On Tuesdays and Fridays, you will normally see me jogging up St Michael’s School path to make it into school in time for our 8.15 staff briefing, regretting the extra slice of toast or longer ruminating over the newspaper which has made me late. I encourage colleagues to meet face-to-face at least twice a week, and not only to cut back on the number of emails we send each other. One way we make the interruption to the early risers’ working morning more agreeable is to hold exhibitions in our staff common room, to which teachers and support staff contribute: holiday snaps, for example, or, as with last week, a competition to match up names with photos of teachers as toddlers.
At the end-of-term Pre-Prep nativity show (Help! Santa is Missing!), as the audience was bewitched by the smiles of pleasure and frowns of concentration on our young actors’ brows, I caught myself comparing these yet-to-settle expressions to the teachers’ toddler photos: everyone we know has been a toddler, but is the teenager, is the adult, written in those unselfconscious faces? My children (now 11, 15 and 16) started out in our Pre-Prep: they too have had starring roles as sheep and shepherd, donkey and wise man, elf and angel, have scratched their bottoms, waved at the audience and sung off key. Yet now, deep into A levels, GCSEs and “big school” routines, they have carved out very different lives from each other, despite their common parenting and identical schooling.
Once Santa had been raced down to Bethlehem (a veritable Timelord, this one!) and we had sung Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Mrs Hecht invited me to say a few words. A post-performance speaking gig is bad enough for the pupils, and worse for parents needing to get into work, but Highgate parents are a courteous lot! Now, of course, Mrs Hecht had primed me to speak but that was several weeks ago, and while I was sure that we had decided that there was something absolutely critical to communicate to our assembled gathering, the connection was sadly missing from the droopy brain.
I had, however, noticed as we came in that there were pop-up stands advertising the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham (LAET), the free school sixth form that Highgate sponsors with Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Now in its second year and serving the brightest young people of Tottenham, we have eight Highgate teachers seconded there, share co-curricular activities plus university and employability programmes, and help govern the academy. And so it came back to me that I was meant to be telling our Pre-Prep parents about LAET! But how to go from Santa meeting psychedelic angels in Bethlehem to Tottenham?
And then it occurred to me: just yesterday I had met with two upper sixth formers determined to breathe life into the partnerships pupil-to-pupil between Highgate and LAET. We talked through joint debates, shared lectures, school-to-school exchanges (swapping Heads for a day, even), when one of the two suddenly blurted out: ‘Why don’t we put on a show?’ ‘Brilliant’, said I. We have already teamed up with the Roundhouse on a pilot arts programme with eight pupils, from each school, meeting weekly to learn circus skills. Indeed, it is working so well our hopes are rising that we may be able to roll it out in more of our 58 partner schools, helping re-inject creativity into the curriculum, which is having its creative opportunities stripped back to meet budget cuts. Drama and music transcend difference; creative expression invites us to overcome shyness and vulnerability, and to risk encounter and to encounter risk. A show it will be!
And here was I, witnessing the stirrings of that creativity, the early experience of overcoming shyness and inhibition, the rooting of common, shared qualities of the fully human (song, dance, movement, speech). Which is what I said to that very patient audience (even if a few, entirely irrelevant, gags about Christmas jumpers were dropped in for good measure, to keep the little ones entertained).
We want out little ones to grow up able to be part of a community, to be able to make communities in the way they act and interact. So, step one: get them singing, get them acting, get them dancing, get them playing, get them creating! That way, I’m convinced, they’ll be turbocharged to make connections and burst bubbles – just you wait!
Festive greetings to one and all!