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Speech Day 2020 – Rector’s Speech – Mr Jon Trafford

It is 1:30am in the morning, and the phone is ringing wildly. What could possibly be wrong – all the worst thoughts go through your mind. What has happened? Surely everything in the boarding house is fine? I was there 1 ½ hours ago, it was in darkness and all the boys were asleep. Ominously, the voice at the other end of the line belonged to the Deputy Head. He was adamant and demanded that I meet him urgently in his office. No, it would not wait until morning. Arriving sleepily, a table in the corner of the reception area caught my eye; it was littered with half empty quart bottles of beer and a selection of rather fine Cape wines. Seated along the opposite wall was a rather disheveled group of boys, including my Head of House and members of my prefect body. Thinking that the Head of House had been particularly proactive in his duties, I gave him a quick thumbs up before entering the Deputy Heads office. Why else would the Head of House be up at this time in the morning? All too quickly the bubble burst, for the boys, seated outside, had been caught red – handed by the school security having a wonderful celebratory party in the house loft – soon to be renamed “Tom’s Pub and Grill”.

Chairman of the EXCO, Mr Simon Hammond; our Guest of honour, Mr Vic Paunganwa; Mrs Hough, Headmistress of Peterhouse Girls; invited guests; Peterhouse Boys and Girls staff and the Vth and VIth Form of Peterhouse, it is my singular pleasure to welcome you here today. I am certain our Guest of Honour does not need much by the way of introduction as he, having taught at Peterhouse, will be known to many of you. What I do know is that he agreed, at short notice, to be our guest here today – Vic many thanks.
Equally, I do not think 2020 needs any real introduction! Notwithstanding this fact I would like, briefly, to share some thoughts on the year with you. The year will most certainly be written into annals of history as one of those unusual, unique, challenging and eventful years – we have certainly been part of a defining time in history.
My opening remarks are not from the pages of the John van der Riet trilogy of Spud books and the crazy life of living in a boarding school. Rather, they are a reflection of a situation I found myself, as a Housemaster, confronted with years ago. Tom, after whom the “loft” is now named, was my Head of House.

Why have I chosen to share this with you as an introduction to my commentary on 2020? I do so, in the hope that sharing this story will help in understanding how, or how not, to react in a time of crisis. On that fateful night my initial reaction was anger, retribution and waves of disappointment. All understandable emotions at the time – I had been let down. Fortunately, at the time I was surrounded by some incredible mentors who walked me through a process of managing a crisis. They helped me understand that the events of that evening were not about me and, in managing a crisis, I needed to pause, reflect and then engage with the issue. I learnt to appreciate that rules are rules, but in equal measure, I needed to understand that circumstance must be put into context and context determines response.
So, as you reflect on 2020 I suspect those of you leaving Peterhouse will in many ways feel angry, disappointed and let down by the events of this year. I appreciate your sense of lost opportunity; your chance to show your talents and abilities; but I want you to appreciate that there is a lot more to your lives than what might have been in 2020. In all the chaos and disruption of the year there are invaluable lessons learnt. There will also have been some hidden gems of advice given to you during the course of the year. All of this will empower you to make wise and sensible decisions in the future.
So, reflecting back on the year, as a school, we must ask ourselves the difficult question of whether or not, setting aside the complexities of this year, we have fulfilled our educational mandate?
In January the “new look” management team arrived on the scene conscious of expectation but excited by the prospect. How little did we know of what lay ahead. In March, our year was to be turned on its head. Fortunately, we were not alone given that leadership, globally and across the spectrum of society, was about to be challenged in unimaginable ways. The year started quite normally, with the announcement of our 2019 public examination results. These were, in the main, as predicted albeit the IGCSE result for the Boys’ School exceeded our expectations. The new D Blocks settled into their new school environment and in many respects the first term unfolded very much as anticipated, notwithstanding, a growing wave of concern around the spread of Covid, particularly, in the northern hemisphere. For us in our corner of Zimbabwe, the pandemic seemed far off and something of a media hype until March when South Africa quickly became a pandemic hotspot. The closure of the school was to have a major impact on the way the school was to manage its business. In those early days, which seem so distant now, we were confident that Covid would be a fleeting thing and by June we would be back in class, playing rugby and enjoying all the excitements of the Trinity Term. Even with that as a thought, the Easter holiday prompted a complete rethink in terms of delivery of lessons. Suddenly the words, Google Classroom, Google Meet, Zoom, WhatsApp and Google Guardian became central to our vocabulary. In three short, but frenetic weeks, Digi-school was born and became the foundation to teaching and learning for the school. Platforms were created and the academic staff went through an intense, whirlwind training programme. The start of the Trinity term was met with a fair degree of apprehension and there was a growing sense that the pandemic’s impact was going to result in a much longer disruption to teaching than had first been anticipated. So, at the start of the Trinity Term the corridors in the school were quiet, houses empty and sports fields pristine and expectant, aside the fact we had established our own “championship” golf course. To compound the prevailing levels of uncertainty there was a vacuum of information and no one seemed to have any idea how to manage the pandemic. Fortunately, at Peterhouse a routine had been established and online teaching had very much become part of our reality.

