I walked my children to school this morning in the bright autumn sunshine. I dropped them off, hugged and kissed them, wished them a good day in class and watched them skip into school with their friends to be greeted by their teachers. It’s hard not to weep reading or hearing any of the testimonies from the tragedy that happened to the Welsh mining community in Aberfan fifty years ago today, as raw now with emotion as it much have felt then. I read about one rescuer who had found the body of the deputy head teacher, Mr Beynon, “He was clutching five children in his arms as if he had been protecting them”.
My father was a coal miner and I came from a coal mining community. These communities were always particularly resilient and supportive as communities go and if there is hope in such a tragedy it was to read and hear about how the community of Aberfan have supported each other constantly for 50 years despite having had a generation wiped out. Some of those who lost children and family members only now being able to speak about their loss in 2016. When I first started teaching and I worked in a school in Bristol there was an old Welsh Maths teacher, Nigel Bowen, who told me with tears streaming down his face, that he was one of the first on the scene. All they could do in the mayhem of the avalanche of coal waste slurry that had engulfed Pantglas school and the surrounding houses was dig frantically with their bare hands and hope to find someone alive buried below. The fact that the now defunct National Coal Board refused to acknowledge until 1997 responsibility for the waste tips they had piled high above the village makes this injustice hard to take. The people of Aberfan had to use the money kindly donated from around the World to clear up their town, rebuild their houses and bury their dead. The then Welsh Secretary of State, Ron Davies, did the honourable and decent thing and changed this finally in the first year of the Labour government under Blair in 1997.
The minute’s silence was observed across Wales and other parts of the UK linked to mining like the Forest of Dean this morning at 9:15. I know in my old school of Crickhowell, where the sense of community and the school’s part in the community is one of the strongest I have known, the school came together to remember and commemorate the awful events of Aberfan 50 years ago.
In 2004 I remember the events in Beslan particularly as I had just started working in Russia with schools in Siberia when that southern Russian town should have been celebrating the first day of an academic year and instead gunmen and gunwomen took the school hostage. In the resulting chaos hundreds of young and innocent lives lost for no reason. My French friend told me this week they had just had the first of their “terrorist lock down” drills in her lycee in southern Paris and it didn’t matter how many times I saw it in the IB schools I worked with in Virginia, heavily armed school security and police guards in high schools with airport style security frisking students was something I could never get used to as a person or an educator.
I was very fortunate on Monday to be invited to take part in a unique forum at St George’s House, Windsor Castle, at the kind invitation of one of Wyedean’s parents, Mike Peckham, and the CEO of Virgin Money, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, who had sponsored the conference. The theme is something Mike has been working with the school on since the summer when we took the year 10 critical thinking group to East London to work with the local mosque and Forest Gate school in Newham. The conference had a range of participants from all spheres to talk about the impact of recent events such as Brexit, radicalisation both religious and political as well as the impact of globalisation on communities across the UK and the World. Having watched the US presidential debates this autumn and reading about the situation in places like Mosul and Aleppo, it is hard to find at times the optimism to explain these situations to your own children let alone your students. The conference on Monday was inspirational for me to not only hear about how people have remained optimistic and focussed from a range of examples from the Troubles in Northern Ireland to ethnic minorities combatting racism but also made clear there are alternative narratives to challenge what often appears a spiral of despondency in the World.
Schools have always been and always will be places of incredible hope and optimism. I gave my Year 9 assembly on Wednesday with this being reflected in what I need to be able to offer the young people in my care as their headteacher. I followed this straight after with the opening ceremony of a special event for the whole 6th Form organised by the assistant director of 6th Form, Sam Bishop, and Gloucestershire Road Safety, called “Drive for Life”. There are moments in life when you can be really humbled and on Wednesday the dignity and courage of a mother who had lost her 18-year-old in a road traffic accident was immense as she spoke to the entire 6th Form. The job of school is to teach a curriculum, to be able to pass exams and to obtain qualifications recognising that process. But holistically education is and should be so much more than this and on Wednesday at Wyedean this is what the young people in the 6th Form experienced. My thanks to all visitors and organisers who put on this unique event for the school and as ever there are photos and links on our Twitter feed. Staff have very kindly given up their break to take students to visit Auschwitz in Poland and the WWI battlefields in Belgium. On Monday the school held an inset/twilight training around building leadership and why staff go the “extra mile” for students. Wyedean has the best teachers and support staff I have known for both aspects and I have worked in some pretty good schools.
The school broke up for half term on Wednesday and we held a non-uniform day to support the local foodbank in Chepstow with donations and food to deliver for Harvest Festival. We return on Monday 31st October with darker and colder days to face and the long slog until Christmas. The school is hosting a Challenge Partner Review team in November for several days as we bring in external verifiers who can look at what and where the school is doing well. Also what we need to do to be even better and a way to improve the school to continue to be a high performing beacon of excellence for our communities in the Forest of Dean and in Monmouthshire. I will let parents know the date for the school’s first “coffee morning – town hall meeting” in late November as part of this dialogue.
I am looking forward to a few days away in mid Wales with my wife, kids and dog Dylan at my family’s place in the middle of no-where near Llanidloes. Possible trip to the sea and Aberystwyth for fish and chips as well as long treks up mountains with the dog and my daughters. And no wifi for their tablets there as well! I wish all our staff, students and families a very good rest and break.