Chair of Council, Members of Council, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, it is an honour and privilege to stand here before you today. If you are visiting Rossall for the first time, then we wish you the very warmest of welcomes. We hope that you will feel the friendly embrace of our community; a community within which friendship, empathy, kindness and compassion are prized above all else. By any measure, this has been an extraordinarily successful academic year and there is a good deal for us to celebrate in all aspects of school life. Rossall currently has the highest pupil roll in its history and there are many reasons why we are now the school of choice in this part of the world. Of course, one could point to our sporting successes or our strong academic performance. Similarly it is the case that the vitality of our performing arts programme and the rich diversity of co-curricular activities on offer here at Rossall serve as a major draw. However, this is only part of the story for, in reality, we are much more than just a school. We are an aspirant community bound together by collegiate dynamism and an uncompromising commitment to achieving excellence in all areas of our endeavours. We are a community that is built upon people and it is our fantastic staff, supportive parents and wonderful pupils that makes Rossall such a special place.
We are justifiably proud of the impressive tally of A*/A grades achieved at A level in the summer of 2022. Our IBDP average of 35 points places us within the ranks of the top performing IB schools in the UK. However, we do not profess to be an academic hothouse or an examinations factory – we are much more than that. We are unashamedly inclusive in terms of our intake for we believe that it is our responsibility to add value by providing an outstanding quality of teaching and learning. We delight in our ability to inspire young people to achieve beyond their wildest expectations and our value-added results would suggest that we do this very well.
There are no league tables to measure the intrinsic character of a pupil body. However, we know that Rossallians leave us as confident and thoughtful young people ready to go out in the world and do good. As parents, we choose Rossall because of the quality of the young people that we see before us today. As a father, I wish for my daughters to develop the skills and attributes that our Sixth Formers display so superbly well.
Year 13 – you are the living embodiment of the ethos and values of this school. Progressive and liberal but with a healthy appreciation of tradition and community, you think more of what you can do for others than what others can do for you. The age-old ideal of service to others is hard-wired into the DNA of this community but it is not a concept that is desperately fashionable in an age which counsels us that, in order to truly thrive, we must prioritise our own happiness and wellbeing above all else. In a society which is increasingly fragmented and inward looking, the importance of community has never been more apparent. The feeling of connectedness that comes from being part of a global community comprising almost seventy different nationalities provides an outstanding preparation for adulthood. The ideals of equality, diversity and inclusion are not simply taught at Rossall; they are lived with a vibrancy and honesty that is manifest in all that we do.
It is our responsibility to ensure that our children have the best possible opportunity to fulfil their dreams. At a time when competition for Oxford and Cambridge places is becoming increasingly fierce, Rossall students are continuing to make impressive inroads at both universities. Furthermore, almost sixty percent of students progress to Russell Group/Top 20 universities and a good few win sports scholarships to the US. An increasing number of our Sixth Formers are being awarded places on highly competitive degree apprenticeship programmes and we are seeing a growing diversity of exciting options available to young people. Ultimately, we measure our success in terms of the quality of individual outcomes achieved and our ability to help young people realise their professional ambitions and personal dreams. The true meaning of success is unique to each Rossallian and maintaining a healthy balance between individualism and community is of the utmost importance to us.
Of course, the past, present and future merge together on a day like today. We are custodians of the architectural heritage of our community and the launch of our ambitious restoration project is designed to safeguard the structural integrity of our most iconic buildings for generations to come. I think that we all feel an intense emotional attachment to the Sumner Library, Big School and the Chapel of St John the Baptist, for they constitute the spiritual, intellectual and creative heart of this community. Within their walls are contained the collective memories of our school’s illustrious history. However, the ravages of time have served to endanger the structural integrity of each of these buildings. Stonework has eroded and metalwork has corroded. Salt in the atmosphere, water ingress and almost a hundred and eighty years of winter storms on the Fylde have taken an all too punishing toll. If we do nothing then they will enter a state of managed decline. Eventually they will turn to dust. Therefore, we must now respond to the multitude of recommendations contained within the most recently commissioned survey reports in order to restore these listed buildings to their former glory. This is not an exercise in sentimental nostalgia for these are buildings which are vital to the School’s future development plans.