By the start of Michaelmas term concerns surrounding the public examinations were mounting. Throughout this time the school had to continually readjust dates and timetables at short notice. The decision to allow public examination classes to return on 14 September could not have come sooner. The delay in this announcement caused considerable anxiety for both examination candidates and staff. With only four weeks of teaching left before the start of the public examination a crash revision programme was embarked upon. This was demanding on staff given that they were now teaching on two platforms. At school students were in a formal classroom setting. However, the staff also also remained committed to teaching the non-examination classes online. This has been our reality for the bulk of the term given that the non – examination pupils only return to school for three weeks in November.

Added to the complexities of the year critical conversations around discrimination and racism were started in the school. These conversations are ongoing and the school, through the establishment of a working group, will review and adapt policy to ensure that any institutional discrimination is tackled at the source. Additionally, the ongoing economic uncertainty in the country continues to stretch the school’s resources. The ability of the school to manage its finances so effectively in 2020 has been quite remarkable and credit must go to FINCO, Mark Whitaker and the team in the Finance Department.

The year is not over yet, and the public examinations continue until 18 November. For the rest of the school the academic year closes on 2 December. Once closed, the Michaelmas Term would have been 21 weeks long – perhaps a single term record for the school. One of the most remarkable aspects of 2020 has been the fact that the school lost very little teaching time. What has been lost is that critical classroom contact time which no digital platform can replicate – the personal became far more impersonal. We will not regain what we lost over a period of five months but can only hope that 2021 will bring some return to normality.

So, at the end of 2020, the question remains: have we fulfilled our educational mandate? From my vantage point, I think the answer is a resounding yes. Have we done so conventionally; probably not. Nevertheless, we can certainly look back upon the year in a realisation that much has been achieved. This does not mean we have got it all right and we will, in 2021 need to be asking ourselves questions on how we can build on the 2020 experience. What we do know is that in the staff there is an incredible resilience and grit. It took an enormous amount of courage and commitment to ensure that we got things right this year. At the beginning of 2020 no –one could have anticipated what was to come, yet by April the staff had embraced a massive and significant pedagogical shift in the classroom. The real heroes of 2020 must be the staff. In the classroom teachers grappled and wrestled with a new way of doing things – their primary object to ensure that their pupils were not left behind this year.

Secondly, our community of pupils and parents supported the changes to the learning environment. It was not easy, and having the classroom at home was to introduce a new challenge to parenting. Under extremely difficult conditions our parents have rallied to our support and for this we are extremely grateful. It has not all been plain sailing but, in 2020, I would like acknowledge the sacrifices and support we have received from our parent body.

To ensure that we continue to fulfill our obligations to our school community, our success will continue to be built around relationships and partnerships. Something we have, to some degree, lost in 2020. Partnerships that link our parent body, our friends and Petreans to the needs and aspirations of our school. In terms of strategic partnerships, I must take this opportunity to extend my thanks to the work of the sub – committees of the Board, FINCO and BESTCO, to the Executive Committee under the guidance of Simon Hammond and lastly to the Board itself. In this regard, I would like to pay special tribute to Stuart Mattinson, outgoing Chairman of the Board. He has, for forty years, and in many different capacities, managed the “affairs of state” at Peterhouse in the most astounding manner. His journey with the school started in 1980 and through that time he has participated in every level of school governance culminating in his appointment as Chairman of the Board in 2005. His influence and impact on the school is immeasurable and history will record that he has presided over a time where Peterhouse has developed into one of most highly regarded independent schools in Africa. We know, in his retirement, Stuart will continue to see over the school and he will always be remembered as one of the real Peterhouse champions. A mere thank you pales into insignificance given your service to the Group of Schools. Your name will forever be etched into the history of this school. We salute you most faithful servant of Peterhouse.

