Tuesday 31 May 2016

I've had the Time of my Life

This is an edited version of my address to the Class of 2016 at Kirkham Grammar School Sixth Form, delivered at their Leavers' Assembly on May 25th 2016. Some students asked if they could see it, so I am happy to oblige. If you're not from KGS, it's probably not very interesting, but if you want to read on, it's basically some reflections on leaving school at 18. And because I try to give all my blog posts a song title for their name, it has to be I've had the time of my Life because that's what I hope people feel as they leave school. I have removed names of pupils on this version for public reading.

So here we go..

If today has a hashtag, then surely it has to be #endofanera. I find hashtags strangely attractive, especially when small words stuck together look as if they might be another real word, looking like something from another another language: #endofanera.  If you’re a Twitter user, do a search and you’ll find that particular hashtag is very popular: I looked it up this week and saw tweets about schools’ leavers’ days, university graduations, retirements, old buildings closing down and much more besides. We are all over-fond of that cliché, probably because we like to impose patterns on time and events, retrospectively more often than not, to make more sense of our lives as they unfold. Nobody ever talks of the start of an era, because we don’t know it’s an era until it has ended, normally after a long time. I certainly didn’t know, when I walked into Kirkham Grammar School in May 1981 that it was the start of an era. I am managing to blur the end of my era by stepping down gradually, but as this is my 25th and final Leavers’ Assembly, this is for me an era coming to an end.

But the real end of an era today is yours: you don’t realise what the era known as schooldays means to you until you are about to leave, and then suddenly you’re standing there facing the rest of your life, finding that seven years or more (or perhaps fewer if you have moved school along the way) have flown by without your ever realising that what you are watching is your youth flying by. Today really is all about the end of an era for you.

You are the 35th generation of 6th Formers to whom I have said farewell and the 25th as Head of Sixth Form. Every year I stand up and talk about another era in the life of the school, or rather in the lives of a group of students within it, coming to an end. But this year is a bit special, and a bit different. You are leaving school at the end of two, four, five, six, seven, maybe up to fourteen years at KGS, but among the teachers gathered here today are some long-serving teachers all of whom leave with you. More will be said and written about them in due course, but please take a moment to join with me in wishing those stalwarts of KGS all the best in their future lives -  and for most of them, that is a life of retirement after long and dedicated service to KGS.

But the real end of an era is, indeed, yours. Some of you are the last child of a family whose association with the school goes a long way back: a quick glance down the list reminds me that nine of you are the younger or youngest of families who have associations with KGS dating back many years, and so for these and their families, the sense of end of an era is even more tangible. And of course there are four in your number whose parents I, and other teachers, taught here at KGS.

It all starts to make me feel old. But when you leave school, when your era ends, you are immediately condemned to reminisce in future years about “good old days” at school. You’ll get misty eyed about the smelly changing rooms from your 1st year, cross country runs, CCF overnights hockey tours and lessons. Sadly, when people reminisce, they tend to remember the awful lessons and the awful teachers – there’s more potential for laughs there. Maybe you’ll even talk about the good old days of AS modules. Maybe you’ll all meet in forty years’ time and try to remember the name of that Headmaster who disappeared halfway through your Sixth Form. But whatever it’s about, you’ll be reminiscing like old age pensioners before you know it. You’ll probably be doing it this afternoon.

But reminiscing is rightly what today is all about, and it’s why we as a school like to make a bit of a fuss of our Sixth Form Leavers as we send them on their way into the world. As I stand up every year to speak to the Leavers, there is always something different, unique, and worthy of celebration about those sitting in front of me. I have never made any secret of the fact that you as a year group mean a lot to me. I have already shared this with some of you, but I can honestly say that when you were in the Second Year, and I was teaching a good many of you for either French or German, I did a quick mental calculation and worked out that I would be reaching my planned retirement age at around the time that you reached the Upper Sixth. I wanted to step down as the first and so far only Head of Sixth Form after a nice round number of years – 25 –  with the Sixth Form as good and as big as it’s ever been, and that is what I am doing this year. And it’s not just me who rates you as a very special year group.

