OPINION: A sense of order helps schools thrive - former headteacher Dennis Richards

Apparently, we are about to enter that period of the church’s calendar year known as Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time begins on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday, in other words next week. It will last until December.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 1st June 2022, 6:38 pm
NADV 1411172AM1 Dennis Richards.(1411172AM)
NADV 1411172AM1 Dennis Richards.(1411172AM)

Given the past year... Covid, Monkeypox, Partygate, the cost of living crisis, Brexit protocols, a war in Ukraine and now to cap it all, the slaughter of 19 American primary schoolchildren, a lengthy period of Ordinary Time in schools would be very welcome. It’s a misunderstanding of course and highly misleading. Ordinary Time, in the sense it is used in the church’s calendar year, takes its name from the Latin ordo, or in English “order”. The “ordered life” of the church outside the great annual festivals.

Actually, that would apply to our schools, as much as to churches. Students are in the middle of the first formal examinations for three years. The stress and disruption are, and have been, enormous. Schools thrive best when “ordered”.

Students may love the chaos of end of year charity events, and the celebratory proms currently in full swing. Headteachers breathe a sigh of relief when they’re over. But most of all, headteachers hate conflict. With colleagues, with students and with parents.

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I once foolishly believed that my career would benefit from a spell in a London school. Within days, my accent had condemned me to a nickname, which mimicked my Yorkshire vowels.My first assembly on my personal affection for Dennis the Menace, quickly metamorphosed into the second nickname, which stuck, “Beano Boy”. Conflict everywhere.

Escaping to Harrogate came as a blessed relief. The chair of governors, who welcomed me to the role of headteacher, was a distinguished theologian and Patristics scholar at the University of Leeds, the late Rev Dr Leslie Barnard.

Working for him remains one of the highlights of my career. His academic colleagues once described him to me as “an Olympian in his field”. Lovely man; his whiskery looks and white hair gave him an other-worldly air.

Do not be fooled, a governor whispered in my ear. He won’t give you advice; he will give you instructions. And so it was. Staff were instructed not to use my first name. Actually, since Dennis had caused me nothing but mockery in my own school in Wakefield, and abuse in London, that was hardly difficult. The second instruction was to remove the drinks cabinet in the headteacher’s office. By the time I got to the famous drinks cabinet, I could barely contain my excitement. The drinks cabinet contained one sad looking, half-empty bottle of sherry.

A month ago, I was asked if I would be prepared to teach some French students a particular aspect of British history. Assuming it would be 1066 or Henry VIII, I happily accepted. It turned out to be the history of Northern Ireland. Yikes. You try it... in French. What is “Le Protocole?” they asked. I’m not sure I made much sense, but the recently finished Derry Girls series most definitely did. School students in a series of hilarious events, despite the Troubles all around them. The last episode of the series focused on that glorious day in 1998 when the overwhelming “yes” to the Good Friday Peace Agreement was announced. It was a master class in conflict resolution.

Schools across the world badly need some “ordinary time” free from conflict and pain. But for a brief moment, it is half-term. And a very special one. A Platinum Jubilee won’t happen again for decades to come, if ever. A quite extraordinary moment in our history. Ordinary time can perhaps wait for a few days more. Enjoy the weekend.