There’s the beginning of an Autumn chill in the morning air. The August bank holiday is behind us, and with it the summer. It is the beginning of a new academic year. In quite unusual circumstances, pupils are already returning to school after their unexpectedly long, unprecedented break.
I’ll come back to pupils returning to socially distanced schools and colleges, but that’s not where this blog starts. September 2020 marks a significant anniversary of the beginning of my own secondary education. About six weeks ago, a message dropped into my inbox from a former school friend. I’d not had contact with him since we both left school, and he was writing to say that one of our classmates was organising a reunion to mark the anniversary. “AN is organising it”, he wrote, “but don’t let that put you off”. It was a phrase which immediately evoked AN’s antics all those years ago and pulled me back several decades, as it was intended to do. I wrote back and agreed to go. Over the summer, class lists were reconstructed and more and more of our number were contacted. A playlist of the hits of our youth was put together. Grainy photographs were scanned and swapped. On Saturday evening, with due regard to social distancing rules, the maximum allowed thirty of us met in a rugby club bar in the Midlands.
Of course, there was a fascination about what the decades had inflicted since we all started at our boys’ secondary school, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in uniforms slightly too big. It was a small school, just sixty of us in the year group. Five were known to have died – car accidents, cancer, AIDS, suicide – which puts everything into perspective. Others could not be traced. The lives of many of us had taken unpredictable turns. Perhaps none of us had had the life we might have expected. Though we did not realise it at the time, we began our secondary schooling at the end of the long post-war economic boom – to misquote Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, between the Beatles’ last LP and the oil price shock. Careers, jobs, relationships, families had all been marked by unexpected successes and desperate disappointments. Many of them were the personal manifestations of massive social disruption: the loss of manufacturing industry, the galloping pace of technological change, the rise of a more unequal and individualistic society, shifting assumptions about gender, race and equalities. For those – quite a few – who had become self-employed or consultants, the last six months had been very tough.
Some of my classmates had taken away from our common experience of schooling an abiding respect for the (even for then, very traditional) values the school taught; others took away from it a deep-seated suspicion of those same values. Some had remained in the community in which they’d been educated. Others had roamed far and wide. Two members of staff, long since retired and now elderly, joined us and turned out, of course, to have a quite different take on our recollections. Once we began talking, memories flooded back. Receding hairlines and spreading waistline did, after all, conceal those fellow pupils with whom we had all shared formative years and experiences. Before long, recognisable, half-remembered traits emerged. Low level violence (from staff as well as pupils) and bullying were remembered, alongside an unremitting focus on hard work and team games – all of them producing deep feelings of community as we navigated our way through adolescence. There was what seems in hindsight an appallingly casual approach to supervision of pupils on school trips. Cross-country runs, universally loathed at the time, had become no less attractive in retrospect. The world beyond school was quite different from our own times. Someone remembered that school meals cost 15p, but fishcake and chips could be had for 7p just down the road – any risk of detention was outweighed by the opportunity to pocket an 8p gain, to be spent on the 45 rpm singles which one of our number sold on, as his mum’s job involved emptying jukeboxes.
It’s all a reminder that however unusual the beginning of this academic year is for pupils and students as well as for us, their teachers, it is nonetheless a new beginning. There’s always a combination of excitement and fear at the beginning of a new academic year. This September is no different. To quote another Philip Larkin poem – this time accurately but out of context – this is the “yearly trick of looking new….[B]egin afresh, afresh, afresh”. Everyone will have mixed feelings about the resumption of educational routine. Everyone will have hopes and expectations, apprehensions and worries. Everyone will wonder how teaching, learning, and beyond that, lives and careers will evolve in this ‘next’ normal. Like all universities, all schools and colleges, all nurseries and playgroups, at Sheffield Hallam we have planned carefully to adapt to the constraints of social-distancing. Because there are such widely different views about returning, it behoves us all to look at things from others’ points of view, to understand and to listen, even if we won’t always agree. Perhaps, in several decades’ time, at a gathering not unlike the one I went to on Saturday, learners will look back on this September. What will we want them to make of it?