We have set ourselves the target of raising significant funds in order to carry out the much needed repairs to these buildings. This money cannot be raised through fee income alone and so the Foundation is marshalling its resources and seeking to emulate the success of its fundraising campaign for the Sports Hall project. The impressive generosity of the Rossall community has served the school extraordinarily well over the years. This project will not only safeguard our heritage; it will provide future generations of Rossallians with access to top class facilities in some of the most important areas of School life. I should pay tribute to the extraordinary generosity of David and Keith McKee. Their gift provides a fantastic boost to our efforts in this regard.
Strategically, our eyes are firmly fixed on the future and we are committed to ensuring that we become increasingly sustainable. Investment in green technologies and alternative forms of energy makes financial and environmental sense and we need to continue to inspire our children to take their role as future protectors of our planet seriously. The benefits of doing so extend well beyond the confines of Rossall.
We are beginning to harness the strength of technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality headsets in order to ensure that a Rossall education is centred on a curriculum which is responsive to the rapidly developing nature of modern society and the demands of the twenty-first century workplace. Within the next academic year, all teaching spaces will be equipped with interactive touch screen televisions. Tablets and the use of Google Classroom will continue to complement the teaching of traditional productive skills. Outstanding schools do not choose between a skills-based curriculum or a knowledge rich curriculum; they commit to providing both.
The UK education system is in desperate need of reform. Summative high-stake public examinations reward those with excellent memories and an ability to perform under pressure. It is a prescriptive system that disadvantages those who are neurodivergent or struggle to consolidate their learning into vast chunks of information. It is a system that does not always recognise the extraordinary potential of children who do not fit a particular mould – a mould that is beginning to look increasingly antiquated. Is it not time for a diploma-style curriculum that balances continuous assessment with summative examinations? Is it not time for a holistic approach that recognises the value of contributions that young people make in all aspects of their lives? There is little in the current structure that promotes or recognises the soft skills that are so often sought by future employers. Creativity and the ability to communicate ideas effectively are not routine requirements of examination specifications. Emotional intelligence is likewise neglected. Indeed it is possible to come out with a clean sweep of top grades without understanding anything of worth about social justice, sustainability, political discourse or personal relationships. There has been a huge amount of debate in the public sphere about social mobility. Much of this debate has tended to focus on university admission mechanisms whereas I would suggest that a radical overhaul of the current school curriculum would provide a better starting point.
You will all have your own highlights of this year but my top five (in no particular order) are as follows:
- The stunningly brilliant performance of Chicago.
- Witnessing the U18 girls team retain the ISFA Cup.
- The Christmas Carol Service.
- Watching the First XI beat the MCC for the first time in thirty years.
- Attending the Rossall Rose Race night which raised thousands of pounds for The Boathouse Youth.
Today is always tinged with sadness because we say goodbye to Year 13. They have been superb role models for our younger students and I would like to pay tribute to our fantastic team of senior monitors. Our school captains, Joe Davies and Alice Christy have provided phenomenally strong leadership and they have been ably supported by their deputies; Kai Wagner and Tayla-Daisy Hoyle. We could not have asked for more from you.
Let me share a little thought with you. Almost every week for five years I have written a blog which is published in our weekly newsletter. You may have read a few of them or it may well be part of the newsletter that you scroll over. I have written about the loss of my father, past struggles with mental health and the joy and challenges of parenthood. I have lost myself in philosophical arguments about artificial intelligence and transcendental spirituality. I have defended the independent sector from relentless assault and grumbled about the pernicious impact of the digital echo chamber. At times, I have been opinionated, self-righteous and pompous and, yes, on occasions, I have produced some really substandard work. Regardless of this, I have just kept on writing. Part of my motivation for writing comes from a determination to become better at my craft and, as a lifelong learner, I dare to believe that I am still, and always will be, a work in progress. In reality it might not be that the best is yet to come but I choose to live as if the next thing I write will be my best piece ever.
