Matthew Burns

Principal’s speech – Prizegiving 2019

Chairman, Headmaster, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for allowing me to speak at Speech Day. This is the culmination of a year during which Sedberghians have achieved the highest levels in academia, sport, the arts and, more than ever before, in contributing to the lives of others. Now, relieved from the tyranny of reviewing the detention list and House menus, preparing for morning assembly and routine meetings, I have more time to appreciate the extraordinary range of participation and achievement of our staff and pupils.

So, at the outset, I offer you my deepest thanks for granting us the privilege to work with your sons and daughters, and add my own words of congratulation to those of the Chairman – to our pupils and staff for all that you have achieved. But, and I hope you will forgive me, my warmest thanks and congratulations are reserved for the Headmaster. I dare to suggest that I was the only person who knew what Dan Harrison was taking on in September. Since then, he has led the School to new heights, and no-one could be more delighted than I. I offer him my wholehearted thanks and professional acknowledgement for all that he has achieved.

Much of my work has been with Peter Marshall, our Chief Operating Officer. Between us, we share responsibility for oversight of all aspects of school operations, for defining and constructing the direction of our schools’ development. I could not be more fortunate to work so closely with such an insightful and questioning colleague who is utterly dedicated to the School and who inspires his teams.

It has been a fascinating, challenging and sometimes unnerving year. We have sought to answer the question, “How may we thrive amidst chaos?” and responded to Simon Sinek’s TED talk, “The Power of Why,” which demands that we ask the question. “Why is Sedbergh’s education important?

Our role is to change lives. But Sedbergh was not founded in 1525 to promote individual opportunity, rather – to promote social justice, to raise up those with little and to diminish inequality. As Sedberghians, whether we be pupils, parents, teachers or Governors, ours is a lifelong mission to improve our families, communities and country. Hundreds of alumni have followed that path and I hold up to you the example of Lord Bingham of Cornhill, Master of the Rolls and the most influential constitutional lawyer of the last 100 years.

We have pursued that aim modestly, quietly and effectively for generations, but our country’s current ideological debate requires that we make our voice heard amidst the process of political refreshment. Social inequality, nationalism and global warming are the existential threats of our time. Short-termism founded on political expediency and financial opportunism is the root. As we reflect on the Centenary of the Treaty of Versailles and the approach of the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE Day next May, I put it to you that we are called to make a sacrifice equal to those who went before us.

Sedbergh, and Sedberghians, cannot stand on the side-lines; our responsibility, surely, is to engage directly with the political process and our character prepares us for a lifetime of activism. Alongside social challenge, the environmental crisis we face is as daunting as the conflict our forebears faced in two World Wars. But perhaps it is more difficult because, as high-order consumers we are both the cause and solution. Only we can answer the question, “What will I give-up for the greater good? What will we leave those who follow?”

The answer lies in redefining success as being the individual’s contribution to society and of individual creativity in place of material acquisition. I suggest this outlook will serve our children better than consumerism and that it is entirely in keeping with Sedberghian culture and tradition.

And as an organisation, Sedbergh must answer the same questions. It has been a debate that I and the School Governors have engaged in for much of the year.

These men and women contribute immeasurably to our work and this School’s success, I offer them my special thanks and in particular to Hugh Blair, Chairman; and Richard Gledhill, Vice Chairman, who, between them, travel the length of the country on the School’s behalf and even around the world. They invest hundreds of hours in our School’s welfare and Sedbergh would not be where it is today without them.

The Strategic Plan which they have approved is as bold a commitment to future generations as any before;

  • We have placed the development of teaching and independent learning at the heart of our ambitions; and will invest in our pupils’ technological skills, focusing on their application to employment opportunities and environmental sustainability.
  • This will go hand in hand with the development of a new Technology and Sixth Form centre.
  • We will review our carbon footprint and invest in its reduction through extensive House refurbishment, by reviewing our transport and purchasing arrangements.
  • We will invest further in the emotional health of our pupils to ensure they are best placed to manage complex lifestyles and will increase our work in the town to promote Sedbergh as a place for young families and new businesses.
  • We will continue to welcome pupils and colleagues from different backgrounds and all nations in the knowledge that diversity strengthens our community. And we will extend our partnerships overseas so that we may provide opportunities for pupils and teachers to travel and work, and to build financial resilience against the economic uncertainties of the future.
  • We will ensure that Governance is connected with parents, pupils and staff to ensure transparency of decisions and accountability in all respects. This includes publication of our Plan at the start of next term and annual reports to parents and staff about progress on these important matters.

We cannot discharge our responsibilities to the next and subsequent generations without the collective engagement of pupils, parents, staff, Governors and Old Sedberghians. As the 500th anniversary of Roger Lupton’s extraordinary foundation approaches, every member of our community is important. I hope beyond measure that you will embrace these ambitions as your own to ensure that every one of us plays our part in all our children’s futures.

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