As always, the end of year marks a sad time where we bid farewell to a number of staff as they embark on new journeys and adventures. Today, I wish to pay special tribute to a number of staff for they have collectively contributed enormously to the well-being and fabric of this school. Their reach has touched almost every pupil, and parent in this school and they leave having woven their own threads into the rich Peterhouse tapestry.
The school bids farewell to Andrew and Sarah Shoesmith who leave the school to take a place at Culford School in Suffolk, UK. Their work and contribution to the school is well documented and they will be leaving a significant gap in the school staff. They have influenced and guided a significant number of young men and women through this school. Their insight into education is unparalleled and they have an amazing understanding of what makes for good schooling. In the classroom, overseeing cultural activities, on the sportfields, deep in the Chimanimani’s or relaxing next to Kashinga dam: the Shoesmith imprint on Peterhouse has been substantial and significant.

To Richard Handley who leaves Peterhouse to take up a position at Steyn City College north of Johannesburg we certainly wish you well in Egoli. Your roots are deep in this place and it would be my very sincere hope that call of the Zimbabwean bush brings you back to your home. May your new journey be filled with excitement, many opportunities and adventures. Richard, you have added much to our community – I know you will be sorely missed by Junior dormitory on the golf course!

After a remarkable ten years of service to the Group, Jason Driscoll and your alter-ego Jerimmah, leave Peterhouse for Portugal. During his tenure at the school he has had oversight of some significant projects and developments. Through his input, the Peterhouse campus has become the envy of many. A team player who will always be remembered for his great sense of humour, Jason was also very sensitive and connected to the local community. He will certainly be missed and we wish him and the family every success in their new European adventure.

I would also like to extend my thanks to Crispen, the Prefect body and the VIth Form for their contributions to the school. I am saddened that our time together was so short and my hope is that you will all, in the fullness of time, realise your true potential and enjoy much success.

While acknowledging the desire for staff to broaden horizons, we need as a school, to develop strategies where we can attract quality teachers through combinations of incentives that make Peterhouse a destination of choice. To this end we have embarked on a “teacher – intern” policy where we will identify talented individuals who are about to, or have graduated, and provide them with funding to complete their educational qualification whilst teaching in our classrooms.

Returning to my opening experience as a housemaster and relating them to our 2020 experiences, I share the thoughts of Australian educationalist John Hunt who speaks of “Sunrise and Sunset” people. ‘Sunrise people’ are energetic, creative and see solutions rather than problems. If they see a wall they think of ways of scaling the wall. ‘Sunset people’ are those who see problems without recognizing the opportunity a challenge may provide – the wall becomes insurmountable. It has been my experience this year that Peterhouse is full of “sunrise people''. While not suggesting that this year has always been a “bed of roses”, the school has coped remarkably well with the unpredictable. Further, Hunt implored us not to simply accept conventional wisdom but to always be prepared for changes and learn to adapt – this we have done with a great degree of success. He speaks not of the “circle of life, but the circus of life”. So, as we emerge out of 2020 we need in our schools to be creating an environment that incorporates a “new normal” in an ever-changing world of innovation. But, we must beware of not becoming “data junkies” because the latest gizzmo’s are not ideas – ideas come from human endeavour and humans “drill holes” in knowledge. As you, our leavers, emerge out of the post Covid world you must focus on your individual talents because “sameness” does not encourage creativity, leadership or the development of new ideas. You, as young men and women, need to think out-of-the-box because greatness only emerges if you embrace lateral thinking. The greatest inventions of all time did not come out of homogeneous groups of thinkers. Where will the next Steve Jobs come from? – I would like to think from a school like ours which accommodates and inspires the creative mind.

And so, back to Tom and his merry men. Their challenge to authority was wrong as was my immediate desire to seek all sorts of harsh revenge and retribution for their actions. As you, the leavers of 2020, depart from Peterhouse I want you not to think of what you have lost out on, or been deprived of. Do not feel cheated and angry for that will get you nowhere. Rather, learn the lessons of having to adapt, toughen up and face a new reality. Take these lessons, use them to your advantage and build futures which pay tribute to your upbringing, your education and your talent. Like so many other tough times in history you now have the capacity to make a difference.

In closing, I share with you the following passage from Matthew 7 versus 25 – 26;

“Rain poured down, rivers flooded and winds beat against the house. But it did not fall because it was built on solid rock. Anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey them is like a foolish person who built a house on sand.”
Our ‘house” is not built on sand!

Conditur in Petra.

Jon Trafford November 2020

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