Almost forty years ago, I started to play the piano. My progress might not have been as swift as I would have hoped, but I refuse to contemplate the prospect of plateauing. To believe that you can become ever more accomplished is to live life with hope. I will not quote Dylan Thomas at this point, but with every advancing year, the words of ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ seem ever more urgent, ever more inspiring. Life is a journey and whilst today represents a significant milestone, you should strive to continue growing in terms of your commitment to live, love and learn. Never give up and never settle for average.
Here’s another thing, I love my role but I suffer from imposter’s syndrome. I am not grumbling, for the opportunity to lead this community is one of the great privileges of my life. However, I do not think the last five years would have been possible without the steadfast love and support of my wife Fiona. Of course, my gratitude to her is private but let us take a moment to thank the long-suffering partners of all of our staff. In a boarding school, staff families are also compelled to live lives that are, to some extent, shaped by the demands of our own roles and the rhythm of school life. Typically, they do this whilst managing busy personal and professional lives that have very little to do with duty nights, reports, parents’ meetings and marking.
It was lovely to welcome back Dina Porovic at the beginning of the academic year. Her logical mindset and commitment towards driving the school forward is complemented by her indefatigable energy and the ability to juggle competing priorities. Earlier this year, we bade farewell to the Stacker family which meant that we lost Catherine, one of our two senior deputy heads. Catherine is an outstanding pastoral leader and King’s School, Parramatta has gained a truly brilliant educator. Her departure felt like a great loss but we are a strong team with plenty of depth. Indeed, we are more than the sum of the constituent parts. Nobody does more than Emma Williams to ensure that the wellbeing of our children is safeguarded. It is not for nothing that successive safeguarding audits have highlighted her skills and professionalism. There is no doubt in my mind that in Emma we have an exceptionally accomplished practitioner. Her knowledge of this place is second to none and after twenty three years of service to Rossall she still has the commitment, energy and enthusiasm of someone who is just starting out. Dr Sean Knox was appointed to the role of Deputy Head (Academic) in September 2023 and he has quickly established himself as a calm and thoughtful leader with a razor-sharp intellect, dry wit and gentle charm. Sean inspires high standards in all aspects of teaching and learning and the almost evangelical conviction that drives him forward is never far from the surface. In a very short space of time he has earned the respect and admiration of colleagues and pupils alike. He works exceptionally hard and tirelessly puts the needs of others before himself.
Matt Turner tells me that the closeness that exists between us is surprisingly rare in schools of our kind. Or at least that is what he once told me after a boisterous twilight session at an IAPS Conference. It is no secret that we share a very similar vision as well as an appallingly unsophisticated sense of humour. The magic that he works in the Prep School is reflected in the happiness of the children within his care. Ashleigh Collins leads our nursery so successfully that there is now a very lengthy waiting list. Whilst she has been on maternity leave, Alexandra Simpson has stepped up to ensure that our very youngest children continue to benefit from an outstanding quality of care. Nick Crombie is a wonderful Head of Sixth Form and his cheerful demeanour and infectious enthusiasm is underpinned by a serious commitment to supporting young people through one of the most crucial and yet challenging periods of their lives. Similarly, our houseparents and deputies do an incredible job and I know that you will want to thank them personally later in the day.
I would like to pay tribute to Adam Cawkwell, Stephanie Capstick, Tim Fletcher, Doreen Crossley, Lee Cox, Tim Hayes, Katie Lee. Without these individuals and the teams they lead, the School would simply not be able to function. Rossall is full of unsung heroes and the attentiveness with which all staff look after our children is a defining feature of a community where safeguarding is perhaps best understood as a cultural commitment to caring. There are few places that I still get called ‘love’ or ‘young man’ but the servery is one such place and I think we all delight in the cheerful informality and reassuring smiles of those who make us feel so entirely at home. Thank you.
