on gaining a Diploma in Clarinet and thank Chris Allinson, John Seymour and their incredible team of staff for the profusion and excellence of our Music. 

Ours is the greatest privilege to live and work amongst our pupils, indeed it keeps us young.  Only special Teachers flourish in the unrelenting glare of the boarding School spotlight, where authenticity is our most precious attribute and relationships in adversity our greatest strength.  So it was at the end of the Michaelmas Term when our Librarian, Naomi Cox passed away.  You never forget the stunned faces, the tears, the groups of staff and pupils coming to terms with the news.  Naomi was special to us, never better expressed than by a young Old Sedberghian who wrote,

“I wanted to say how much Mrs Cox meant to me.

“Mrs Cox was one of the kindest people I ever met.  In the Junior School, I used the Library as a refuge at break times, when it was cold, or when I just wanted some peace and quiet. 

“When I started at the Senior School, it was good to have a friendly face in Mrs Cox.  She was interested in what I had to say, and would order the books I wanted, even if it was the kind of book only I would ever read.  I always knew I would have someone to talk to and in my final year, the Library once again became a refuge for me.  This time, I did not go there for the warmth or to escape people, but to talk to Mrs Cox, and to be surrounded by the books we both loved so dearly.”

Authenticity is matched by energy.  Whether it be on the fells, the pitch, on the stage, in the Houses or the classrooms; our work demands energy.  There are extra lessons, extra-curricular activities and extra administration, yet when a plea for help comes it rarely takes more than five minutes for it to be answered.  The collegiate support of the Common Room is exceptional.  I am constantly indebted to all our staff for their skill, knowledge, commitment and resilience. 

We bid farewell to 12 colleagues whose contributions are acknowledged in today’s programme.  Amongst them, John Sykes and Jim Fisher stand out for their 216 Terms.  In 1992, I applied to teach Geography here and had I spelt Sedbergh with two ‘e’s and no ‘u’s, I might have become their colleague.  I count myself fortunate to have been one for the past eight years and offer my thanks to all those who leave Sedbergh from the Common Room, Matrons, operations and administrative staff. 

On behalf of staff, parents and pupils, I also offer thanks to the Governors.  Good schools have great Governors who challenge, support, take risks and make decisions.  Quite simply, we have the best.  

New staff will arrive next Term; new talents, characters and opportunities.  I am delighted to acknowledge Dan Harrison’s promotion to Headmaster.  He has been the architect of our academic success and increasingly at the helm of the School.  As my role shifts to one of direction, development and support, I look forward to a shorter list of emails and less paperwork, to more time with pupils and the opportunity to watch more events.  In stepping away from the operation of the School I look forward to getting closer to its activity.  I am not going to China, nor moving house. 

So, we have survived countless “what were you thinking of” moments; enjoyed fishing and ferreting; discovered gin, but not tonic; foiled a great escape from a History lesson and managed other colourful escapades.  In a year when our pupils have come dangerously close to being academic high-achievers, athletes, musicians, personable, articulate, smart and future-focused, it is reassuring to know that Sedberghians remain beautifully imperfect.  We are “the modernist aesthetic of error” and because of it Sedbergh is a colourful, vibrant, successful community. 

Today, we bid farewell to pupils who leave our community, but not our family. 

The nineteenth century American philosopher, author and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau would have approved of Sedbergh more than Paul Willis.  Thoreau wrote;

“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics and society – and have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear – what remains?  Only Nature remains.” 

To those who leave, we hope you will travel far yet always remember Winder’s outline and the curlew’s cry.

Thank you, all of you – for your trust, your support and for joining us today. 

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