When I was a boy, my annual school magazine contained an article on the military cadets (they were called the Combined Cadet Force or CCF) that always began the same way: “This year, the CCF has gone from strength to strength.”
The phrase has stuck with me because, even as a school boy, with each passing year I believed it less. Could everything really be getting better and better? Surely not. Cite the evidence. But of course there wasn’t any. The words were probably written in haste by a well intentioned teacher who felt that things were chugging along nicely. I doubt if anybody ever questioned whether or not the CCF was really going from strength to strength; it was a comforting enough phrase that served a purpose and kept morale high.
Forty years on, there are moments when, I confess, I’d quite like to hide behind “UWCSEA is going from strength to strength” because on a macro level at least it feels true enough for 2016/2017. Our governing body has worked tirelessly and coherently (which is not a given in schools), and under the first year of our new Chair, Anna Lord, UWCSEA has set a marker in the sand for all to see: we are one of the largest K–12 international schools in the world with two full campuses, outstanding public examination results and a programme whose breadth is possibly unrivalled. In a year of extraordinary achievement, I thank Anna and the Board of Governors for their wisdom as they help guide and guard this great college.
But for a non-profit of our size and significance the handy atmospherics need to be replaced by meaningful specifics. And as we look at those specifics we see that although the past year was indeed a gratifying success story, we must also acknowledge that the educational environment in which we exist is more complex and nuanced.
Ironically, it is to some extent an environment we created. Once upon a time, the UWC movement was a lone voice, or at least a trailblazer in areas such as service, outdoor education, and holistic education in general. It was an oasis in a desert of national system ‘international’ schools with predominantly homogeneous populations. Indeed, there was a perceived weirdness about UWC schools in which, albeit secretly, they rather revelled.
Now it is very different. You could visit websites of most big international schools, cut and paste their welcome pages, and in some cases persuade the sitting Heads into thinking that nothing had been changed. What is more, these like-sounding programmes read increasingly like the programmes of UWC: they are holistic, with service, outdoor activities and an awareness of existing with, and maybe even impacting upon, the immediate environment in which they operate. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but ask a Detroit auto worker what else it can lead to if one doesn’t recognise the challenges and so continually expand one’s own vision and subsequently improve the offer.
The annual report suggests that UWCSEA’s determination to use Kurt Hahn’s educational philosophy not as a bolt-on to, but the quintessence of that offer will ensure that authenticity, quality and passion will prevail and differentiate. If only these statistics could capture the enthusiasm, drive and levels of engagement that give life to many of the numbers. For example, the number of students engaged in service is, frankly, a spurious measure if we are not talking about meaningful partnerships and two-way relationships. Similarly, while we are delighted to see the IB average up where it is, that same average would be shameful if we discovered that our students were uniformly operating below their optimum levels and that we were not adding value. (I’m delighted to say the opposite is true.)
So we must be careful. But it would be doing the UWCSEA community a great disservice if we did not rejoice in the astonishing sweep of learning and participation that is revealed here, from parents, students, staff and friends of the College: the selflessness, the gifts of time, the helping hands, and the realisation that self optimisation, while important, only becomes truly meaningful when it leads not to accumulation and status, but to impact.
A huge amount of work has gone into this report, and I am deeply grateful for it. It is an honest, crucial account. However, there are profound truths that will be forever out of reach in any reckoning such as this. And around that deep core is an effervescence that also transcends charts, graphs and tables, but helps define us, and beats in the hearts of our community.