Gosh, I have been a bit remiss in getting to the blog spot in my week. But here at last is something before the wonders of the summer holidays are upon us!
We said goodbye to the leavers on Saturday – graduation and the Ball, with the England-Sweden match helpfully taking place in between. It was also the culmination of the Pride in London week, the Pride Parade, and it was on my mind because, for the first time to my knowledge, there was an official Highgate School Pride contingent.
If I ask myself what I’m proud of at Highgate, and there’s a lot about Highgate which makes me feel proud, I think I’d say that the open, warm and accepting atmosphere for LGBTQ+ students and staff was pretty high on the list: of course, the School reflects the society around us, and society has moved on – gay marriage since 2014 – but the fact my colleagues wouldn’t think to conceal their sexuality (but would have done so a decade ago), the fact that it’s getting easier for Highgate students to live their sexuality without comment but with support, speaks volumes for the journey the school has been on. Of course, you never really ‘arrive’, and there’s still much more to do.
So pride seemed like a good theme for the Leavers’ graduation, especially in the few hours we had left before knowing whether the sporting prowess of our national team was going to let us indulge in some national pride, or not.
I told the Leavers that I’d like to think they’re proud of their school, and that that pride will remain with them.
I’ve always been struck by how strongly OCs continue to feel pride for the school they remembered and knew, but also for the school which carries on long after they have left – I receive little messages of congratulation from OCs when a team or an individual does well as well as tsk tsks if we turn up in the papers for the ‘wrong’ reasons (even if I don’t always agree what the wrong reasons might be). It’s all too easy, if young minds are as sharp as the Leavers’ minds are, to filter out pride: we see the day-to-day or even the bigger inconsistencies, the things that have happened at school we haven’t agreed with or have been wrong in our minds, because they have played out unfairly or unjustly on ourselves or on those we care about, but even with that, which is natural, there’s still a place for pride in institutions which we’ve been part of.
Each Leaver must have their own story of why they are proud and why they have reason to be proud. So what I said on that balmy Saturday morning in the Mallinson was that Highgate’s an unusual school (North London schools are different from all other London schools, and different again from schools round the country): in my experience, you won’t in many schools find the character and quality of teachers whose subject knowledge and emotional intelligence overlap so closely in such density, or who are willing to look beyond exams for meaning and motivation in the classroom; you won’t find schools which look so deliberately for a regulatory and ethical justification of their tax-friendly status in making children beyond their walls benefit (the equivalent of eight full-time teachers working in local state schools); you won’t find many schools that will wrestle with issues such as gender fluidity not only discreetly but openly; we’re not perfect – we know that, not least in our ethnic diversity which is more deficient even than Oxford’s, but we’re on the case – and we’ve started with governance where from September a quarter of our Governors will be BAME; while the healthy eating agenda has banished Southern Fried chicken from our menu, our Highgate brunches remain, and are unusually good and unhealthy; Highgate’s food is ace.
Highgate sixth formers have so many reasons to take things for granted, and not to work hard. The university environment is benign and being bright they could risk chancing it in the face of exams which the teaching helps them navigate easily. Their lives are pretty comfortable, and for some of them the future looks pretty straightforward even if they don’t work hard. They could so easily be complacent, lazy or sneering, but they aren’t and never have been.
Highgate pupils take life and their studies seriously (for all the fun they also have); teachers are taken aback by how they drive themselves, how they’ll not compromise. Looking round the Pre-U art exhibition, watching theatre studies devised pieces, listening to the Southwark concert – I had insights into the cerebral and emotional engagement with their work, but their maths, politics, philosophy, science teachers – the list could go on – talk more often about having to temper their pupils’ work-rate and ambitions than they have worried about any all-too natural tendency to skimp or cut corners. Highgate pupils care about stuff beyond, too, both in the pastimes they have and the causes they care about, or the politics they espouse. The outside world could peek in and assume it would see privilege and complacency, entitlement and arrogance, but what they’ll find is openness, wit (certainly), but solid, determined, purposeful, ethical, serious people who love life and each other.
You don’t have to be dull and conformist to be proud; you don’t have to have toed the line or be in agreement to be proud.
So I’m proud of the Leavers, and the school which they make distinctive and better for their many and so different qualities.
And to parents and carers, lest they had not yet got teary-eyed by that moment in the proceedings, I thanked them for all they have done for Highgate over the years. They’ve provided their children with so many things, but the key thing is something which only parents can give, and that’s been love without strings: that unconditional love has been the sustaining backdrop for the trials and tribulations of the teenage years. The good news is that there are no more school fees to pay (although many thanks for paying them, and on time: we have one of the promptest paying parental bodies in the country, and it really makes a difference); the bad news is that they are not off the hook ever as a parent, and will have to carry on loving unconditionally until the day they slough off this mortal coil. I understand that thirty-year-olds are no less challenging, just differently so. Good luck with that, said I (but on the basis of what they’ve done so well for the last eighteen years, they’re going to be brilliant.)