From my desk in school I look out on to the Science Quad which until recently, with its attractive, centrally located flowerbed, was more of a pedestrian thoroughfare or roundabout than a gathering space. Now, however, it is a regulated gathering space for year group bubbles: come wind or rain (there is a temporary tent over what was the flowerbed), and this last week, come sun or more sun, a hundred and fifty or so young people occupy this space, and others, to catch up in the open air. We all need to keep our windows open so the fresh air at these times is accompanied by not quite a symphony, perhaps a hubbub, a soundscape, of chatter. Occasional tympanies of more excited or simply louder voices break through but generally the sounds, while full of energy, excitement and laughter, are even, modulated and reassuring. I can tell a break is coming to an end and teachers are emerging from coffee snatched in their departmental bases to get staggered lessons underway: the noises ebb away, not because anyone has actually stopped talking (do young people ever stop talking?) but because the crowd is un-gathering, dispersing, and conversations reconfiguring as people seek out their classmates, head off and knuckle down. I wonder how many words are spoken in an average break and am glad that so many words are actually spoken, face to face, or eyes to eyes, in this digital world.
So the end of School Lockdown II has meant there’s been a great deal more talking, and that can only be good. Highgate folk will know, of course, that we have also set out on a listening exercise, launched just before the Easter hols, to make it possible for pupils, past and present, parents and staff to raise concerns, to ask questions and to share experiences relating to misogyny, sexual harassment and sexual violence. Back in school after the break, that listening continues and has included opportunities for parents and former pupils to meet over webinars or to talk in confidence to our colleague, Dr Enya Doyle, by now an increasingly familiar face on the Zoom screen, with her expertise in inclusion and in gender studies. A digest of those many conversations will be reaching parents and carers soon. We are very grateful for the involvement of everyone.
We are, I think, all of us and in school certainly, looking to re-establish reassuring rhythms and routines, not least because the big questions we are asking and are being asked still must leave the young people the space they need to re-connect and to catch up (socially rather than work-wise), to get on with being young and growing up. Of course, lockdown hasn’t actually finished, isn’t over: restrictions still have to be in place; year groups are bubbled; in the Senior School we are teaching in masks and have to stand two metres from our nearest pupil; house assemblies and services are still a no-no. But the green shoots of sporting life have begun to burst through the Covid frosts (hurray!); auditions for the biennial school musical are being planned; Highgate pupils are cantering back triumphant in national competitions; lessons are being disturbed by maths challenges and off-site field trips; an arts festival is taking shape.
I’m not always so positive, however: I was sounding off grumpily about the things we still won’t be able to do for a few weeks yet when a colleague asked me if in fact I was missing the opportunity which these strange disruptions to our routines have created. Yes, lockdown has exacerbated, sometimes to devastating effect, inequalities which may, it seems, take generations to put right, but the convulsions thus caused have whetted the appetite for discussion and debate, for re-thinking and re-booting. I sense that the slow release from lockdown is enabling just the kind of careful introspection about any and all routines we need to re-establish which will be creative and liberating. Getting the balance between looking afresh, thinking boldly, planning change, while leaving people feeling safe, re-oriented, re-rooted, is though one massive challenge.
I suspect that schools, that society, will need to be bold, to be experimental, to meet the challenges revealed by, and to realise the opportunities created in, lockdown. But our young people will need a backdrop of steadying and reassuring familiar certainties, of face-to-face, eye-to-eye and, let’s hope, smile-to-smile, togetherness.