I was chatting to Mrs Parkinson recently, and she told me that she had to do her trial lesson when applying for the Deputy Head job back in 2010 with a group of you, as First Years. She much enjoyed the lesson, got the job, and has always had a soft spot for you since then. And I have always rated you highly as a year group: not just because you were a more than decent set of students when I taught you for French or German, but because you collectively have always seemed to me to “get” what is good about a school like this. Basically, you look as if you enjoy it. Probably my favourite memory of your year will be when Ben hid in a cupboard, inspired by a funny story I had told about my own schooldays, and unfortunately I was delayed on the way to the lesson and in came a rather angry Mr Watson. You can imagine what happened next. Ben, I’ve felt guilty ever since and I’d like to make a public apology….

I bet right now you are all thinking about funny things that have happened, and how much has changed in your lives, and in this school, in your few years here. But more important than what has changed is what has stayed the same. And that, as we are so fond of saying, is far less tangible. It’s about values, an atmosphere, which can be greatly enhanced by buildings and facilities, but in the end rely on the accumulated wisdom of 460 odd years.

And you embody those values as well as any group has done. What defines the quality of you as a year group, like so many before you at KGS, is the way in which, probably without even knowing it, you have absorbed and exemplified the values of the school, whether you have been here for one year, two years, four years, seven years or, in the case of quite a few of you, fourteen years.

For a start you have welcomed and integrated newcomers into your friendship groups, at every stage of your seven years here. That’s the so-called one family ethos in action. It is easy to forget when I pass through the Common Room that people who joined just for Sixth Form have only been here two years – they always seem so much at the heart of things. And then I remember that about 25 individuals who have not been here since the First Year – that’s not far off a quarter of the Year group!

So whether you’ve been here for fourteen years, seven two, or even just one, you are to KGS the Class of 2016, and it is always a pleasure today to see this group of people sitting here for one last time as a group, on the verge of success at A-Level and beyond. To use a somewhat psychobabble term, there’s a real sense that you have been on a “journey” through school, and it is often the most difficult journeys that give greatest satisfaction on their completion.

But if you were in the First Year back in ’09 -’10, do stop for a minute and think about how much the school has changed in that time. You are one of the last groups to still remember the old gym and the smelly changing rooms. It is so appropriate that your year group has seen the opening of the new music facilities during your time in school, given that among your number are so many talented and dedicated musicians. And in saying that, I cannot avoid lapsing into what sounds like a string of clichés from a school press release when I refer to the incredible diversity of talent in this year group. There is something very right about a leaving cohort which contains not only all that star quality musicianship, but also NODA winning actors, award-winning CCF NCO’s, DoE medallists, a hockey team who were a match for anyone including Millfield and of course an unbeaten First Fifteen. That owes much, of course, to the talent of those of you involved in those activities, but a good deal also to the school which fosters, promotes and encourages that talent. I would contend that if you are involved in any one of those successful activities it will, over a lifetime, benefit you as much and arguably more than the A-Level results that you will achieve over the coming few weeks. That, dare I say, is what your families pay for.

So today - or the day when you finally complete your A2 exams - really is the end of an era. School, especially a traditional 11-18 school like this one, stretches quite literally from childhood to adulthood, and it is the pleasure and privilege of those of us who work in schools like this to accompany you on all or part of that journey. When you leave, many of you will leave behind a real hole in a subject, an activity or a team: the Music Department will greatly miss about a dozen of you of you, as will the Drama. As always, there will be some very difficult boots to fill on the sports field. You are certainly a year group who have done the school motto proud in its truest and fullest interpretation: you have entered, you have profited - but so have we. Remember this as you go through university and life beyond: If you set out to put in more than you get out, you will end up taking out far more than you put in. Through my work with the Old Kirkhamians, I often meet with people of all ages who have been educated here, and it is humbling how often they attribute their success to values, knowledge and skills learned in their teens at KGS. Most recently, I talking to Ranvir Singh, arguably our most recognisable former pupil, who willingly and publically assigns much of what she has achieved in TV journalism to her time at KGS. Ranvir was sitting in those same seats as you are in this very Hall 21 years ago with an ambition to be a TV newsreader. She, like many, is a “true Kirkhamian”, and this Hall is full of such people. You are a Kirkhamian for life, and as a reminder of this, on your way out today you will all receive an OKA pin badge. Please wear it with pride – why not start by wearing it for your A-Levels as a good luck charm?

You have been lucky enough, thanks mainly to the generosity of your families and others, to attend a very special school. I do hope that you have enjoyed it as much as we have, and that you will look back fondly on this day and all your school days, and realise that they really are some of the best days of your life.

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