Emma Sanderson works tirelessly to ensure that we do not bankrupt the School. Her team in finance have wrestled with strong economic headwinds and are at the forefront of ensuring that we become increasingly sustainable in terms of energy consumption. It is no secret that a future Labour Government would remove charitable status, impose business rates and charge VAT on School Fees. Without an efficiency drive and a relentless commitment to ensuring value for money, such factors could endanger the very future of a school like Rossall. It is the case that we are now working very hard to minimise the burden of any such measures. Now is not the time for a lengthy discussion about tax you will be relieved to hear but we are actively lobbying local politicians to ensure that they understand the implications of the Labour Party’s proposed actions. Suffice to say, that we understand just how hard our parents work and we will do everything within our power to minimise the impact upon current and future parents.
The strategic vision that we articulate as a senior leadership team would come to nothing were it not for the extraordinary dedication of our teaching and support staff. My most important role is to appoint outstanding members of staff and I am immeasurably proud of my colleagues. Professionally accomplished, our staff are kind, compassionate, caring and inspire our children to become the very best possible versions of themselves. Rossall teachers are not just subject experts, they are genuinely the most lovely group of individuals whom you would ever wish to meet. The cold winds might blow through our old stone buildings but the warmth, humour and friendship of our teachers and support staff banish even the most icy of winter storms. Please give them a round of applause.
It has always been apparent to us that our responsibility extends well beyond our own gates. We employ a significant proportion of the local population in an area of intense socioeconomic challenge. Bursaries and scholarships at Rossall amount to almost 18% of gross income – three times the sector average in the UK. Our outreach projects such as the Da Vinci Academy and Broadway Academy serve local schools and our fundraising endeavours support local charities such as Brian House Hospice and The Boathouse Youth. We are part of the fabric that constitutes the complex tapestry of life here on the Fylde. We have much more in common with our local neighbours in the maintained sector than we do with private schools in other parts of the country. I am a relative newcomer to this area so you do not need me to point out that people on the Fylde are grafters who work incredibly hard for the success that they achieve.
There is no doubt in my mind that the true source of iniquity in this country is the divide between North and South. Consider the following:
If you are male and you grow up in Blackpool then the chances are that you will die ten years earlier than if you have the good fortune to be born in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Educationally, there is a clear deficit. GCSE and A Level results across the North West are lower than the average for the UK and fewer students from the North West are offered places at Oxbridge – regardless of the sort of School that they have attended. Our transport network in the North West is crumbling and yet the newly opened Elizabeth Line in London cost £18.9 billion. In November 2022, Michael Gove said that:
Blackpool is a town full of life, energy, and immense potential but for too long it has been overlooked and its communities undervalued. Our £40 million Levelling Up investment will revitalise this great town by delivering much-needed homes, more jobs and new opportunities for local people.
The levelling up investment that Michael Gove refers to amounts to just 0.2% of the cost of the Elizabeth Line in London. It is little more than a token gesture and serves to underline the very real disparity between spending in the South and the North.
Finally, the English Indices of Deprivation (2019) shows that Blackpool has eight of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK.. Locally, almost one in three children live in poverty, which is almost 50% higher than the national average.
I would argue that nobody has the right to admonish hard working parents on the Fylde who make untold sacrifices in order to provide the best start in life for their children. The levelling up agenda needs an adrenaline shot in the arm. At a local level, all political parties should look to work positively with all those who are invested in improving our communities. Often it is local businesses, schools, charities and philanthropic individuals who have pulled together to plug the hole left by chronic underfunding from Westminster. Rossall is one such player in the local community and any future government should harness the energy and goodwill that exists within this school rather than trying to tax us into oblivion.
So despite the challenges that lie ahead, Rossall’s charitable mission, as set out in its founding statutes, has never been more important than it is right now. We have an important contribution to make to life on the Fylde and we intend to continue doing so. We might be a hundred and eighty years old but we have only just begun.
I would like to end with the words of an Irish blessing for our Year 13 leavers:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Headmaster of Rossall School